ITV's new period drama Belgravia has been dubbed the 'new Downton Abbey' thanks to the involvement of Downton creator Julian Fellowes — but much of the show was filmed in Scotland, with Edinburgh's streets standing in for turn-of-the-20th-century London. Also used was the handsome Manderston House, near Duns, which has lent its sumptuous interiors to the show's producers.
Alison Wood paid a visit, while we look back at how the house appeared back in its early years thanks to some beautiful photographs from the Country Life Picture Library.
Tamsin Grieg, who plays Ann Trenchard in Belgravia, explains that the plot is about the rise of the middle classes and the nouveaux riches overtaking the entitled aristocracy.
‘There is a line in Julian’s novel which says that Anne was unintentionally well bred because she wasn’t interested in being well bred,’ says Grieg. ‘That is such a wonderful clue to her character. She is someone who is happy with who she is.’
In in real-life, Manderston House, the stately home used to portray the interiors of the Belgravia homes, is a very typical example of ‘new money’.
Set in 56 acres in the Borders town of Duns, Manderston is about an hour’s drive from Edinburgh, and is a fascinating place to visit.
When up-and-coming architect John Kinross asked how much he could spend on the property in 1905, the owner — nouveau riche baronet Sir James Miller — replied that ‘it simply didn’t matter’. Having married into aristocracy, he needed a home of glittery style to match his wealth and status as a country gent.
The beautiful house, now owned by Lord Palmer, is closed until Easter, but I’m treated to a private tour by the staff.
From the silver-plated staircase and marble floors to the gold and silver threads in the drapes, it’s clear that no expense was spared. Even the pet graveyard has an ornate gateway to rival the finest cemeteries of Edinburgh.
Yet, in spite of this, Manderston doesn’t get many visitors, says caretaker Paul Sutton, as he shows me around the property. ‘Not enough really to warrant opening,’ he admits.
But I suspect this is all about to change. Having seen the impact of the TV series Outlander on nearby Hopetoun House (which was also used in Belgravia), my guess is that by summer they’ll be over-run with bookings.
‘I hope so,’ says Paul. ‘Sort of like doing a Downton.’
Though Manderston was built half a century later than Downton Abbey’s Highclere Castle in Hampshire, it too has that Upstairs/Downstairs distinction – right down to the servants’ bells, which have different tones for male and female staff. Though, in fact, the bells used in Belgravia were the very same ones from the set of Downton.
‘I said, they look really good, can you leave them?’ recalls Paul. ‘The final day they were tidying up they were still hung, and I thought we were going to get them, but when I came down they were gone!’
The ballroom, drawing room, library, billiard room and morning room were all used for filming in Belgravia, which kept Paul on his toes. One minute he was giving the shutters an emergency lick of paint (they were bright orange on the inside) the next he was blacking out windows. As most of the furniture was too modern for the set, it had to be carefully catalogued and removed, then replaced afterwards.
After a tour of the decadent upper floors I descend the servant’s staircase to the gloomy basement, and get a delicious shiver down my spine. The temperature plummets and it’s as though I’ve just walked into Stephen King’s The Shining. Paul flicks on a light and we walk past a stuffed bear – brought back alive from Russia by Sir James Miller – to the end of the dimly lit corridor where Paul opens a cupboard and shows me a pull-down bed where the lowliest servant would have slept. If that’s not creepy enough, there’s a doorbell which rings by itself.
‘A couple of nights, they were filming Belgravia until 2am,’ says Paul. ‘I came down at midnight to do some work and the bell rang. I went to the door and there was nobody there. It happened once after a wedding, too, and my daughter’s heard it as well!’
Intrigued by the gothic turn of events, I press Paul for more stories. There’s a ghost that haunts the kitchen, apparently (though Paul’s never seen it), and the house was also used as the setting for the supernatural drama The Awakening starring Dominic West.
Enjoyably spooked, I head back up the stairs for a delicious high-tea, baked by Paul’s wife, Debbie, who lives with him in the former servant quarters in the attic.
‘We catch all the wind up there,’ says Debbie, ‘but by the same token you do get beautiful sunlight coming in. Paul needs to be here, that’s his job as the caretaker.’
When not attending parliament, Lord Palmer lives in the house too, and there’s a gardener, a tea-room manager and some seasonal staff. They may have to recruit more if Belgravia puts Manderston on the map.
Debbie disappears and returns with some photos of Belgravia filming. There’s the house at night, lit-up like the Northern Lights, and the film crew posing on the silver staircase. ‘That’s Tamsin Grieg,’ she says, pointing to the actress stroking a russet dog, ‘and that’s my daughter with her.’
Paul hands me a photo of the coveted Downton Abbey bells, resplendent on their green mount. It’s a shame the producers didn’t leave them behind, but perhaps Julian Fellowes has another story up his sleeve, and maybe we’ll see them again one day in another unknown country mansion, awaiting its long-overdue moment in the spotlight.
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