Darlings, there's a dead body in my bed

Answer the knock of a location manager at the door, and your front room could be appearing in the next episode of `The Bill'. Jane Bartlett reports on how renting out homes for filming is becoming big business
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The Independent Online
Knock, knock. Who's there? It's Chrissie Cocks, location manager for The Bill, wondering whether she could have a look around your home. Before you know it your property is a star, enjoying its 15 minutes of fame on Thames's thrice-weekly police series. It could begin as simply as that. All over south London they prowl, a total of nine location managers brandishing The Bill identity cards and an eye for the relentlessly grotty. Bare electricity wiring, meter boxes in the hall, and wallpaper that's been up since the war might all produce an astonishing enthusiasm. "I drive round the roads," says Chrissie, "just looking."A charming woman with blonde hair, a gentle voice and a lively mobile phone, she is seldom turned away, especially when the owners realise that they will be paid several hundred pounds for the inconvenience of surrendering their home to the cause of television drama. "People are surprised, but they are mostly extremely generous and happy for me to look around."

The comfortable family semi with alcoves and floral wallpaper borders is a Sun Hill location manager's scoop; or there might be a need for a penthouse flat, lair of a big-time crook. As long as the rooms are big enough to swing a film crew in, it could be a contender. "Our remit is to find properties as much to the character and style of the script as we can." And The Bill just eats up houses and flats, with three film units and up to six location shoots each week. "It's a huge operation," says Chrissie.

Filming in homes is now a growing business. The London Film Commis-sion, an organisation which promotes film-making in London, calculates that of the 500 international enquiries it gets each week, 60 per cent are for locations. Founder Christabel Albery estimates that, on any one day, there might be as many as 80 different location shoots taking place in and around the capital. Anna Darby, who runs the property agency Lavish Locations, puts it down to a demand for realism on screen, and increasingly sophisticated and mobile film technology. There are 12,000 homes on Lavish Location's books which are used for everything from Hollywood movies (like 101 Dalmatians), to television serials (like Kavanagh QC), to commercials and catalogues. "In our mind, all properties have star location value," says Anna with a flourish. To the people who write to her with photographs of their beloved homes she promises stardom for the larger two-up-two-down, as well as the grand stately abode. The former, however, has to be within a 50-mile radius of the capital. If you can find a standard home near to your London-based studio, why travel miles for one?

The money offered to homeowners proves to be a tantalising carrot. The Bill`s press office had instructed everyone I spoke with not to reveal payment details, which are likely to be negotiated at a bargain-basement rate compared with those set up by Lavish Locations, an agency which does business on behalf of the homeowner. Anna estimates that a single day's filming can yield a cheque ranging from pounds 300 for a short scene in your back garden, to pounds 10,000 for a shoot in something huge and grand in Derbyshire. A typical family home would, on average, receive pounds 700 per day. The London Film Commission, which provides a free location library service to film makers, estimates a price range from pounds 200 to pounds 1,000 per day.

It may sound like quick and easy money, but there is a price to pay. "You start off with the gorgeous-looking location manager knocking on your door, saying he'd like to look around your house, and end up with your home being taken over by a troop of 40 darlings," says Anna. "You are totally invaded when you open your door to a film crew." Some families have to move out of their homes and are put up in hotels. And then there's the question of what they'll be filming. Will there be actors and actresses making love in your bed? Will your shower be the scene of chainsaw carnage? Will corpses be unearthed under your garden patio?

"We tell them truthfully what the storyline is," explains Chrissie. "They can make their own judgement as to whether they wish to do it." Further-more, The Bill location managers advise you if doors (usually substitutes) are to be smashed in, or windows broken.

Julie Timbrell is not overly concerned that there is a dead body in her bedroom. Following a knock on her door from Chrissie Cocks, she has agreed to let her two-bedroom terraced house in Lambeth be used as the location for a drugs overdose story. The property is being shot as a squat. Curiously Julie isn't insulted that her home of nine years, which she shares with her 10-year-old daughter, won't get a more salubrious 15 minutes. "They did say it looked like an interesting squat," she muses. There was, however, one dilemma. "I did have a bit of a tidy up yesterday, but I wasn't sure whether I should bother."

The action itself is simple enough. Sergeant June Ackland and PC Dave Quinnan drive up to the property in a panda car, knock on the door, are shown in by an unshaven young man; they go upstairs, and find a body prostrate on a mattress. It's all of three minutes of television drama. For this, Julie's house is transformed into an ants' nest of directors, technicians, stage managers and actors, totalling 20 in all. There are nine vehicles parked outside, including The Bill's restaurant bus and a toilet wagon, called "the honeypot" for reasons best known to The Bill. Two men in fluorescent orange clothes are stopping the traffic. The neighbours are watching. Julie's lucky they aren't making a feature film, when the number of vehicles could rise to 40, with an entourage in triple figures.

"Owners have to be so laid back they are horizontal," says Anna Darby. Julie certainly fits the bill, as she coolly eats her morning toast in her kitchen, while all around her the darlings do battle with cables, cameras, lights and monitors, shouting "one more time".

Ishbel Bouchez in Mitcham was similarly picked when The Bill knocked on her front door one evening, while she was preparing her children's tea. She sees the loaning of her four-bedroom home as being very public spirited. "It's a good programme, my husband watches it all the time. If they don't get the cooperation of the public they are not going to be able to make programmes like that." The money will also prove very useful. The Bill, on this occasion, has come equipped with its own three-piece suite, table and standard lamp. There is much heaving and shunting of her furniture to surrounding rooms. "It's an experience," says Ishbel. "It's strange seeing the house look so totally different." Chrissie explains that home owners do not have to lift a finger, unless they want to. She is sensitive to the fact that they might personally want to pack away treasured artefacts like wedding photographs and family heirlooms.

Sometimes, the homes found by Lavish Locations are completely re- decorated by design companies for catalogues and advertisements. Con-tracts state that properties have to be left as found. "If it looked like shit before they went in, it will look like shit when they go out," says Anna. And looking like shit is exactly what the directors prefer. "A lot of properties we get have been done up to the nines, dragged, ragged and stippled. But directors and producers want a property that's very simple, the more derelict the better. The places that are faded and curling round the edges you can go in and paint, and dress it with the identity of your characters." At the moment, she says, there is a particular passion for "wonderful minimalist flats that look like they've just had a spread of Dulux everywhere."

The London Film Commission has known some houses to be completely stripped and restored to full period detail, only to be converted back again to how they were originally found. Sometimes, a compromise can be reached between film maker and property owner, whereby if the former has done all the heavy decorating work, the latter is happy to change a lick of paint. Some owners fall so in love with the transformation of their homes that they ask for the alterations to remain in place.

That wasn't the case for Geraldine Greenall, who had a silver alien move into her mock-Tudor four-bedroom house in Yeading, Middlesex. The extra terrestrial was advertising Heart FM Radio, and brought his own space- age furniture, pictures and lights. For two long days, the 30-strong crew filmed the alien going about his business in the Greenall's home. "My children loved it. It was brilliant fun and the crew were marvellous," says Geraldine. "They put up a big sign saying `No Smoking or Eating' in the house, and protected the floors with cloths. I was instructed not to make them tea. Once they had finished and were gone you wouldn't have known that they had been here."

Not all shoots are so happy. "It can be absolutely horrendous," says Anna. "I've known of windows being taken out to get a grand piano in." And it can cause fall outs with neighbours. One next-door neighbour was so annoyed about the vehicles outside her house she blasted rock music out of her window. The crew were trying to film an episode of Poirot, pretending the Twic-kenham garden was the countryside.

The London Film Commission has devised a code of ethics by which film makers should abide. It believes that if the property owner is forewarned about exactly what is going to happen, it can make the experience less overwhelming. "It would be foolish to say that mistakes haven't happened. There are inexperienced film makers who have done things wrong, but I would say in no more than 5 per cent of shoots," says Christabel.

A prestigious shoot taking place in your home can add to its selling potential, especially if a sparkling star has been pacing your floor boards. "It gives it some added cachet. When you're selling a property it's always nice to have some unusual elements to it," says Christabel. A dead body found festering in Julie Timbrell's "squat" for an episode of The Bill is unlikely to do much for the market value of her terraced home. But she will be able to buy her daughter a new flute with the earnings.

"I think it's all very interesting," says Julie as she happily surveys the commotion in her home from the other side of the road. She admits to having a few chilly thoughts about the dead body storyline, but there are ways of ridding your home of such negative energies. "I'll have to go and do a little healing on the place," she says.

! London Film Commission, 0181 968 0968; Lavish Locations, 0181 744 2992

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