On location in the Dower House

This 17th-century home has played a starring role in several television and film productions. Rosalind Russell talks to its owners about how it feels to be at the centre of the action
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The Independent Online

Thickly thatched and fringed with spears of nodding hollyhocks, The Dower House is hidden from the road at the end of a long track that looks rarely travelled, protected by a five-bar gate silvered with age. The Jacobean house is in a Buckinghamshire hamlet not marked on the Ordnance Survey motoring atlas, a hidden village less than 40 miles from central London. In three acres of gardens, orchard and grounds, with a stream running through, the house seems suspended in time. If you didn't know otherwise, you'd think you'd stumbled across a film set for a period drama - which is precisely why The Dower House is a favourite with film location companies. It's small enough to be filmed from different angles, private and not as instantly recognisable as a stately home.

It has clocked up a respectable list of credits including the BBC ghost story Massage, starring Kevin McNally, Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, ITV's Nicholas Nickleby starring Charles Dance, and the BBC's award-winning The Way We Live Now.

Its most recent, and biggest starring role is in Neverland, a Hollywood production of the life of author JM Barrie, due to be released this autumn. Johnny Depp is the unlikely choice to play the shy Scottish author and playwright, while Kate Winslet is Sylvia Davies, the mother of the boys whom Barrie transformed into the Lost Boys in Peter Pan.

The Dower House is owned by Stuart and Julie Wilson, who fell into their role by accident. The man who sold them the house 10 years ago forgot to mention a long-standing film commitment he'd agreed and the Wilsons didn't find out until they'd moved in. Fortunately, they enjoyed the experience and remained on the books of Lavish Locations, one of the major film and TV location agencies.

While they have done some remedial work on the house, the Wilsons have been careful not to pretty it up or smooth out the lumps and bumps. Apart from the provision of electricity and a bathroom, the property remains true to its origins, circa 1619, when it was built for the Dowager Lady May Cheyne.

When the film crews arrive - often up to 60-strong, including actors - their trucks are parked in the farmer's field next door to minimise impact on the village residents and on the property. While some people would find the disruption intolerable, the Wilsons have found their involvement entertaining, although Stuart, a creative director for a London advertising firm, admits he's rarely been there while it's all going on.

"At first we were worried they'd trash the place," says Stuart. "But they have been very careful. If heavy cameras are to be used in the upstairs rooms, props are set up below in the sitting room to support the weight. They bring their own generators and their own loos. We haven't always accepted offers made to use the house and we've been lucky that the property has been respected. I think the worst that has happened was a gatepost being taken out by a truck."

The Wilsons' own furniture is moved out into a container van while the props are moved in. Electric light switches are patched over, while fake ivy covers any clues to the 21st century on outside walls. Radiators are either taken out or disguised under window seats.

Although the money can be good - about £400 a day for publicity shots up to £2,000 a day for filming - it's not an exercise for the faint-hearted. The days are long: owners usually need to vacate by 8am and may not get back in until 8pm. Even if filming is happening in only one room, everyone has to leave the house. Just measuring and setting up can take two weeks.

"As we can't use the kitchen for cooking, we eat in the catering van, usually a double-decker bus," say the Wilsons. Depending on how big-budget the production is, the food ranges from OK to pretty good. Julie usually stays around to keep an eye on things.

The money earned has been ploughed back into maintaining the house, but there have been other benefits. When the crew were striking camp at the end of filming for Neverland, they were going to throw away a wooden Wendy house, part of the set. Aged and distressed by special-effects painters, it looks a hundred years old. "I just got them to flat-pack it and we rebuilt it here by the stream," says Stuart. "Our son sleeps out here sometimes and the kids have had parties, using it as a stage."

If the Wilsons' daughter, university student Kirsty, was impressed by having Johnny Depp in the family home, their teenage son Richard didn't complain when the girls from the pop group Steps came to be photographed for a magazine shoot. "I can honestly say all three Steps girls have been in my bed," jokes Stuart. "And the picture appeared on the front page of The Sun." Julie took a more prosaic view. "I did insist they took off their Jimmy Choo kitten-heeled shoes when they headed upstairs to be photographed in the bedroom," she says, indicating the ancient broad oak floors.

Actors, they say, either socialise happily during breaks in filming, or disappear off to their trailers. None have thrown tantrums or been demanding, and most are happy to give autographs to the village children. The Wilsons have one more production to be filmed at the house in August before they sell up. They hope to move to Scotland to be nearer to family, so the Dower House is for sale. "It will be a wrench to leave," Julie admits. "I have had an idyllic life here."

The Dower House is for sale at a guide price of £1 million through Brown & Merry in Wendover, 01296 622855. If you are interested in offering your house as a location, visit Lavish Locations' website at www.lavishlocations.com, where there is an application form you can print out.

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