John Walsh: Tales of the City

'I'm a stately-home abuser – I'd love to find the location of Bly House and summon up Miss Giddens' ghost'
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The Independent Online

Who'd have thought that Colin Firth's collarless shirt and its immersion in a pond at Lyme Park in Cheshire could have sent thousands of emulative Pride and Prejudice fans heading north to check out the place? What did they expect to find? Damp grass? Fugitive whiffs of soggy male yearning? Whatever the reason, they – and thousands like them – have turned the film-location holiday into a £2.3bn industry. According to a new report commissioned by the Film Council, every 10th visitor to the UK is here on a filmic pilgrimage.

I can understand what motivates the pilgrims, up to a point. I can see that children would enjoy being in King's Cross station on the platform (platform nine-and-three-quarters) from which the Hogwarts Express departs; it gives them a chance to run full-tilt into a wall, in a kind of horizontal version of tombstoning. I'm less sure they'd be wild about checking out the dining hall at my old Oxford college, just because it was the hall Philip Pullman had in mind when he wrote the opening chapter of His Dark Materials.

I can imagine heading for Carnforth station in Yorkshire to stand in the refreshment room where Trevor Howard removed a speck of grit from Celia Johnson's eye in Brief Encounter (except that it'll now be the Lemon Tree shop selling Oasis Summer Fruits and Ginsters sausage rolls and there won't be a Bath bun in sight), but I can't imagine going to the godforsaken Corrour station in the West Highlands, to pose outside the signal box like Renton and his friends in Trainspotting.

Station platforms are inexplicably popular among film buffs: they're second only to stately homes as film-shrine destinations. Today, families will visit stately homes just to dream themselves into a scenario that has nothing to do with the family that occupied it for 400 years; they will have come to find the drawing room where Maggie Smith scrutinised the mousy wife of her cash-strapped nephew in Gosford Park and said: "Green – such a difficult colour to wear, of course." The modern visitor to Alnwick castle, Northumbria, will feel cheated if he or she goes home without a quidditch lesson.

I could deprecate this anti-historical tendency with greater ferocity if only I weren't myself a stately-home abuser; I'd give a lot to find out the location of Bly House in The Innocents, so I could sit in the gazebo and summon up the ghost of poor Miss Giddens and scare myself half to death, and I'd never care two hoots who actually lived there.

More problematic as tourist destinations are the places where nothing was filmed, but the film was conceived. The Edinburgh café where J K Rowling sat and wrote the first Harry Potter book has now become a tourist shrine, just as the Brontë sisters' front room at Haworth Parsonage has been enshrined for a century. There's a lesson here for writers with an eye on their future image. If you're going to write a masterpiece that will be turned into a bestselling film (and you know you are, don't you?), try to pick somewhere picturesque to do the writing. A modest café is fine, apart from the plum-jam stains. A railway station is good, provided you don't mind being repeatedly asked if you have a ticket. A stately home is ideal, provided the rooms aren't all being used for gavottes and minuets in a new remake of Persuasion. Just don't let it be known that you wrote your masterpiece on an ordinary, grey, pockmarked Ikea table inside the falling-down shed at the end of your overgrown garden. I mean, nobody's going to travel hundreds of miles and pay £5 to see that, are they?


Great Romantic Encounters of our Time, No 12,851. Writing in the new British Journalism Review, Anna Ford remembers with a thrill the experience of coming to work at ITN in 1978. She liked its air of high seriousness and the professionalism and camaraderie of her new colleagues. So how did she get on with Reginald Bosanquet, the relaxed ITN newsreader who became a byword for slurry drunkenness, on screen and off? Their meeting was the stuff of Hollywood dreams. His first words to her were apparently "Do you play darts?", after which he shut the door of his office and revealed an old dartboard hanging there. "Luckily, because of working at the newsdesk at Granada," Ford writes, "I'd played a lot of darts and a lot of snooker, so I could keep my end up. And he put a bottle of wine in my desk – we got on very well." Pure Bogart-meets-Bacall, innit?


Fantastic news for foodies: Ferran Adria, the world's greatest chef, will soon be selling some of his secret ingredients via an East Anglian firm called Infusions. Soon we'll all be able to beat the Barcelonan maestro at his own game. Soon I too shall be able to reproduce his asparagus dish, an aerosol spray of asparagus essence on your tongue. I shall amaze Sunday-lunch guests with the ravioli made from 1,000 tiny pea membranes melted together to form a skin. Or with the lime "air", which is no more than a foam sorbet. Or then again, perhaps I might try something new and avant-garde: applying heat to some sliced-up meat and vegetables and serving the result on "plates". Crazy, I know, but it might just catch on.