Friday 7 March 2008

Atoning in South Shropshire

Tagged along last week to the launch of the tours season at Stokesay Court where much of the film Atonement was shot in the summer of 2006. It's a massive pile. Though I'd heard that an entire wing had been airbrushed out of the establishing shot I hadn't appreciated - until standing in its opulent if rather gloomy wood-panelled splendour - that my whole cottage could have fitted into the central Great Hall with room to spare.

Mundane matters such as heating bills sprang immediately to mind. Ironically the chilliest spot in the house was the scene of greatest passion in the movie. Not, in actual fact, the library but a mere billiard room, the clinch taking place up against bookshelves crafted with considerable taste by Shepperton Studios carpenters and thoughtfully left behind. For the Court's owner, Caroline Magnus, who received Stokesay with its leaking roof as an unexpected legacy from an aunt, the filming came as a godsend. The production company, Working Title, was particularly generous in decorating and redecorating the rooms that were used and in leaving key items behind. Among these, the 8 foot Triton statue that dominated the fountain. This now occupies the landing at the top of the stairs and turns out to be made of polystyrene. There wasn't time to explore the grounds but I wouldn't have been surprised to discover that when Keira Knightley plunged into the fountain the water would have only come up to her ankles.

The tour as a whole provides some fascinating insights into the combination of skillful fakery and pure cash that continues to drive the cinema business. Fabrication and duplicity, coincidentally, are significant themes in Atonement but the estimated value of the production to the local economy is a substantial £1.5 million: location fees, extras, accommodation, transport, food and other services. Naomi, the Borderlines Festival Producer, remarked that the local osteopath, an acquaintance of hers, had seen a dramatic rise in business over the period of the shoot. Much stress, it seems.

Film tourism is Atonement's bequest to South Shropshire. Will it be as big here as in the US? One item that the production company could not be prevailed on to leave behind was the doll's house replica of Stokesay that, with its orderly trail of wooden animals, features in the film's opening shot. That was destined for an after-life - and a few bucks - across the Atlantic.

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