DCMS blog

Rabbits, film locations, ‘Whovians’ and how pirates old and new are helping The Old Royal Naval College

John Penrose

by

John Penrose

John David Penrose is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Weston-super-Mare

Some of you may have read Watership Down, the children’s book by Richard Adams, which was published in the seventies, then made into an animated film in 1978, generating a No.1 hit single for Art Garfunkel, before going on to become one of those cultural icons – like the book and film Babe or the comparethemeerkat.com ads – that change how we think of a particular animal.


Rabbit image from Flickr member RoboboboboIn the case of Watership Down it was rabbits, of course, and for many years butchers raised a weary chuckle from their customers with the sign ‘You’ve read the book, you’ve seen the film, now eat the cast’. Whether this did anything for the sale of rabbits is a moot point, but it certainly makes a nice illustration of the way in which one branch of culture can be picked up by another, and then wriggle its way into a wider public consciousness by striking a chord with the general public.
And so it is with tourist attractions and the built heritage. Things can take on a life of their own when something called ‘cross-cultural fertilisation’ takes place. At least I think that’s what it’s called – you’ll appreciate that I’m well off-piste here, but I hope you get the general drift.
But, be that as it may, new figures published by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA), and reported in The Guardian and elsewhere, show that visit numbers to many tourist sites are ‘reaping the benefits of appearing as the backdrop to a Hollywood blockbuster.’ The most striking example seems to be a place called Antony House, an 18th century mansion run by The National Trust in Cornwall, which saw visit numbers quadruple after appearing in Tim Burton’s film version of Alice in Wonderland. Imagine that.
Image of Antony House from Flickr member puritani35

Harry Potter and Mrs Brown

The last Harry Potter film used three national Trust locations apparently and, as with all things Potter-ish, provided a handy cash dividend for the charity as it did so. Closer to home for us in DCMS, Osborne House on The Isle of Wight, beautifully maintained by English Heritage, and which I visited earlier this year, also saw a surge in visitors after Mrs Brown, the film about Queen Victoria’s friendship with her ghillie John Brown, which starred Dame Judi Dench and Billy Connolly, was partly filmed there.
The same goes for TV and radio, of course, as The British Museum have learnt to their enormous benefit, on the back of Neil MacGregor’s stunning A History of the World in 100 Objects on BBC Radio 4.
English Heritage tell me that the recent rise in visitor numbers to Stonehenge can be partly explained by it featuring in a number of TV programmes including, unsurprisingly I suppose, Doctor Who. Fans of the programme – and, heaven knows, there are plenty of them – will recall it featured in Episode 12 of Series 5 (that’s Series 31 if you include the 20th century, by the way) entitled ‘The Pandorica Opens.’ I am grateful to the internet for this information, by the way.

Sonic screwdriver

So there we are. Sonic screwdriver? Check. Cybermen? Check. Coach loads of ‘Whovians’ turning up to see the sacred site of Episode 12 etc for themselves? Check.
Great stuff, and a really good example of how the different things we’re good at in this country such as heritage conservation and presentation, and creative film making and TV production, can complement one another to the benefit of both, and with the slenderest of inconvenience to the public while doing so.
I’ll leave the last word to Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of The Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, who is hoping to benefit from the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie which filmed at the College for six weeks at the end of last year. He told The Guardian:
“They had 400 extras, 40 horses and the same number of vehicles filming on College way and in The Painted Hall. I showed Johnny Depp around the hall and was able to tell him it was finished using pirate money from Captain Kidd’s treasure.”
But, before my colleagues down the road at The Treasury get too excited at the prospect of a public body drawing on reserves without due consideration of proper auditing procedures, I should point out that this all happened in Queen Anne’s time. For my part, I think it’s rather good that money from a cinematic pirate in the 21st century will complement that confiscated from a real-life one from the 17th to help keep this fabulous set of buildings in good shape.



Rabbit image by Robobobobo on flickr. Some rights reserved.
Antony House image by puritani35 on flickr. Some rights reserved.