For five days last summer, our family home portrayed a microcosm of the country, intensely divided by the political story gripping the nation. The top half was Brexit, the bottom half Remain. And there was nothing we could do about it.
Intriguingly, it also involved actor Benedict Cumberbatch in my bed — and it all came about because we admitted to having a middle-class house.
Confused? Our bit part in the national drama started in May last year, when we got a card through the door from the makers of the TV film Brexit: The Uncivil War. ‘Could your home be in a Channel 4 film?’
‘Yes, it absolutely could!’ said my husband, acutely aware of the parlous state of the Millard finances. The shoot would involve a property being turned into two separate locations, with the upstairs becoming the on-screen home of Dominic Cummings, architect of the Vote Leave campaign, played by Cumberbatch, and the kitchen downstairs being transformed into the flat of Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s director of communications and ardent Remainer, played by Rory Kinnear.
Rosie Millard told how her house became a TV set for Benedict Cumberbatch’s (pictured centre with three of the Millard children) latest Channel 4 film Brexit: The Uncivil War
Fresh from an experience with Jamie ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ Dornan, who had starred in a film partially shot in our house, we reckoned we were old hands at this.
Jamie and his entourage had camped outside the house for three days; our home featured in the film for 45 seconds. Never mind — the money was good and the experience fun. This might be the same, we thought.
But, first, we had to win a beauty contest by impressing the location scouts. The day they came round, I put a photo of myself with the Brexit film’s writer James Graham, a friend, in a prominent position on the mantelpiece. It made them smile, but it didn’t cut much ice.
We were up against three or four rival terrace houses. What swung it, apparently, is that our gaff is built on a curve. This makes exits and entrances more interesting. It is also unashamedly bourgeois: an undistinctive London terrace with Victorian décor, stripey stair carpet and stripped pine floors.
There are also a lot of bedrooms. ‘This,’ announced the location manager, walking into my elder daughter’s bedroom, ‘shall be Benedict’s Green Room for when he needs to rest. While this,’ he said, going into my sons’ shared room, ‘shall be for the rest of the talent.’ Even in Islington, it seems, there is a strict star pecking order.
While our house was right, everything in it was wrong. Everything and anything moveable was removed. All my funky furniture and what I like to think of as an engaging array of arty stuff amassed over three decades of being an arts journalist was boxed and sent away to an unnamed destination.
What replaced it was truly grim. Brown hotel-style furniture, huge pot plants and hideously bland pictures involving hessian and rope. Could Brexiteers have such bad taste?
Our children came home from school and took a look around their newly decorated home. ‘This is much nicer than our old stuff,’ they chorused. ‘Can we keep it?’
Rosie revealed although she and her family were allowed to stay in the house during filming rooms including the kitchen and sitting room room were off-limits from 8am to 6pm
On the first day of shooting, around 60 people turned up at 6.30am prompt. The entire road was closed and more than ten huge trucks parked outside.
Inside, the house was ready. We, the resident family, were allowed to stay in the house, but the sitting room, with all its furniture and equipment, and the kitchen, dressed with huge plant pots, were off-limits from 8am to 6pm.
The attention to detail was astonishing and the props voluminous — newly planted window boxes, distressed coffee pots, family photographs, even franked and opened envelopes addressed to Mr Dominic Cummings at a fictitious address, casually placed on the hall table.
The 60 people all crammed into the living room with monitors and screens. The director shouted: ‘Action.’ The star? Outside, trying to get into the house with a key.
It was very weird. Benedict Cumberbatch opening the front door, marching in and greeting his wife (played by Liz White), who was sitting on the stairs inside. It must be quite tough, playing against someone as monumentally A-list as Cumberbatch.
Not that this dissuaded my youngest, Lucien. A keen Marvel fan, he marched up to Benedict on day two of the shoot, during a break. ‘I must say, I think Avengers: Infinity War is your best work yet,’ he said confidently.
Rosie says Benedict Cumberbatch (pictured in Brexit: The Uncivil War) spoke to she and her husband about the importance of arts in schools and the new world order
To his credit, Cumberbatch laughed a good deal at this. Forget Hamlet, Patrick Melrose, Alan Turing, Sherlock and the rest.
Cumberbatch charmed us all — he chatted to my husband and me about the importance of arts in schools (a passion of his) and to my elder son, a politics student, about the new world order. He seemed to have time for everyone, even though the crew hovered around him constantly and the shoot days were jam-packed.
Meanwhile, downstairs in the kitchen, the Remain camp were feverishly setting up shop. Rory Kinnear, fresh from a brilliant turn in Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo, seemed quietly confident.
Perhaps quiet confidence is what the Cameron camp felt at the start of the campaign.
There were about 40 people fussing around Rory, too, as different floors of our house were turned into the two sides of the Brexit campaign. The Uncivil War was happening under our modest roof.
Even the garden was tarted up and used as a picnic spot.
Most of the action was behind closed doors, though, and just as well. Such is Cumberbatch’s fame that, unfortunately, he is dogged by ardent fans wherever he goes. This shoot was no exception. Furthermore, a TV shoot on location in London is hardly a difficult place to find.
Rosie recalls the production team putting up screens in order to film a scene with Cumberbatch (pictured centre alongside Richard Goulding as Boris Johnson and Oliver Maltman as Michael Gove) without being distrubed
We were implored not to give away where we lived or indicate on social media that anything was happening, and we weren’t allowed to take photographs, although Channel 4 very kindly set up a shoot in the garden with the children at the end. The trials and tribulations of being Benedict Cumberbatch were brought home during a moment in the park opposite our house.
While a scene with Cumberbatch was being shot in the children’s play area, the action was disturbed by persistent Press photographers on mopeds who had found out what was going on and were riding past, shooting through the railings.
Eventually, the production team were obliged to put screens up all around the park so filming could continue undisturbed.
The neighbours were pretty calm about having their road closed and enormous pantechnicons parked down it.
One of our close neighbours even allowed her own house to be used for dressing rooms for the dozen or so children in the film and their chaperones and was rewarded with a special Cumberbatch visitation.
And for us? Let’s just say it was worth it, both for the amusing experience and the buoyancy it gave our bank balance — enough for a splashy family holiday for six this summer.
I expect our stairs, living room, kitchen, bedroom and garden will have about two minutes’ airtime on the show. Never mind. I’ve had Sherlock in my bed.
How do you turn your house into a movie star?
GET YOURSELF AN AGENT
Register your property with an agency such as Location Works (locationworks.com), Lavish Locations (lavishlocations. com) or Fresh Locations (fresh locations.com).
They draw up contracts between homeowners and filmmakers for a fee, which tends to range from 15 to 25 per cent.
Day rates start at around £350 for a small crew and go up to £3,000 for a major feature film.
This is calculated based on the time taken, the number of rooms used, the amount of people involved and disruption caused.
To avoid costly fees, sign up to JJ Connect (jjmedia.com), the equivalent of Airbnb for location sets. It allows you to liaise directly with production teams, set your own prices and negotiate terms for a monthly fee of only £5, or £50 for a year.
Boost your home’s online profile by setting up an Instagram account and posting photos of it, or set up a website for it using a web-building platform such as moonfruit.com.
According to Lorna Gatherer Ford of Location Works, filmmakers are looking for all kinds of properties — not just beautiful grand designs. In fact, there is huge demand for ‘normal’ homes, which most people don’t realise.
And there are further practical considerations that help make your property more attractive . . .
Large rooms and wide hallways for easily moving and storing equipment.
- A quiet neighbourhood, so that noise does not disrupt filming.
- No further than 45 minutes outside a filming city centre (for example, London, Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham).
- Enough parking nearby for the crew.
- Open-plan kitchens — ideally with a hob on an island counter-top — are especially desirable for cookery shows.
Brexit: The Uncivil War is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.