In Fermanagh, there’s a big buzz and a lot of Twittering about the new television series which is being filmed at Crom Castle near Newtownbutler, home of Lord Erne. Blandings is based on the books of PG Wodehouse, and has been adapted as a six-part television series to be aired on BBC1 in the autumn.
Locally, some are hoping that the costume drama, set in 1929, will enjoy the same success as Downton Abbey, filmed at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, which has since become something of a Mecca for international fans of the period drama.
The comedy describes the chaotic lifestyle of a dysfunctional aristocratic family based at Blandings Castle, near the fictional town of Market Blandings in Shropshire. The A list cast includes Timothy Spall as the fluffy minded, woollen-headed, amiable Lord Clarence Emsworth. Jennifer Saunders plays his sister Connie, the indomitable Lady Constance Keeble, 'a woman of still remarkable beauty with features cast in a commanding mould and fine eyes'.
Mark Williams, well-known for his appearances as the head of the Weasley clan in the Harry Potter film franchise is the long suffering head butler, Beach, he of the heavy, lidded eyes. The Earl’s scatterbrained son, Freddie, the Hon. Frederick Threepwood, is played by Jack Farthing.
And the list goes on... David Walliams, star of Little Britain, is well cast as Lord Emsworth’s secretary, the ever efficient and invaluable Rupert Baxter, a swarthy-complexioned young man with a supercilious expression. The role of 'a pig as nearly circular as a pig can be without bursting', meanwhile, has been filled by a Berkshire sow owned by farmer Vaughan Byrne from County Down.
In addition, Blandings presents a panoply of friends, enemies, servants, spongers, private detectives, bookies, confidence tricksters and scullery maids which form the cast list of any and all Wodehouse comedies. Many of the subsidiary roles are taken up by unusual artists – singer Paloma Faith features – and extras hired by the company Extras NI.
I drove to the location through south Fermanagh’s country roads and knew I was getting warm when the small logo signposted by the production company Mammoth Screen began to appear at road junctions.
There has been a castle at Crom for the past 400 years, but the present house, built in 1832, does indeed bear an uncanny resemblance to the noble pile that is the fictional Blandings, 'set in an open park of great trees, with pleasant hot houses, shady garden walks, and a terrace overlooking a lake which shines like old silver'.
The Mammoth Screen production personnel have settled in buildings near the riding stables. Trailer trucks owned by the G&H Film and TV production company from Holywood, County Down, are parked up nearby, and right by the castle I find the makeup and costumes cabins. The green rooms, and some of the editing suites, are in the West Wing (Blandings too has a West Wing).
In the stately home's labyrinthine corridors, I meet a few of the 120 strong cast and crew, and continue on my way to the main hall, where a sequence is being filmed against the splendid backdrop of the broad main staircase. Servants and kitchen maids are lined up in the presence of head butler, Beach, to receive the latest directives from Baxter’s fearful code of etiquette. At which point Lord Emsworth, dressed in breeches, a bright yellow waistcoat and a tweed coat, makes his entrance, enquiring if everything is tickety boo.
As the next scene is being set up, my sister, who plays one of the maids, introduces me to Mark Williams of Potter and The Fast Show fame, who complains he has no network signal on his mobile phone. I gather that, as the six-week shoot reaches its final stages, he is missing home and family.
Lord Erne’s son, Viscount John Crichton, affectionately known as John John, who did indeed spend some years at drama school, claims he is in his element in the role of a Blandings butler. Lord Erne himself arrives with a morning greeting for Jennifer Saunders who is waiting in the wings wearing a coat over her costume and a pair of silver thermal boots for comfort.
The lines between reality and fiction begin to blur. Viscount Crichton, who owns a dog called Piglet, sends a tweet to Timothy Spall’s wife: 'I actually bowed to him (Spall) today on set and he joked from one lordship to another! Love it!'
Though the other actors are billeted locally in rented cottages and hotels, Walliams has chosen to sleep in his dressing room in the castle, normally a luxurious bedroom for paying guests. Downstairs I meet with Lord Erne’s capable land steward cum jack of all trades, Noel Johnston. His family have lived on the estate for several generations and his mother was a housekeeper at the castle for 60 years.
Johnston, who seems to be the point of contact for producers, cast and crew, is manfully taking charge in what for him is an entirely new experience. Normally he arranges weddings and guest bookings, but this is the first time that Crom has been hired as a film location.
Answering the telephone with a crisp, 'West Wing, Crom', he takes a call from the Belfast production company, Green Ink, who are filming a companion documentary to the drama series. BBC Breakfast have also sent a producer to make a short piece for their early morning show.
I am struck by the extent to which professionals and companies from Northern Ireland are involved in the production, including two film crews, the publicity stills photographer Aidan Monaghan, and video editors from the post production company Yellow Moon.
Lakeland Agri-Care supplied riding boots. Paints were purchased in Monaghan’s hardware store in Lisnaskea. I met the Props buyer in a dressmaker’s shop in Enniskillen, where he collected a purple prize winner’s sash for the Empress of Blandings and schoolbags for pupils from the Mullanaskea primary school, who appeared in one scene.
A pair of Shire horses arrived from Limavady, and a couple of period two seater sports cars from Bangor. Taxi firms have been much in demand to ferry artists from and to Belfast airport. Apart from Crom, sequences have been filmed in the rose garden at Florence Court, at Blakes' pub and the Court House in Enniskillen.
Clearly Blandings is a coup for Crom, and Fermanagh has welcomed the presence of acting royalty and a prime time television production with open arms. It has much to offer. Let's hope the television series lives up to the lavish environs of its chief set.
Crom Castle is available to hire for weddings and other functions. Visit the Crom Castle website for more information. Pictures courtesy of Aidan Monaghan.