The Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich is a breathtaking piece of maritime history. It's also one of the most popular film locations in the world, appearing in everything from Four Weddings and a Funeral to Thor: The Dark World. To celebrate the launch of our new LoveWall Film and TV category, we thought we'd have a chat with Estate Operations Manager Ian Allchin and get the insider view on this star-studded site:
1. Which film have you enjoyed working on the most, and what made it special? For me it was Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, just because we were so busy, the crew were so professional. The size of it was amazing, every single part of the ORNC was used even the car park. They moved everyone out to a different car park a mile down the road and everyone had to get a bus in. It was a huge build, the guys that were running it were really professional. They were on site for about 6 weeks, they spent 2 weeks building the set, a couple of weeks filming then the rest taking everything down.
2. There was a recent article in Empire magazine that said the ORNC was Hollywood’s most popular film location, what do you make of that? Brilliant! Brilliant headline we couldn’t have written anything better ourselves.
3. What can we see ORNC in next on the silver screen? In the upcoming months, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death and Cinderella.
4. Who was your favourite actor on location at the ORNC? We rarely get to meet the stars, but we’ve met a few, Johnny Depp and Russell Crowe were very nice. I like Russell Crowe, a lot of the ladies like Johnny Depp but Russell Crowe has a bit of a bad reputation. He was rather funny and chatted away to everyone, we found him to be quite accommodating, he was in Les Misérables.
5. What film included the biggest transformation/set design at the ORNC? Probably Les Misérables. Pirates of the Caribbean took over the entire site and made some huge builds but you would have to be in the know to recognise the ORNC. They built a great big elephant. They used King Charles Court, all of Grand Square, all of College Way and the Painted Hall. When they did the funeral scene (in Skyfall) they lined up all the way to East Gate, it took almost an hour to reset that scene.
6. ORNC is a World Heritage Site so there must be some restrictions around what can/can’t be filmed. How do you manage that? We have a firm set of rules all the film companies have to comply with. We enforce them quite strictly, our team here are with them all the time so they are never left alone. The big films and crews we get to know quite well and they come back time and time again. The main rules are absolute protection of the buildings, but we are even stricter inside the buildings.
7. Does the ORNC have any compelling secrets or lesser known stories of its own? The first known commercial film in the college took place in 1958 staring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant who were huge film stars at the time, it was a film called Indiscreet. We are supposed to have several ghosts on site too but I haven’t seen any, one is meant to be in the Queen Anne Building.
8. Could we have 3 of your favourite anecdotes about filming there? My first one was with Russell Crowe, his son was in Les Misérables too, he was standing on the colonnades watching his son. I was standing with him and one of our guys said, ‘I bet you're proud of your son’, and he replied ‘yes I am’, as they were talking the guy’s phone rang and it was his wife and he said ‘Sorry love I can’t speak to you at the moment, I’m talking to Russell Crowe. Hold on a minute - Russell will you say hello to my wife?’ and he replied ‘of course I will’, he picked the phone up and chatted to her for about 5 minutes. A more recent one was when Thor: The Dark World was being filmed. Thor gets knocked over by the baddie and he skids across the grass and his boots dug into the grass and pulled out two big bits of grass, we talked to the crew about it before so they made sure they dug the grass out before and saved it to be put back after filming, but whether they put it back in the wrong way round I don’t know because over a year later you can still see the mark and it’s never grown back properly. This was on Upper Grand Square.
9. Why do you think so many films choose the ORNC? We are very versatile as a site, we have a big road that runs throughout the ORNC which is useful for all sorts of things, it’s in a fenced off area too so it can be controllable, I think they get a lot for their money, they have free range on parking whereas if they were filming at Westminster they would have to pay a fortune for parking, so I think we are quite good value for money. We're a good crew, we look after them and the ORNC is beautiful.
10. What shouldn’t you miss on a visit? I think the Painted Hall and the Chapel.
11. What’s the strangest place the ORNC has stood in for? In Les Misérables, we were Paris Square, Gulliver’s Travels we were Lilliput, in the film there was a giant walking around making the place look very small.
12. What’s been the most striking spectacle during filming? For me it was Pirates of the Caribbean, one of the scenes in the beginning of the film Johnny Depp is being chased by the guards and he ends up on a horse and cart which is a coal lorry, but during filming they were skidding everywhere and all the burning coals were falling off. That was pretty spectacular. But in a recent film, we had 3 cranes, 6 or 7 cherry pickers all containing lights; you could see the site from miles away.
13. Has filming there ever caused alarm or a reaction among visitors/passersby? Yes particularly Wolfman, they were using a lot of smoke and lots of lighting so lots of people from the other side of the river thought we were on fire and phoned the fire brigade. There was a scene in Skyfall that was filmed here but it didn’t go into the film, it was the funeral scene. In the film there were about 8 coffins in King William Undercroft, the coffins were taken out and driven through the ORNC, Judi Dench was there surrounded by naval officers but there was lots of visitors who thought it was a proper funeral and stood and watched quietly. Another one was a Bollywood film and we had lookalike royals and some of the foreign visitors thought it really was the Queen.
14. Are there any films you think would have benefited from using the ORNC as a set? I would say all of them!
15. Tell us about some of the funniest, most ludicrous requests you’ve had Sometimes we get silly requests asking if they can screw banners up or screw things into the walls, there sometimes seems to be a lack of understanding that this is a royal heritage ground with grade I historic buildings. We’ve had requests to dig up the grass, bombs to explode and just really all sorts of special effects stuff. We just have to be really careful about the special effects stuff and get them over beforehand to test it. It looked like they blew the windows out in the Painted Hall in Thor: The Dark World! They had a special machine that blew fake glass, but we had to check to make sure the real windows didn’t get damaged!
16. Did anything you thought was going to be completely impossible turn out to be possible? Not since I’ve been here, but some of the other crew helped with a film in about 2003 which had a big fire scene near the East Gate! They eventually ran it with a gas rig, I’ve seen pictures of it, it looks quite spectacular, they had the fire brigade there and it was supposedly really hot.
17. Do film stars and directors take the time to look round the ORNC and the other key sights of Greenwich in their downtime/after filming? What were their favourite places to unwind? Russell Crowe took an interest in the Painted Hall and wanted to see it when he arrived, a lot of the film crew popped in to have a look. We had a very famous American film producer and his wife, who wanted to look in the Painted Hall. Johnny Depp went to visit the local school. When Robert Downey Jr. was filming Sherlock here he was in disguise for a scene and, bearing in mind that it was Sunday and the site was packed with visitors, he walked from one end of the ORNC to his trailer at the other and no one recognised him.
18. If you could direct a film at the ORNC yourself, what would you choose to direct and why? I thought a film about the history of the Old Royal Naval College would be interesting as it’s been a Tudor Palace, and home to Henry VIII. I would have Robert De Niro acting and Clint Eastwood directing.
19. Do you have any favourite quotes about the ORNC, from directors, actors, or anybody else? It’s not unusual at all after filming for them to come up and say how nice it’s been and ‘thank you’. They always say they will be back and they normally always are.
20. What do you think Admiral Lord Nelson would make of all this? I think he’d turn a blind eye to it all. For more information on Film and TV locations in Britain, check out our LoveWall.