Pat Karam hunts for buildings to recreate the spectacular scenes from history broadcast in The Crown. By Kate Morris
‘Netflix took it all very seriously,” says Pat Karam, recalling his nomination for the LMGI (the American Location Managers Guild International) in the best period drama category, for season one of The Crown. “They flew me to LA and gave me a hotel suite and a driver. It was a good job I won.”
In a career that has spanned 25 years, Karam has found locations for numerous award-winning films including The Queen, 28 Days Later, Mary Queen of Scots and the phenomenally successful TV series, The Crown, known for its beautiful and lavish sets.
“He has deservedly reached legendary status as a location manager,” says Peter Morgan, the writer and creator of that series, who has known Karam since they were 12. “There isn’t a building or estate within the M25 he hasn’t converted into the moon or the Sahara or Windsor Castle.”
It’s all rather impressive given that Karam only started this career after a chance remark made by his flatmate who told him he’d make a great locations manager, because he’s sociable.
“He happened to work as an assistant director for the Ridley Scott company and spontaneously made a telephone call. I started the next day.”
In 2003 Christine Langan, the producer, asked him to work on the British TV film The Deal about the pact between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, when Brown agreed not to stand in the 1994 Labour leadership election. Karam was surprised and pleased to open the envelope containing the script to find it was written by Morgan, his school friend, and directed by Stephen Frears.
“My work on The Deal led to the film The Queen, also written by Peter and directed by Stephen, and then to The Crown. [The show] was huge and we knew it would be logistically demanding.” Karam remembers.
“In 2014, when we began prepping there was nothing on British TV to compare it to. The director Stephen Daldry, the production designer Martin Childs and I began to realise what a mammoth thing it was going to be to organise all the locations. We originally toyed with the idea of building sets, but Peter has this way of writing which means the actors are always moving.
“Some huge event would happen, but it would only be a page of script,” he laughs, “so it would not have been
‘There isn’t a building or estate within the M25 he hasn’t converted into the moon or Windsor Castle’
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cost effective to build sets.” Instead, they decided to shoot the majority of scenes in locations, although sets were initially built for some of the interiors including a private jet, the cabinet room, private quarters and the exterior of 10 Downing Street.
“It’s my job to suggest locations that are as close as possible to what the directors and designer envisage,” Karam explains. “It may not always be exactly what they were thinking, but I will come up with alternatives. The Crown is a very busy production with two episodes being shot at the same time, so at the peak there would be me with 12 to 15 assistants, prepping or reinstating locations.”
Buckingham Palace was recreated with “loads of locations”: Lancaster House, a 19th-century mansion built in 1825 for the Duke of York and Albany, was used for the palace state rooms. The mansion is so grand and opulent that Queen Victoria is rumoured to have visited the Duchess of Sutherland there and commented, “I have come from my house to your palace”.
“Lancaster House is over-the-top splendour” Karam enthuses. “We all became quite blasé about it, because we have used it in every season, but it’s magnificent.”
Wilton House near Salisbury, home to the Earls of Pembroke since the 1540s, is used for the medium-size rooms in Buckingham Palace and smaller, private spaces were built as sets at Elstree Studios. “The Queen” meets with her “prime ministers” in the music room at Wrotham Park, a neo-Palladian mansion designed by Isaac Ware in 1754. The exterior gates of Buckingham Palace were built at Elstree Studios and the courtyard was shot at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, “with lots of special effects.”
The hardest location to find, according to Karam, was a school and a village to depict the horrendous collapse of a colliery spoil tip on a hill in Aberfan, in Wales, which led to the deaths of 116 children and 28 adults in October 1966.
It is steeped in political history: Winston Churchill gave a coronation banquet for the Queen here, in June 1953. There’s also the State Drawing Room, the intimate Gold Room (which seats up to 16 for dinner), the eagle-flanked Eagle Room and the Green Room – once the second Duchess of Sutherland’s boudoir, decorated with a painting of the solar system and zodiac signs.
These days, Lancaster House is run by the Foreign Office, and the magnificent state rooms and secluded gardens are available to hire for events, conferences and entertaining, though not for overnight stays. The Grand Hall – reminiscent of the Palace of Versailles, with a sweeping staircase designed by Benjamin Wyatt – plays host to society banquets and fashion-week parties, as well as international summits. The art-lined 115ft Long Gallery, with Louis XIV-style interiors, seats up to 150 for a wedding breakfast. Lancaster House, Stable Yard, St James’s, London SW1A 1BB; blogs.fco.gov.uk/lancasterhouse
Famous as the Glenbogle estate in the BBC series Monarch of the Glen – and now as The Crown’s Balmoral location – this 19th-century, fairy-turreted castle overlooking Loch Laggan in the Scottish Highlands remains a private family home – but it has six self-catering holiday lodges, sleeping between three and 13.
True to Ardverikie’s Victorian roots as a traditional Highland sporting estate, these lodges are an ideal base for outdoor pursuits (deer stalking, fishing, hiking, mountain climbing or landscape photography). Castle tours are not available to the public, but lodge guests can book an exclusive tour. The estate also hosts a “handful” of weddings each year, for up to 50 people in the woodpanelled reception hall, drawing room and library. So, to see inside you’ll need to book a lodge, get hitched – or get yourself a gig as an extra on The Crown. Ardverikie Estate, Kinloch Laggan, Newtonmore PH20 1BX; ardverikie.com
This Hertfordshire neoPalladian mansion, set in 250 acres of parkland, is just 17 miles from Hyde Park Corner. Rooms allow for cocktails in the entrance hall or terrace to be followed with dinner parties in the drawing room, or music and dancing in the dining room. An established film location with a production office, it’s popular for weddings and corporate hospitality, though otherwise not open to the public.
Where numbers exceed 120, a marquee is required; options include encompassing the front portico to allow for a double stone staircase entrance, or a stand-alone glass marquee. While Wrotham Park has no marriage licence, services of blessing can be held in the private chapel. Wrotham Park, Barnet, Hertfordshire EN5 4SB; wrothampark.com
The events of that time are featured in season three.
Karam and the producers had meetings with survivors, to make sure they did not have reservations about filming in the area. “We had to find a Victorian school in a Welsh mining village with a hill behind it, and we needed a street opposite the school. It really was very geographically specific.”
Karam and an assistant drove around with a map checking schools in the vicinity until they eventually found one in the village of Cwmaman. “Amazingly it was going to be empty while we needed to use it,” he says. “All the stars aligned.”
One of Karam’s favourite locations in The Crown is Ely Cathedral, which was chosen to stand in as Westminster Abbey in seasons one and two, to film the wedding and the Coronation of the Queen.
“We couldn’t have used Westminster Abbey as it’s impossible to close down large historical monuments that are usually open to the public,” Karam says. “We took over Ely Cathedral like an invading army. We had hundreds of extras, and loads of trucks but in my opinion, it made season one. People expect lavish scenes of grand pageantry and we really succeeded in creating that.”
For the investiture of Prince Charles at Caernarfon Castle in series three, Karam and his assistants visited several castles, assuming that Caernarfon itself would not be accessible enough for a large unit and would not be able to close for two days. However they could not find an alternative and approached Caernarfon. “They were really enthusiastic about recreating the investiture, and so we did recreate it, exactly as it happened.”
Ardverikie Estate in Scotland is used to depict Balmoral and the surrounding estate. “We would be there for two or three weeks at a time,” Karam says. “The landscape is so beautiful and it gives important variety to the endless grand rooms.”
The locations and sets have played a huge part in making The Crown into the hit it has become, but Karam thinks that at some point in the near future it may be possible not to have to go anywhere to shoot a film.
“Visual effects are becoming more and more sophisticated,” he explains. “When we film The Crown now, we already use visual effects that were unimaginable five years ago. It’s almost possible to create a whole world. One day we won’t even need location managers,” he laughs – albeit a little nervously.
‘I suggest locations that are as close as possible to what the directors and designers envisage’
‘People expect lavish scenes of pageantry and we really succeeded in that’