Lights, Camera, Staycation
Prehistory saw it written in the stars that Kent was set to be a filmmaker’s dream. From the moment it formed on the land as the tide ebbed away from the shore, the county’s dramatic scenery formed an invaluable combination with the humans who conquered it, together becoming the ultimate portfolio destined to be the stuff of movie magic.
It is Kent’s rich historical tapestry interwoven with the county’s diverse landscape that has birthed the myths, legends and stories fantastical enough for the big screen and enthralling enough for a good series. From seascapes that swell with the surreal, to a countryside so idyllic it can either echo halcyon days gone by or be juxtaposed with the darkest of secrets, whatever a director may be desperate to depict, it is likely to have been done here in Kent. Although a location for filming since cinématographe began sometime around 1895, Kent’s leading role in the film industry is far from over. Continuing to gather momentum as creatives and directors shine their spotlight onto the county’s mesmerising shorelines, historic homes and bewitching countryside, 2023 has already seen the arrival of Kent set dramas just three months into the year.
Nominated for an Oscar, Margate set Empire of Light directed by Academy-Award winning Sam Medndes, stars national treasure Olivia Coleman as a cinema manager struggling with her mental health. Together with Stephen, a new employee longing to escape the provincial town where he faces daily adversity, they find a sense of belonging and experience the healing power of music, cinema and community. Heralded an ‘ode to the power of cinema’, the film features artistic shots of Margate’s iconic Dreamland, the seafront and the Turner Contemporary, as well as the exteriors of other buildings which were taken over and transformed into fictional premises. The crew even built a complete replica cinema foyer within an unused space on Margate seafront. Local residents were employed as film extras, the footpaths along Margate beach were transformed into a winter snow scene, and a rain machine was brought in on sunny days.
But why Margate? Sam Mendes explains: “I was drawn to this particular place because it offered so much opportunity in the scale of the visual landscape. It’s where J. M. W. Turner painted most of his famous paintings – he went there because he said that the skies were the finest in Europe. It’s where TS Eliot wrote The Waste Land, sitting in a shelter just outside of the cinema looking out over the beach and the grey sea that sits beyond. There’s a breadth about the place, which gives it poetry and a cinematic scope.” Visitors to Margate looking to discover all the beauty and magic depicted in this film can delve into these characteristics applauded by Mendes. Stay at The Pink House, a five-storey boutique bed and breakfast with gorgeous rooms and far-reaching sea views, where T. S. Eliot stayed, and visit Sargasso on the harbour arm. Here, enjoy a glass of wine alongside a seafood snack menu upon an evening to absorb all the glory of those same sunsets that inspired Turner’s paintings.
Empire of Light is not the first feature to be filmed in Margate. The seaside town has seen a plethora of movie action for over a century now. A location loved by the Victorians who were the first Britons to cast their eyes upon moving images, the seaside town has played the part of stage for award winning TV series, including Killing Eve (2022), True Love (2012) and Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003), as well as other big screen movies such as King of Thieves (2018) with Michael Caine and Charlie Fox, based on the Hatton Garden jewel heist carried out by an ageing gang of crooks in April 2015.
Margate is not the only Kentish seaside town that has successfully captured the imaginations of directors and the hearts of audiences. Netflix’s hugely popular Back to Life starring Daisy Haggard as wrongly convicted and loveable Miri, returns to her hometown of Hythe, embarking on an awkward — and often comical — campaign to reconnect with the community after 18 years behind bars. Back to Life captures the quintessential quaintness of Hythe and its sweet high street as well as the desolate and surreal seascape of Dungeness. In certain scenes, characters are filmed eating fish and chips on the beach while looking longingly out to the roaring ocean, an experience that visitors can themselves experience at The Pilot. Sitting on the edge of the shore, The Pilot is famous for its delectable fish served traditionally battered with chips and garden or mushy peas, new potatoes, mash or salad.
Some of Back to Life’s most dramatic scenes are filmed on Abbot’s Cliff in Folkestone, next to the alien-like landmark of the sound mirror – once used in conjunction with radar in World War II, effectively a ‘listening ear’ for enemy planes. Explorers can hike to witness this spectacular scene from the cliffs and even stay here at La Vue, said to be one of the closest houses to France. This converted Airstream has been beautifully renovated to provide a luxurious and quirky space for couples, with amazing views across the Channel. The Airstream has a sumptuous king-size bed and your very own viewing deck to sit and watch the boats go by. Close to Folkestone’s Harbour Arm, which also featured in Back to Life, indulge in trendy eateries, cute cafés and wonderful wine bars, complete with sea views that sparkle against chalky white cliffs.
As well as Netflix, Disney identified the magic of the Kent Coast choosing to frame the next spot along from Abbot’s Cliff: Dover’s Shakespeare Beach in Christopher Robin (2018). A short film for the end credits was shot on this sandy spot in Dover, but the transformation of the cruise terminal really took centre stage. Over a period of four weeks, production transformed the entire historic Grade II listed Dover Marine Station, an old Victorian railway station at the Dover Cruise Terminal into a London railway station, including running trains, shops and almost 400 local extras providing the background of a busy London terminal for a few days.
As well as Kent’s Heritage Coast and Margate, other seaside towns in Thanet have nabbed roles in recent blockbusters too. Juliet, Naked (2018) starring Chris O’Dowd and Rose Byrne was filmed in Ramsgate, which is a popular filming area and has been used in several films and TV series such as Hard Sun (2018) and The Tunnel: Sabotage (2016). Further scenes for Juliet Naked were also filmed on Viking Bay beach in Broadstairs, which featured in Hurricane (2018) and much-loved Alan Bennett favourite The Lady in The Van (2015) starring Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings. ITV’s Liar (2017), now streaming on Netflix and starring Joanne Frogatt, also made use of Kent’s coastal spots, depicting Deal as the main character’s hometown, alongside shots of Kingsdown and Walpole Bay.
The beaches of Broadstairs with their golden sands and sunny disposition are undeniably beautiful, so it comes as no surprise that they have also featured in popular films. This includes biopic, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021), starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy, who tread the sands of Botany Bay and Kingsgate Bay as well as Deal’s stony beaches Walmer and Kingsdown. No stranger to filming in Kent, The Crown star Claire Foy also ventured to the county to film A Very British Scandal (2021), a mini-series depicting the story of events surrounding the notorious divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll during the 1960s. Scenes were shot on board the Kent and East Sussex Railway which is a real treat for those looking to delight in sheer nostalgia while absorbing all the beauty of the Kent countryside. Book a lovely afternoon tea to enjoy on board, or delight dad this Father’s Day with their upcoming three-course roast luncheon, silver-served as the train steams to Bodiam.
When it comes to history and biopics, Kent again falls centre stage. Dover Castle, Penshurst Place and Knole House all played host to Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johanssen in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), but it is Anne’s real home of Hever Castle that guests can today see the costumes used in the film alongside the ancient prayer books belonging to the ill fated wife of Henry VIII – a brand new exhibition for 2023. Penshurst Place not only saw the making of this Tudor spectacular, but also saw Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan film scenes set in the Baron’s Hall and the Inner Courtyard for Mary Queen of Scots (2018). Medieval Baron’s Hall is shown at the start of the official trailer for Mary Queen of Scots, providing an atmospheric backdrop for Mary’s execution, one of the pivotal scenes in the film. The Inner Courtyard was used to showcase the solemn procession of spectators waiting to witness Queen Mary’s execution. Guests can visit Penshurst to get a real feel for this Elizabethan drama and then delight in some coffee and cake at the Porcupine Pantry. Other starlets to visit Kent for their work include Keira Knightly, who filmed Pride and Prejudice (2005) at Groombridge Place, which featured as the slightly disorganised yet cosy Longbourn House; Emma Roberts who filmed Wild Child (2008) at Cobham Hall School; and Michelle Williams who starred in My Week with Marilyn (2011) at Saltwood Castle.
However, the place credited as being the stage for the most blockbusters in Kent is the transformative movie set of Chatham Historic Dockyard. Countless films have been created on the carefully constructed streets made to resemble those of the past, including titles such as Les Miserables (2012), The Mummy (2017), Sherlock Holmes (2009) and The Golden Compass (2007). Popular TV series have also utilised the adaptable location to set the scene too, including Netflix’s Bridgerton and brand new Enola Holmes with Millie Bobby Brown, as well as Call the Midwife, a set which fans can now visit themselves.