If nothing else was achieved over the last year, we can certainly say that all of us at Highclere have, at various times, turned our hands to absolutely everything. From working at different desks, to picking and packing, sweeping up, clearing drains, potting up plants, filming on phones and feeding the pigs, we have done what we could to keep going, to help the Castle and farm breathe slowly and quietly so that we, as a team, could live to fight another day.
Highclere’s business, like so many others, shuddered to a catastrophic halt in March and from that position, having gathered ourselves together, we had to work out a route forward. I still don’t find it very easy to look back at some of those times despite the beautiful spring weather and, like so many others, I and the team here have become increasingly tired. It was, in comparison, nothing compared to the real life skills and efforts of those in hospitals working relentlessly to be there when needed most – thank you – and the journey is far from over.
“Life skills” used to be a somewhat amorphous concept that belonged in pep talks, magazines and self-help manuals but there is no doubt that necessity makes them materialise at speed. At their heart seems to be the ability to communicate empathy out of which flows creativity and from thence problem solving. Despite this I feel that some five years of discussion, planning and experience has been compressed into a few short months at break neck speed. There was nowhere to hide and the old adage that “when the tide recedes you can see what everyone is wearing” was particularly apt as the sheer distance the tide retreated made it clearer where the natural challenges would lie.
However, we have ended on a better note. We are once again open to the public in a cautious way and, as this year comes to an end, we have also completed an observational “ITN for Channel 4 Christmas at Highclere” documentary – which I hope also reinforces my book of the same name. The cameraman and assistant producer, Brent and Amy, were tasked with filming the build up to Christmas here including, given we were lucky enough to open, the earliest Christmas tours and teas. It is due to be shown, for better or worse, this coming Wednesday on Channel 4.
As for many others, it has been a wretched year both for those in front and those behind the TV cameras. There were no safe protocols in place during the first lockdown, just cancelled projects. a Highclere was in fact the first job this year for some of the ITN team so it was especially lovely to welcome them.
In true Highclere spirit, and to make them feel at home, there was running banter every time they were filming. In fact, often, they were laughing so much they could not hold the camera steady. We have found generally that one of the best ways to deal with the stress and exhaustion of this year has been humour – team spirit – and practical jokes. Quite a few of us grew up watching similar TV programmes, particular favourites being “The Two Ronnies”, (The Four Candles skit), “Are you Being Served” (Young Mr Grace and Mrs Slocombe), “Dads’ Army” and “Fawlty Towers” and many of our lines or antics are derived from these reassuring programmes that have made us laugh over the years.
Keen to film various ghosts, Brent and Amy were spooked most days by either John G, our Castle Manager, or myself sliding behind pillars. John G’s ability to tell tall stories with every utterance suggests he needs his own comedy show and he came up with a number of new ideas. One of my favourites was his very own lift. He would go into the half-glassed entrance to the Castle from the courtyard, pretend to press a lift button and then slowly crouch down as if the lift was descending into the ground. It is very effective and keeps him amused!
Sally from the gift shop was in full swing as chief elf and learning new presenting skills as she introduced ITN to her sheds and reindeer herd. They filmed us filming for Instagram, using phones as cameras set up with microphones and tripods, though not always if we forgot them or left them somewhere……Stories from Paul in the gardens, sorting out Christmas trees, my husband with the horses, and all of us preparing to welcome visitors adapting to a challenging world. Everyone has a tale to tell. I hope you enjoy it.