A sense of place: an interview with The Pursuit of Love’s location manager

BBC One’s latest Sunday night mini-series, The Pursuit of Love, has been nothing short of magical – and Bath made an ideal backdrop for this whirlwind drama. Millie Bruce-Watt chats to location manager, Mark Ellis, who let us in on life behind the scenes

Whether you tuned in to watch the final episode of The Pursuit of Love on Sunday night (23 May) or were caught in its grips from the moment it hit our screens, binge-watching the three-part drama in a single session, you would have almost certainly clocked the breath-taking scenes that captured the west country in all its glory.

For those who missed it, The Pursuit of Love was adapted and directed by award-winning actor Emily Mortimer for BBC One and followed the story of Nancy Mitford’s celebrated novel of the same name, originally published in 1945. The romantic comedy about love and friendship starred Lily James as Linda Radlett and Emily Beecham as her best friend and cousin Fanny Logan. The two are consumed by a desire for love and marriage, and on the hunt for an ideal husband – but their friendship is put to the test when they choose very different paths. While Fanny settles for a steady life, Linda decides to follow her heart, to increasingly wild and outrageous places.

On set at The Bottle Yard Studios, Bristol (Open Book-Moonage Productions-BBC)

The Pursuit of Love was one of the first drama productions to resume shooting in the UK after the first lockdown. The crew filmed for three months during the summer in the Bath and Bristol area, at The Bottle Yard Studios and in London and Paris. The production team received a special mention in the 2020 Production Guild of Great Britain Awards for being one of the first high-end TV productions to get up and running with full Covid-safety protocols after the UK-wide hiatus. In an exclusive interview, we caught up with the production’s location manager, Mark Ellis, who gave us insight into life on set, sharing how they captured the “astonishing” scenes of Bath and beyond, and created a drama with mesmerising magnetism.

Ellis’ portfolio is extensive in scope and scale, his CV includes critically acclaimed classics such as Downton Abbey and Belgravia as well as the more recently aired crime drama, Des. He is no stranger to the trials and tribulations of a production, but the pandemic understandably brought its own set of challenges, forcing the team to cancel shoots near Bristol’s M Shed and in Bath’s Assembly Rooms.

Lily James filming in the period railway station created at Green Park Station (BBC Pictures)

“People were nervous at the beginning,” he says. “We didn’t know what Covid was, so turning up with masks on, standing two metres apart, trying to explain to people that there would potentially be 120 people in their house was difficult. We had to contain it, which was a shame because we probably had four different locations in Bristol – but I don’t think when you watch The Pursuit of Love you think ‘that’s a Covid show’. I think going forward you’ll realise that many of the shows coming out now were filmed during Covid. You won’t have scenes with hundreds of extras, you won’t have scenes with big wide shots, you might see a lot of interior shots with maybe two or three actors in a room. When I was watching The Pursuit of Love, I didn’t get that – it’s just a really beautiful show and really well put together.”

As a direct result of the restrictions, however, the team were forced to look further afield and were, in fact, able to take full advantage of the beautiful open spaces that surround the city. If you look closely, you’ll spot National Trust properties Dyrham Park, Dinton Park and Phillips House; Wiltshire’s Stourhead House and Lacock Abbey; and Avon Valley Railway in Bitton.

“Stourhead has not been used for year, apparently, and to use the gardens there was just amazing. We were so lucky with the weather as well – just as the sun was going down, we shot the bridge from Pride and Prejudice – it just looked incredible, it really did. Badminton looked astonishing too. And Badminton is such a big house, you can use it for other elements. Shoot it from one angle you’ve got a house and shoot it from another you’ve got two houses, you’ve got a church there, you can really make the most of that location.”

The team originally started prepping for the shoot before the first lockdown in March 2020, but once restrictions eased the production was able to go ahead. “We had a really good Covid team who kept an eye on things, regular testing, hygiene was high. It was a real feather in the cap to get through it and come out the other side.”

With support from Bath Film Office, the production team created a stunning period railway station inside Green Park Station. They also managed to film exterior shots nearby in the Georgian terraced street of Green Park as well as outside No 1 Royal Crescent museum.­­­­­­­

Assaad Bouab as Fabrice de Sauveterre, the charismatic love interest of Lily James’s Linda Radlett at Green Park Station (BBC Pictures)

“I was staying in the Apex Hotel, which was my second home for the whole time we were filming, and I kept going over to Green Park Station and one day I thought ‘I can’t not suggest this place’. The only thing was that we couldn’t shoot all of it, we had to be clever with our angles. As soon as Emily [Mortimer] saw it and the designer saw it, we thought ‘we’ve got to make this work’. It came off really well. It’s got an element of CGI – it has to have – but it was a great example of how we tend to work with locations. The exterior we used for Cheyney Walk is 50 yards from Green Park Station. When it came to scheduling, it was really easy, you’ve got Green Park Station, bang, you’ve got exterior Cheyney Walk, bang, and then you’ve got No 1 Royal Crescent just half a mile away. We were able to shoot with two units on the same day and you could really get the bang for your buck. I think that’s the really clever bit about filmmaking, they haven’t got bottomless pockets so you’ve got to try and make it work.”

Ellis credits the success of the show to the cast, crew and brilliant direction from Emily Mortimer. “It’s one of those that I’m going to be really proud to have worked on. I’m glad we got through it, I’m glad we produced an amazing piece of TV – Emily Mortimer deserves everything she gets,” he says. “She’s an amazing actor, amazing writer, she just mucked in and did it – it was very much an ensemble piece and she trusted everyone’s judgement on things – that was the really good thing about it. I hope she gets loads of accolades for it.”

As for the future, Ellis is currently busy working on the second Downton Abbey film but hopes to return to the west country one day. “Never say never,” he says. “It was a great job to do and if they do the other two Mitford stories it would be amazing, who knows.”

The Pursuit of Love is available to watch on BBC iPlayer

Main image: Andrew Scott in the Gilt Leather Parlour at Dyrham Park (BBC Pictures)