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Belle - through the eyes of the location managers

In September last year filming began on Belle, a period feature film based on the real life story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the first mixed race woman to appear in the higher echelons of London society in the 18th century. The feature is directed by Amma Asante and produced by Damian Jones, and stars Gugu Mbatha Raw in the title role.

Feature film Belle interior
Shooting half in London and half on the Isle of Man, the film presented quite a few challenges: lampposts had to be dug up, 40 moored boats moved and railings and street signs taken away.

We spoke to the location managers in charge of the shoot: Adam Richards for London and Sian Sutherland for the Isle of Man. They told us about the making of the film, the historic settings involved and some of the alterations that had to be made.

We started with Adam Richards. 

The locations

For Kenwood House, we used a mixture of four different locations: Osterley House, Syon Park, Chiswick House and for the exterior, West Wycombe Park.

Feature film Belle interior 2

The reason we didn't shoot at the real Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath, where it is actually set, is that it is currently undergoing a major renovation project and is covered in scaffolding. These four houses that we used are all similar in style to Kenwood and close to London.

The locations found were all pretty good for a period drama. Almost all of these houses were either owned by English Heritage or the National Trust, so the interiors were mainly untouched from the time they were built.

The London part of Belle took six weeks to shoot in total.

Feature film Belle interior 3

Changes needed

There is a scene, set in a rose garden of a London house, which is supposed to be the height of summer. It was filmed in late October [2012] and was freezing cold. Most of the roses were over so we had to bring in false ones to boost what was there.

Likewise, for these scenes set outside in the gardens of Kenwood, we were constantly having to use leaf blowers to get rid of the autumn leaves.

Taking care of the locations on the Isle of Man was Sian Sutherland, who told us the following:

Shooting time

In total we filmed for 15 days over three weeks. Some shooting days were 8am-7pm, plus a week of night shoots with filming from 7pm-5am. The team was split into two pairs to deal with the daytime preparation as well as the night filming issues.

We also had to work with large numbers of extras, which incurred a lot of pre-rigging and de-rigging for my team: setting up marquees and halls with heating and lighting etc. The work was physically demanding with the two teams overlapping.

Feature film Belle Interior 5Feature film Belle Interior 4

The island

I know the island pretty well. I have lived here on and off since I was eight and have worked on between 30 and 40 productions here, mostly in the capacity of location manager, for 13 years. I head up and coordinate the locations department from the start of pre-filming production which includes scouting for all the locations, right throughout the reinstatement of all locations afterwards.


Finding the right locations

Although there are plenty of Victorian and 1950s locations, the island isn’t ideal for Georgian properties – they are few and far between. So it was very rewarding finding locations the director and designer loved.

Due to the nature of the sets, many required time to un-modernise, construct and dress prior to filming, along with time to return everything to the location owners’ complete satisfaction at the end of filming. 

We used Castletown Harbour as 'Kentish Town', 'Bristol Docks' and the exterior of 'The Coaching Inn', but this took a great deal of preparation, construction and dressing. Castletown Harbour is a small town, south of the island, and has been used quite a lot for filming over the years.

I secured permission from the town commissioners, harbours and pub landlord etc to take over the area for around two weeks of build and dress, in addition to the filming and reinstatement time. 

Filming took place at this location every other day during the first week of filming and we returned just over two weeks later to film for a final day. In the meantime the set was altered.

Belle Feature film exeterior 2Belle feature film exterior

We used a mansion house on the island as 'Vauxhall Gardens' and 'Thames River Bank'. This location required a few weeks’ preparation to remove unsuitable, expensive and heavy statues, to remove and add bridges and bandstands etc. We even had trees removed and replanted.

We also dressed an old mill in Peel as the interior of 'The Coaching Inn' and the 'Artisan's Studio'. The property has four fabulous floors of unspoilt mill and we chose to dress our set on the ground floor. The rain was so heavy on the day we filmed there that the property flooded and we had to dash and buy sandbags which the crew and the location owners frantically used in an attempt to stop the flooding ruining the set and the day's filming. Although the rain didn't let up all day, we did manage to achieve everything we needed to.


We would like to thank Adam Richards and Sian Sutherland for their time, expertise and insight.

You can find out more about filming on the Isle of Man here.

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