The day I became a movie star at Treasurer’s House

11 Jan 2013 @ 9.10 pm
| News

The trailer for The Wanderer (Heritage), partly filmed at Treasurer’s House

As Treasurer’s House holds an open day for new recruits, volunteer Hugh MacDougall recalls one of the more unusual duties he undertook there

I thought I’d managed to escape. The warning that I, among others, might be caught had been clear. Another 30 seconds and I’d have been free, out the door and away. But then I wouldn’t have featured in a film’s world premiere in York and later appearing daily on screen at a famous art gallery in Wakefield.

The whole episode happened because of my being a room guide volunteer with the National Trust at the Treasurer’s House in York and the trust allowing the house to be used as the historic venue for an unusual venture which involved filming a fictional work.

The trust created a programme called The Residents, an artist-in-residence programme developed with contemporary art institutions, and Treasurer’s House was one of the venues chosen to host this project.

Laure Prouvost, a 34-year-old London-based artist from Lille in northern France, became artist-in-residence over a six month period last year. Her work uses video, installations, painting, visual signs and performance to challenge the traditions of storytelling.

She quickly felt an affinity with the Treasurer’s House as a building and its history. The major influence today is the legacy of wealthy Edwardian industrialist Frank Green, who ran the family business of Green’s Economiser factory in Wakefield. He bought Treasurer’s House in 1897 when it was in poor condition, renovated, redesigned and rebuilt the interior, housed his unique collection of antiques there and gave the property to the National Trust when he retired in 1930, the first house in the country to be given in its entirety to the trust.

Prouvost’s main work in the house was to make a short film The Wanderer (Heritage), which is based on a work by Leeds-based artist Rory Macbeth. He translated a Franz Kafka novella from the German despite not having any knowledge of the German language and without using a dictionary.

Movie set… Treasurer’s House in York

The filming took place about a year ago over a few weeks and was all very surreal. A small cast of actors played their parts while the house was open to the public. Scenes were shot in several rooms, with the public, volunteer guides and house staff all included.

That was the prior verbal warning. Carry on as usual but don’t be surprised if you find yourself being filmed as part of a scene from the script.

The theme of that script in Macbeth’s far-from-Shakespearian approach centres on a boy named Gregor aged about ten years old who has a series of increasingly bizarre and mysterious experiences as he tries to hold onto reality. He seems to be trying to find his father, sometimes racing round the house on a foot scooter. At the same time his mother, keeps calling out for him. Two other actors play a policeman in uniform and a bewigged and robed judge.

The idea was to use heritage as a way of placing the protagonist and his family in the grand surroundings of the Treasurer’s House, jarring with their own humble existence.

One room guide ended up dressed as a dentist in mouth mask and green coat. Another guide was filmed talking about one of the antiques on show.

At a couple of minutes to five on a Wednesday afternoon, all the general public departed, the house closed for the day, I headed for the Great Hall, and my coat in the guides’ room, and then home.

Suddenly, at the door into the hall, I was confronted by Gregor, the film camera, a bright light and the producer and film crew.

Gregor spoke to me. He was looking for his father. Had I seen him? I knew nothing about any of this context to the film at the time so was taken by surprise, but managed to reply that I hadn’t seen his father.

Tell me about the ghosts, asked Gregor. Had I seen any? Treasurer’s House is renowned as being home to several ghosts. I’ve never seen any, but I told Gregor a story about the smell of Frank Green’s cigar smoke sometimes being in the air only a few feet from where we were standing. I had no idea where this conversation was going or why, but I got the impression I should try to go with the flow.

I saw Laure Prouvost’s eyes behind Gregor’s shoulders light up with apparent enthusiasm at what I was saying.

A scene from the film
A scene from the film

Then Gregor caught me out again, stating that he had seen the Archbishop of York that day wearing dirty trainers! How do you respond to that? My razor-sharp mind (I don’t think, not at my age into my seventies) mumbled in reply that I didn’t think such a distinguished person as the Archbishop would wear grubby trainers, but only the very best quality footwear.

Gregor was impressed. I was a very polite and helpful man. Embarrassment was added to my bemusement at the whole episode.

The camera kept rolling and Laure continued to look pleased at my bizarre chat with Gregor. The rest is a blur. I got home dazed but chuckling. All the guides and staff who featured in the production felt the same way. It was fun.

The Wanderer (Heritage) was shown daily last summer at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield. That was quite fitting because Frank Green, owner of Treasurer’s House, bequeathed art and antiques to Wakefield Gallery (now the Hepworth).

Before that came the world premiere of the film at the Treasurer’s House last June, before an invited audience of about 50 people. It was the only showing in York.

“You’re the star,” beamed Prouvost to me, in her soft, beguiling French-accented English, when I bumped into her at Treasurer’s House the day before the premiere.

No, I’m not. I’m there, just, looking bewildered and definitely not the star, but thanks for the lovely build-up Laure. All but three seconds of my brilliant improvisation is on the cutting room floor.

Dreams of an invite to Cannes are on hold. But it’s an experience I can treasure for the crazy fun it was.

Voluntary and paid work opportunities at Treasurer’s House, York

If you want to follow in Hugh’s footsteps, the National Trust is now recruiting for Treasurer’s House.

A recruitment session is being held at the house just behind the Minster on Saturday, January 12 from 11.30am – 2pm. The open days will give people of all ages and experience an opportunity to chat to current staff and volunteers about what it is like to work at this historic house and garden.

For those unable to attend the open day, contact Treasurer’s House, 01904 624247 or email [email protected] for more information or to get an application form.