Vanity Fair Filming Locations: Ballrooms and Battlefields
ITV and Amazon Studios’ 2018 adaptation of Vanity Fair makes use of stunning Georgian-era locations (and a few convincing stand-ins) to bring William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel to life.
Written by Gwyneth Hughes, directed by James Strong and produced by the makers of Poldark, Mammoth Screen, the drama sweeps through decadent ballrooms and muddy battlefields. One filming location hosts both a stately home and the Battle of Waterloo – quite an achievement.
Murder on the Orient Express star Tom Bateman plays Captain Rawdon Crawley, with Bates Motel and Ready Player One’s Olivia Cooke in the central role as Becky Sharp. Monty Python performer and Around the World in 80 Days host Michael Palin steps into an unusual role as Vanity Fair’s author, giving us a personal introduction to Becky and co.
Where Was Vanity Fair Filmed?
ITV’s Vanity Fair was filmed on location in Budapest, London and Kent, where cavalry uniforms and elaborate bonnets dotted the county’s stately homes throughout 2017.
“Vanity Fair is set in the early 1800s and the costumes, production design, sets and locations are all completely authentic… For me it was crucial we shot in London, in as many of the actual streets and squares Thackeray talks about.”
James Strong, Director
The crew followed in Thackeray’s footsteps to source locations like the Sedleys’ house, shooting not far away in another Georgian London square. Others were found further afield - a Baroque palace in Budapest becomes part of the Brussels society whirl.
And several locations work overtime. One of the ITV Vanity Fair filming locations was transformed into a snowy winter wonderland, a German town, Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and a rambling country manor. Another played a country house and a battlefield.
Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens
We meet the key players on a carousel, with Thackeray himself setting the scene. Vanity Fair’s Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens filming location is Syon Park. The mansion was built between 1750 and 1770, though its Great Conservatory is the room which stands out onscreen.
The pillars and glass domes look the part, but its construction date puts it just a few years out of time – it was commissioned in 1826, eleven years after the Battle of Waterloo.
The glass structure was designed to display the Duke’s collection of exotic plants, but it would go on to influence a landmark 19th Century building. Joseph Paxton used Syon Park’s Great Conservatory as inspiration for the Crystal Palace displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
“They transformed the gardens into this fair with fire-breathers, tightrope walkers, different booths for people to eat in, with a band and a hot air balloon. It was really fantastical. Very magical to film... We filmed on a fairground carousel - we were on that carousel for a few hours.”
The Victorian carousel was loaned by a private collector for the shoot, and many of the fairground attractions was created by the production team but a few of the effects were added later.
Technicolor’s VFX team added the finishing touches to this showstopping sequence. Creative director Gary Brown "…recreated the iconic Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens from old photographs from its heyday, which included significant set extensions and recreating a 3D hot air balloon”.
In September 2017 Vanity Fair’s beach location, the town of Deal in Kent, was transformed from a contemporary beach to a Georgian promenade.
The town didn’t have to pretend – it really is a Georgian seaside town, with a wealth of townhouses to prove it. Although these days it’s found a new lease of life as an escape for London’s Shoreditch crowd, and of course the resort has also established itself as a go-to filming location.
Period pieces like Vanity Fair have made the most of Deal’s historic architecture and sweeping coastal views. Meanwhile, contemporary thrillers like ITV’s Liar and gritty Anglo-French drama The Tunnel have shot a darker side of the seaside town (the distinctive 1950s pier is featured in both – for obvious reasons, it’s been cropped out of Vanity Fair’s shots).
Miss Pinkerton’s Academy
Doctor Foster’s Suranne Jones plays Miss Pinkerton, doyenne of the academy where Becky first meets Amelia Sedley.
“Miss Pinkerton’s probably produced many Amelias. These perfect little girls skipping out of school in their perfect pink dresses.”
It’s a grand but prim setting, unlike the academy’s filming location, which has lived a long and varied existence.
The land at Squerryes was mentioned in the Domesday Book but the manor house that stands today was built in the 1680s. It was bought by the courtier Edward Villiers, 1st Earl of Jersey, and subsequently the 3rd Earl sold the 17th Century estate to the Warde family, who have remained at Squerryes Court for eight generations.
The present owner, Henry Warde, took bold steps to keep the mansion afloat. Just over a decade ago, Warde was visited by a French champagne house who were looking to buy part of the estate. The deal came to nothing, but realising the potential, the family planted their own grapevines – the estate’s own Brut is now an award-winning label.
The Sedleys’ House
The novel places Becky’s first society setting in Russell Square. In ITV’s Vanity Fair, the Sedleys’ house filming location is in Fitzroy Square, at the heart of London’s Fitzrovia – a few blocks away but similarly elegant with a leafy square at its centre. The Georgian locale was also the exterior filming location for the Sedleys’ house in the 2004 movie.
Hidden just a few blocks away from the bustle of Oxford Street, Fitzrovia remains an elite little neighbourhood with a reputation for attracting cultural figures. Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw count among its past residents.
Look out for its elegant Robert Adam buildings onscreen. A different Vanity Fair location, Syon House, boasts Robert Adam interiors – and so does Osterley House, which is considered one of the architect’s greatest works.
Even by Vanity Fair’s standards, Lord Steyne’s house is grand. Thackeray’s novel describes it as a mansion which consumes the entire side of a desirable London square, and ITV’s Gaunt House filming location is suitably impressive.
Horace Walpole dubbed Osterley House the “palace of palaces”, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. The magnificent house is yet another Vanity Fair location designed by Robert Adam – the celebrated architect remodelled the existing Tudor mansion in the 1760s, even designing the friezes and furniture inside.
Other shots of Lord Steyne’s house were filmed at Goldsmiths Hall, the opulent home of London’s Goldsmiths Society. With a fascinating history, and a fair few film and TV appearances to its name, it’s an interesting location in the heart of the City of London. Tours run on the hall’s occasional open days but in you can take a virtual tour if you want to walk its rooms without leaving home.
“…when we filmed the Queen’s Crawley scenes, you smell the country air. It feels different.”
One of the Crawleys’ house filming locations is Mapledurham House, an Elizabethan mansion on the border of Oxfordshire and Berkshire. The stately red brick building was used in My Cousin Rachel, the 2017 adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, as well as Taboo, Midsomer Murders and Cbeebies’ Mr Tumble.
Mapledurham encapsulates a house, farming land and a more unusual feature, a watermill. It’s mentioned in the Domesday book and is the last functioning mill on the Thames.
The estate and watermill are open to the public on weekdays, though the house itself is currently off-limits for refurbishment. Visitors need to book in advance but it’s worth the effort. The Miller of Mapledurham and his wife personally conduct the tours, which end with a trip to the tea room for scones made from flour milled on the estate.
The second Queen’s Crawley filming location was West Horsley Place in Surrey. Scenes set in Queen’s Crawley’s dining room were filmed in the Stone Hall.
“West Horsley was my favourite of all of the houses we visited. Freezing but beautiful. It’s colder inside than out. But it is really pretty. And it looks real, lived in and a bit wonky.”
The rambling medieval manor house dates back to the 15th Century, with the present day house reflecting all the centuries in between and the changes they’ve brought. West Horsley Place is undergoing an enthusiastic renovation project, with the eventual aim of opening the doors to the public and bringing its history and collections back to life. For the time being, we can enjoy it onscreen.
Miss Matilda Crawley’s House
Becky, Rawdon and most of the household spend their lives falling in and out of favour with Miss Matilda Crawley. Part way through the series, we see much more of her house as Frances de la Tour’s strong-willed character becomes an important player.
The door her out-of-favour household are ushered out of belongs to Marble Hill House in west London. Look out for the white walls and gold swags of its grand Great Room onscreen too.
Marble Hill was built for Henrietta Howard, mistress of King George II, in 1720 on the banks of the River Thames at Richmond. Howard’s story could easily have come straight from the pages of Vanity Fair.
Born at Blickling Hall (the present house stands on the remains of Anne Boleyn’s family seat), Henrietta married courtier Charles Howard who drank and gambled their fortune away. After his death, she manoeuvred her way to the future king, who took her on as his mistress and eventually gave her the money which paid for the Palladian mansion.
As a result, Marble Hill is one of the few Georgian houses to be built for and by a woman, making it a fitting residence for the imposing Crawley aunt – although she surely wouldn’t have approved of its origins.
London Street Scenes
When the characters (Becky in particular) are down on their luck, they show up in streets lined with downmarket terraces where the cobbles are strewn with straw and the passers-by wear caps and aprons instead of towering bonnets.
Princelet Street and Wilkes Street in the traditionally less salubrious Spitalfields provided the filming location for Vanity Fair’s London street scenes. They sprang up in the 1700s to accommodate the influx of merchants and weavers from the continent, many of them Huguenots fleeing persecution in France.
Unfortunately for passers-by, those cobbles were laid specially for the production – it’s plain old tarmac in reality.
But with several houses restored, shutters and all, and traditional lamp posts dotting the pavements it’s still a little glimpse of the past just a stone’s throw from trendy bars and skyscrapers.
In Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, George travels west along Piccadilly to marry Amelia at a chapel on the Fulham Road. There are a few plot changes in Gwyneth Hughes’ adaptation – for one thing, Mrs Sedley and Jos get the boot, leaving a congregation of just Dobbin, Becky and Rawdon in the wedding scene.
And the ITV Vanity Fair church filming location is actually on the other side of London. St Mary’s Church Wanstead was completed in 1790, and while a church has stood in the location since the 1200s it’s a truly Georgian building.
It borders Epping Forest and Wanstead Flats but this church shares an architectural style with churches closer to Vanity Fair territory. It was designed by Thomas Hardwick who built and renovated Inigo Jones’ St Paul’s Covent Garden and Christopher Wren’s St James’ Piccadilly.
The ITV Vanity Fair Brussels Filming Locations
“At that point in the story they do leave England and set up camp abroad. There’s something quite wonderful about art reflecting reality and thinking, ‘We’re all on the road here.’ There’s a different location, language, heat and energy to the place.”
Half way through the series, military orders send Dobbin, George and Rawdon to Brussels. Amelia and Becky follow, and we find ourselves with a new set of filming locations as the characters find themselves facing new challenges. Though in some ways, the social whirl doesn’t change.
Brussels Opera House
“It was almost like Old England. The house was filled with familiar British faces…” is Thackeray’s description of the Brussels Opera House in Chapter 29 of Vanity Fair. The Theatre Royal de la Monnaie was rebuilt by Napoleon in 1800; but despite its Napoleonic origins, it was part of the Belgian city’s glittering English expat scene.
ITV’s Vanity Fair Brussels Opera House filming location really is found in England, with two London locations stepping in.
Inside the Hackney Empire, everything is gilded and decorated in red, with flashes of green and blue. You wouldn’t guess that this building never hosted the Regency elite like some of its counterparts. The Grade II-listed building was built in 1901 as a music hall, was used as a bingo hall for twenty years and faced demolition in the 1980s before finding a new lease of life as a theatre.
Lancaster House is also used as a Brussels Opera House location. You might recognise its grand white and gold rooms from their appearances in Downton Abbey or The Crown, where they appeared as Buckingham Palace interiors. This opulent government building is actually located just yards from the palace gates.
The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball
Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe, Winston Graham’s Poldark, Georgette Heyer’s An Infamous Army and Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia novels have all called on the glittering social event which played a poignant role in the run-up to the Battle of Waterloo. Along with Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott, Thackeray was one of the first to bring the ball into fiction.
Just around the corner from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament sits One Great George Street, the home of the Institute of Civil Engineers. This imposing building in gleaming limestone is hard to beat if you’re looking for a venue to impress.
One Great George Street’s Palladian design with just a hint of Baroque makes it look the part for Vanity Fair’s Georgian timeframe. In fact, it dates only dates back a hundred years.
Battle of Waterloo
Mapledurham pulls a double shift. Not only was the house used as the Crawleys’ house, where Becky finds work as a governess – the usually tranquil estate became one of Vanity Fair’s Battle of Waterloo locations.
The estate was transformed into a muddy battlefield, complete with hundreds of extras arranged into likely formations. Thackeray doesn’t describe the battle in the novel, giving us just the snippets that affect the characters. Napoleonic reenactors were brought in to get the troops’ drill movements up to a convincing standard.
Later in the series, the characters meet in the fictional town of Pumpernickel as part of a European tour. The production didn’t film in Germany, but they did travel to the Continent. The main Vanity Fair Pumpernickel filming location is actually found in Budapest – the same location used for Brussels, though this time we’re heading into the city centre.
Budapest City Park, or Városliget, appears in exterior shots and street scenes. It was laid out in the mid-18th and early 19th Centuries, making it plausible as a fashionable spot for Vanity Fair’s characters. main entrance at Heroes’ Square is a World Heritage Site, and the park’s
Interior shots were filmed at a distinctly British location. The Reform Club was founded as a politically inclined gentlemen’s club, with its Pall Mall location placing it just a short stroll from Westminster.
The elite London club has appeared onscreen regularly in the past few years, playing everything from The Royal restaurant in Sherlock Holmes to The Geographers’ Guild in Paddington. It makes a literary appearance in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days too. But this filming location is actually particularly fitting to ITV’s Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray was a prominent member, spending much of his later life at the club.
Lotus Jazz Club in Downton Abbey’s filming location, the Savile Club, is used for other interior shots. This stylish venue just around the corner from Claridge’s has appeared in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair (the magazine) and Hello.
Other Pumpernickel scenes were shot at West Horsley Place, one of the show’s most versatile filming locations.