Category Archives: Film and TV locations

Jane Austen in Tel Aviv

I just saw a fine Israeli movie, Fill the Void, that could have been written by Jane Austen–if she’d spent some time in an ultra-orthodox Hasidic community in Tel Aviv. The director, Rama Burshtein, is an insider in this community–and she specifically said she had Jane Austen in mind when working on this movie.

"Fill the Void" poster, from Ebert review cited below

“Fill the Void” poster, from Ebert review cited below

The men wear prayer shawls, various Old-World-looking hats, and ringleted forelocks.  The women wear modest but attractive outfits, with a lot of fussy detail. The women clearly take great care with their appearance. Turbans cover their hair once they are married.  Only the single women are bareheaded. The sexes are informally separated during gatherings at homes or in the synagogue–the women sit in the next room, but everyone can see and speak with everyone else if they try.

Movie still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

Movie still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

As in an Austen novel, the purpose of a woman’s life is to marry.  Here, the point is not so much to marry a rich man–it seems that in this group, an adequate income is assumed.  (The rabbi distributes money on request during a holiday celebration. Is this communal money, or is it the private money of the rabbi? I couldn’t tell, but the rabbi’s wife clearly knows all about whatever finances are involved). The point here is to marry within the group, and to marry someone compatible. Compatibility is very hard to gauge, though, when there is no dating as we know it.

There is a very constrained code of behavior, as in an Austen novel. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Bennet’s horror, in Pride and Prejudice, when oafish Mr. Collins walks right up to Mr. Darcy and begins babbling about a mutual acquaintance, WITHOUT A FORMAL INTRODUCTION.  In the Israeli movie, single men and women are strictly shielded.  In the opening scene, a mother and daughter stalk a prospective bridegroom in a grocery store, just to get a glimpse of him from a distance. As in an Austen novel, the women never question their place in this social system.  They just accept it as their reality.  However, just as in Austen novel, the women have their ways of influencing the men who are nominally in charge.

It goes without saying that to everyone in this community, this way of life, though constrained, is precious. In the sorrowful history of the last century, countless communities like this one disappeared forever.

The plot is simple:  an 18-year-old girl is giddy with the prospect of marriage to the young man glimpsed in the grocery store.  But her family hesitates because a tragedy intervenes, and the young man’s family withdraws the offer.  The tragedy is that the girl’s pregnant sister dies suddenly in childbirth, leaving a tiny son and a grieving widower who, everyone agrees, must marry again.  There is an offer from a woman in another Hasidic community in Belgium.  The girl’s mother can’t bear to part with her first and only grandchild.  So she puts pressure on the widower, some years older, to marry her 18-year-old daughter.  She puts even stronger pressure on her daughter, even though her husband, the rabbi, does not think the match appropriate.

Movie Still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

Movie Still, Karin Bar, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

The way the dilemma works out is fascinating and touching.  A senior rabbi, meeting with the couple, asks, “How does the girl feel about the match?”  The girl replies, “It is not about feelings.  It is the right thing to do.”  He smiles gently and says, “It is ONLY about feelings.”  I can see the appeal of this way of doing things.  The elders are wise and loving.  They have seen a lot of life, and they truly have the best interests of the young people at heart–mixed, of course, with their own very human needs.

The rituals depicted are ancient, mysterious (at least to me) and moving.  We see a mourning group sitting shiva, a Purim holiday celebration, Sabbath meals, formal community gatherings, a circumcision, a betrothal, and a wedding.

One big difference between this world and Jane Austen’s world is that here, there seems to be no dissembling or hiding of one’s true feelings.  The emotions of the community members are palpable, whether in joy or in sorrow.  In this insular community, I suppose no secrets can be kept for long.  And anyway honesty is clearly a core value. At times of high emotion, the people have a habit of rocking back and forth in their seats–so they really wear their hearts on their sleeves.

But as in an Austen novel, a person’s fate turns on a look, a gesture, a few quiet words spoken, a note quickly written and read just in time by the right person.  As in an Austen novel, a woman’s fate depends on her luck in marriage. I have not been to Tel Aviv, and if I go I will probably not see the inside of a Hasidic community.  Many cultures have contributed to the Europe we know today. I very much enjoyed this intimate and detailed look into a culture that somehow feels both alien and familiar.

The film has won numerous awards.  The ending is ambiguous; one hopes these characters have made choices that will make them happy.

The late Roger Ebert had a very sensitive review of the movie.  It is at The Variety review, which mentions the Jane Austen connection, is at

Channeling Freddie Mercury in Buxton

While watching the BBC series Lost Empires, I am sure I recognized one of the locations:  the Opera House in Buxton, England. Built in 1903, the 902-seat theater hosted music-hall shows and other live entertainments in the very period depicted in the series, 1913. (I described this excellent series in yesterday’s post). By 1927, movies had overtaken variety shows in popularity.  The theater turned into a cinema.  In 1979, it was refurbished for live performance, which continue year-round to this day.  I’d love to be there for the annual Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, but I don’t like to travel in the height of summer.  So I take potluck when I go. There is some kind of live entertainment, or a high-quality film, almost every night of the year.

Buxton Opera House

Buxton Opera House

Buxton Opera House Detail

Buxton Opera House Detail

The theater interior is beautiful, white with gilded cherubs, curlicues galore,  and red velvet curtains.  There is not a bad seat in the house, not even way up in “the gods”–theater parlance for the very highest and cheapest seats. In Lost Empires, the seasoned trouper played by Laurence Olivier cautions the young performer played by Colin Firth to always play to “the gods”–the customers in the cheap seats.  They can make you or break you, soon-to-be washed-up performer warns, and he should know.

Buxton Opera House Stage

Buxton Opera House Stage

I once saw a mountain-climbing documentary at the Opera House.  Another time, I saw a very good touring performance of the play “The Madness of King George.” Last time I was in Buxton (to visit nearby Chatsworth and to enjoy the beauty of Derbyshire), I bought tickets for an event I probably would have given a miss, if there had been anything else going on.  There was a Queen tribute band, starring Patrick Meyers as the late Freddie Mercury.  As it turned out, I had a great time.  The band is called Killer Queen.  They fill large stadiums, and they put on a smaller-scaled show for venues like the Buxton Opera House.  Patrick Meyers does not quite have the 4-octave range of Freddie Mercury, but he makes up for it in showmanship, passion, knowledge of his subject, and sheer kinetic energy.

Patrick/Freddie danced and sang his heart out, flinging a series of flamboyant satin jackets out into the audience at just the right moments. And so it went, through the great classic rock repertory of Queen: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Killer Queen,” “Somebody to Love,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and of course the anthem “We are the Champions.”

The audience was almost as entertaining as the show itself.  The first two rows were filled with teenagers and young adults from a nearby school for people with various disabilities.  To prepare for the outing, they must have been listening to Queen albums nonstop. Many of them knew every song by heart and sang along, with gusto.  They jumped up and danced, too–which Mr. Meyer tried in vain to get the rest of the audience to do.

One young man in particular was in ecstasy through the entire performance.  He kept moving right up to the stage apron, pounding out the rhythms with his hands.  Every now and then, a teacher would gently lead him back to his seat, but he popped up again every time.  He just couldn’t help it.  He sang every word of every song, and he shouted and spun in circles between songs.

When the show ended, and the curtain calls were done, the band’s drummer dashed to the front of the stage and handed his drumsticks–probably still smoking from the heat of the performance–to this young man.

Until I attended this show, I had never quite understood the fuss about Queen, or the influence on the development of rock. Now I get it.  Reportedly Sacha Baron Cohen is developing a film about the remarkable journey that the multi-talented Farrokh Bulsara took to become Freddie Mercury.

Freddie Mercury died of AIDS in 1987.  I like to think that his talent and creativity live on in memory, and in performances like the one I almost didn’t go to see. I imagine the young man who received the special drumsticks still treasures them as a memory of a wonderful night.

The music hall tradition lives on in Great Britain, taking new forms and honoring old ones. Tastes have changed over time, but the need for audiences and performers to connect remains the same.

Tony Soprano, Gone Home to Rest

I already was missing Tony Soprano, and now that he’s gone I have to miss the fine actor James Gandolfini too.  The first time I saw James Gandolfini playing the part that turned him from a character actor into a star, I happened to be in England.  I had resisted watching a show about New Jersey gangsters, plus I didn’t have HBO anyway at the time.  But there the show was, on the screen of the little TV in my hotel room.  I was in Winchcombe, visiting Sudely–a house where Queen Elizabeth I once lived, in the days of turmoil following the death of her father, King Henry VIII.  Elizabeth could very well have ended up executed instead of sitting on the throne of England. The Sopranos explored similar power struggles in a completely different age and place.  Characters and locations change, but life’s dangers and challenges remain the same.

I don’t remember which episode of The Sopranos I happened to catch, but I was hooked.  I never did like the violence of the show.  (I don’t like the violence of the series The Tudors either, but I’ve watched it compulsively.  Good thing we have fast-forward). To me, the genius of The Sopranos was in its humanity.  Over the six seasons, there was a Shakespearean sweep to it–every aspect of the many characters’ lives was explored as they made their way through a chaotic world, always trying to impose some kind of order.

I’ve been thinking about historic dream homes like Tyntesfield. I suppose each of us has a different dream of domestic bliss. Tony Soprano’s dream home actually exists–people go to the house in New Jersey to have their pictures taken in the driveway, where Tony appeared in his bathrobe every morning to pick up his paper.  Tony loved his pool, his pool house, and his kitchen, where he was forever grabbing snacks on his way out to do who knows what.

The house was almost another character on the show.  The writers used it to make points about the characters.  I remember one scene where a designer tried to interest Carmela Soprano in some antiques for her house.  “But my home is TRADITIONAL,” she said, with that innocent blank-eyed stare she used to such great effect.  The writers said so much with those few words.  Carmela had no notion of where “traditional” style might have come from.  What tradition? Whose tradition? The less-than-tasteful aspects of the house rarely received any comment in the scripts, but the house  always spoke volumes about the characters, their backgrounds, and their aspirations.

I remember a great episode where Tony’s daughter Meadow, in rebellion, was living with her boyfriend in a miserable city apartment with no air conditioning.  At the end of a long exhausting night of bitter arguing about where they would spend the summer, the boyfriend wearily said, “Well, we could get married.”  Meadow had learned lessons in manipulation from the best–her own family.  She immediately brightened and called her parents to announce the great news, not only getting what she wanted but setting in motion a new family drama.

I looked forward to seeing James Gandolfini in whatever part he took.  He could be funny, sad, menacing, self-mocking–he had a really endless range as an actor. Now he is gone.  I hope he’s found a peaceful home.

A Vigorous Voice from the Past

I hurried to visit Tyntesfield within a year or two of its opening to the public.  The house was only partially open, and work was going on all over the estate.  During my visit, I stood with a tour group in the Billiard Room, admiring the vaulted ceiling and the light from the high windows.  The billiard table, custom-made for the family, connected to an electronic scoreboard.  Pressing a button on the side of the table recorded the score–quite an innovation, for Victorian times.

William Gibbs was 75 when his dream home was completed, and he had four sons.  Three of them were still teenagers, so presumably the room was built and furnished for them.  It was not, however, a smoking room–Mr. Gibbs allowed only smoking in the very highest room of the house, a tower on the third floor.  (I’m sure the teenagers found ways around the various house rules–they always do).

We had all just looked at a rather ornate urinal in an adjoining room–another modern innovation. The guide was talking about how the room was built for and used by men.  Suddenly an elderly lady in the back of the group thumped her cane on the floor and interrupted the guide.  She was a family member and had spent a good deal of time in the house.  One of the 19 heirs!  (I hoped she had collected a cool million and not blown it all at the casino).  She proceeded to set us all straight.  Did women use the billiard room?  Yes, they did!  Trust me, you would not have argued with her.

The lady went on with a story about the bats that had infested the former men’s servants quarters nearby.  Later, I read that the colony of protected lesser horseshoe bats had to given another suitable home on the estate before restoration could begin in those rooms.

The tour guide wisely let the lady keep talking.  I’d have listened to her all day.  At the time, I didn’t know about the Great Kidnapping Incident, or I’d have asked her about it for sure.  In 1988, the late Lord Wraxall had been kidnapped at his home. The ruffians knocked him to the ground and demanded his house keys and the combination to his safe.  But the burglar alarm went off–I don’t know whether he was inside or outside the house at the time.  So they threw him into the boot (the trunk, to Americans) of his own car, which they drove about 2 miles away and abandoned.  He was left there for 7 hours until someone found him. According to some reports, all he had to say was, “Good grief, there’s more room in there than I ever thought.”

The National Trust is going to great lengths to collect stories about life in the house.  There is an interactive website where people can contribute their own memories.  It is at Personal stories are placed in a timeline. Family, servants and friends have contributed their memories.

Recently, the house has been featured on the wildly popular BBC TV series Dr. Who–very appropriately, since Dr. Who is a Time Lord.  Not only can he travel through time, but he is able to regenerate his body in a different form when near death–very handy for showrunners who have to cope with new actors taking over the part.

At Tyntesfield, and at many other National Trust Properties, enchanting doorways continue to lead us into the past, carefully preserved for future generations.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Paying the Bills at Downton Abbey

The hit show Downton Abbey is filmed at the real-life Highclere Castle, a little south and east of London in Hampshire.  The castle is still occupied by the heirs of the prominent Herbert family, who acquired the estate in around 1769.  Why not? If I inherited a castle, I would certainly live there.  But it’s not as easy as it seems.

Traditionally, keeping up a large country home required the income from at least 1,000 acres.  This meant intensive work by tenant farmers, with the heir to the property closely supervising, usually through an estate manager.  It has become more and more difficult to turn a profit in agriculture, especially since many large estates have had to sell off acreage.  One big reason is the dreaded Inheritance Tax, popularly known as the Death Tax.  The tax in approximately its present form was begun in 1894.  On the death of the landowner, the heir had to come up with staggering tax payments–often as much as the market value of the estate.  This problem only got worse during and after the two World Wars, as Britain struggled to pay the enormous costs of war.

In the 1840s, the Third Earl of Carnavon went on a building spree and ran out of money.  By the time the Fifth Earl inherited, his debts were crushing. At the time, many financially strapped aristocrats were marrying American heiresses like Cora Levinson, who became Countess of Grantham on the show Downton Abbey.  The Fifth Earl found an heiress closer to home. He married Almina Wombwell, who in spite of her name was actually the beloved biological daughter of banker Alfred de Rothschild. Lady Almina’s inherited fortune saved the house in 1895.

The present 8th Countess of Carnavon has written a book titled Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey.  (I haven’t read it yet!)


In recent years the present Earl was able to negotiate a delay in paying the “death tax” by working out an agreement with the English Heritage organization, whereby the building and grounds are open to public visits for part of the year.  The cost of a day’s visit is about $27.  On a typical summer day, about 1500 visitors pay this fee.  (Due to the popularity of the show, reservations are booked up months in advance, but a few walk-up tickets are available). There is also a gift shop, of course. And the estate is rented out for weddings, about 20-25 per year, at rates starting at about $22,000. During filming of Downton Abbey, the film company pays somewhere around $5,000 per day.

All this seems like big money, but it costs $1.5 million to run the house for a year.  And major repairs are needed.  I’ve seen estimates as high as $18 million, and reports that the upper floors of the castle are uninhabitable. The present Countess is coming in for some criticism for cashing in on the show’s popularity, but I certainly can’t blame her.  Like the family on the hit show, she wants to preserve a property and with it a little piece of a vanished way of life.  She personally cannot even inherit, since the property will go to the son of her husband’s first marriage.  The recent article is in The New York TImes at

In coming posts I will explore other ways the great country houses of England have been preserved, and revisit some of my favorites.  Join me next time!

Jeeves: the Ultimate Valet

In the British TV series Jeeves and Wooster, ditsy aristocrat Bertie Wooster answers his door to find a dignified personage, his new valet Jeeves, who says, “I was given to understand that you required a valet, sir.”  As usual, Bertie Wooster’s life is in disarray, so Jeeves has arrived not a moment too soon. So begins a howlingly funny saga that says a lot about British social classes.  The series, drawn from the Jeeves and Wooster stories of P.G. Wodehouse, ran from 1990 to 1993.


Hugh Laurie, better known to American audiences as the difficult genius Dr. House, plays Bertie.  His real-life friend and collaborator Stephen Fry plays Jeeves.

The joke is that the valet is miles ahead of the aristocrat in intelligence, education, proper behavior, and common sense.  So Jeeves uses his ingenuity to pull Bertie out of one impossible scrape after another, all of them caused by Bertie’s cluelessness.

Jeeves is also at pains to save Bertie from fashion faux pas, as in this exchange, concerning an unsightly white jacket Bertie insists on wearing:

Jeeves: I assumed it had got into your wardrobe by mistake, sir, or else that it has been placed there by your enemies.

Bertie Wooster: I’ll have you know, Jeeves, that I bought this in Cannes!

Jeeves: And wore it, sir?

Bertie Wooster: Every night at the Casino. Beautiful women used to try and catch my eye!

Jeeves: Presumably they thought you were a waiter, sir.

Actually, Jeeves is much more than a valet.  Bertie is a single young man, and the time is the 1930’s when servants are becoming few and far between.  So Bertie only has one servant.  Jeeves is cook, butler, driver, valet, and guardian angel.  Jeeves knows everything. (The search engine “Ask” was originally named “Ask Jeeves”). In his spare time, Jeeves reads Shakespeare and Spinoza, and can come up with a pithy quote for every occasion.

P. G. Wodehouse wrote about Jeeves and Wooster all through his long writing career, over a span of 59 years.  Jeeves’s first appearance was in 1915 and his last in 1974, the year before the author’s death. During that time, ideas about the master/servant relationship changed dramatically.

World War I brought about the greatest change.  As in Downton Abbey, servants often accompanied aristocratic officers to the battlefield.  In the story, footman William accompanies Matthew Crawley to the trenches.

During the war, it became clear to everyone that servants faced battle with at least as much courage as their social betters.  In fact, true or not, there was a popular idea that aristocrats were much more likely to be victims of what was then called “shell-shock.”  The number of servants employed in Britain went from about a million and a half before the war to just over a million afterwards.  Those who returned from the fighting often sought better opportunities.  Wealthy families had less money to keep up their estates, too. And lampooning the rich made P.G. Wodehouse extremely popular.

One of the pleasures of watching British films is trying to recognize film locations.  One episode of Jeeves and Wooster, “Trouble at Totleigh Towers,” was filmed at–you can probably guess–Highclere, the location for Downton Abbey.  All the more reason to visit sometime!

Join me next time for more explorations into the art, literature and history of Europe and the British Isles.