Women in beauty spots and creamy pompadour wigs glide across the stone floor; Richard Chamberlain as Prince Charming kneels to fit the twinkling slipper; a stuntman in plumed tricorne hat and breeches leaps off the gatehouse onto a crashpad of cardboard boxes and foam. The rooms smell of dry ice and Elnett hairspray; extras dressed as monks eat corn flakes at the Dining Room table; Oliver Cromwell's warts are Rice Krispies painted brown and glued to his cheek and nose; the moat's deemed too placid to pass for the Thames so big pipes gush out of shot to ruffle the surface as Henry VIII's royal barge steers into view. One morning I found twenty human skeletons gathered on the lawn, each hanging by the skull from a slender metal stand so it appeared to be standing upright, the skeletons clustered in small groups as if I'd come across them at a garden party.
Then actual men arrived and picked up the skeletons one by one, carrying them under their arms into the Great Hall like their own inner structures. These invasions brought the allure of make-believe and fired a boy's delight in gadgets and hardware, as if the camera tracks, cranes and trolleys, the hydraulic platforms that slid up and down the backs of prop vans, the walkie-talkies and grey-sleeved sound booms were versions of Scalextric, Meccano and Action Man equipment I'd yet to have the pleasure of. I climbed onto the deep window ledges in the Great Hall and crouched behind eighteenth-century leather fire buckets to watch swordfights from Joseph Andrews and The Scarlet Pimpernel, the actors in loose white shirts and gold-buckled shoes surging back and forth like dancers across the bare stone floor. They spent hours on the same sequence and I learned all the moves of the routine, the feints, parries, lunges, narrow escapes and exchanges of advantage, each time willing the less-gifted swordsman to buck his fate and fight back with a rage the choreographer had never sanctioned.
Sometimes my attention drifted, the swordplay a backdrop of percussive cutlass sounds until the blades struck sparks off each other and I was gripped again. Usually there were Civil War pikes, halberds and spontoons in here; a black cast-iron doorstop shaped like an elephant; huge logs heaped in the fireplace with bellows, andirons and Victorian copper bedpans leaning on either side; and a gamut of swords – Mameluke short swords, Pappenheimer rapiers, plain and basket-hilt broadswords – fixed to the bare stone walls.
In January 1938, the Trustees of the Natural History Museum in London had directed the keepers of departments to consider how to protect their collections in the event of aerial attack. The keepers drew up lists of specimens and documents to be evacuated in case of war, and by the beginning of the bombing of London in August 1940 the Great Hall had become a warehouse for fifty-four green and white super-cabinets of mammals, thirty-eight boxes of mollusca and six hundred and sixty-two bundles of books and papers (arranged in pressmark order, so they could be referred to if necessary) stacked one on top of the other, among them the stuffed or mounted skins of lion, snow leopard, spotted hyena, polar bear, wolf, sea lion, bushpig, Weddell seal, wallaby and pygmy hog. So I walked across the room imagining crates stacked to the ceiling, animals coming alive at night and forcing the lids. I learned to ride a bicycle in the Great Hall. My mother wiped down the wheels on the carpet's behalf and I rode circles round refectory tables and crimson plush sofas, off the wool kerb onto smooth flagstones, while Mum used WD40 to condition suits of armour and visored helmets called burgonets, and rubbed beeswax polish into the oak shoulders of blunderbusses and muskets displayed among the swords.
For my parents those film-crew days were a mixed blessing. The house needed the money but they watched anxiously as strangers lugged sharp-cornered gear through medieval doorways and leaned spiky lighting rigs against Tudor panelling. Dad haunts the sets like the house's guardian spirit, vigilant for carelessness. It's as if his nervous system spreads through the whole building, so that a slammed door or a pewter bowl set down too briskly hurts him as keenly as a cut on the arm.
Excerpted from The Music Room by William Fiennes. Copyright 2009 by William Fiennes. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
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