The shooting of Sophia 50 years on – Castle Howard’s role in the filming of Lady L

Fifty years ago, long before Brideshead, Castle Howard was the location for an expensive Hollywood blockbuster starring Sophia Loren, Paul Newman and David Niven. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

CASTLE HOWARD famously doubled as Brideshead in the TV and film versions of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. The 1981 TV series made it overnight one of the best-known stately homes in the country, if not the world.

But a full 16 years before the TV cameras turned up to film Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, some of Hollywood’s greatest stars had filmed at the house.

The MGM blockbuster Lady L starred Sophia Loren, Paul Newman and David Niven, and was directed by Peter Ustinov.

Loren, heavily made up, played Lady Louise Lendale, nearing her 80s and recounting the story of her life to her biographer, Sir Percy.

Newman, meanwhile, was the swashbuckling French anarchist she fell in love with as a young prostitute in France – and Niven the English aristocrat who fell in love with and married her.

The scenes of Loren’s later life were filmed at Castle Howard almost exactly 50 years ago – and a young Yorkshire Evening Press photographer, Keith Massey, was on hand to capture many of the photographs on these pages.

Keith first went along to Castle Howard on March 9, 1965, to capture shots of the 30-year-old Loren posing beside the famous fountain.

A week later he returned, this time as an extra playing the part of a press photographer. He was 20 and with dreams of becoming a TV cameraman – and thought it would be a great way of getting a free ‘masterclass’ from A-list Hollywood cinematographer Henri Alekan, he jokes.

“MGM held auditions for local extras at Malton and I applied and got the part of a young press photographer,” he recalls. “I wanted to see the production of a Hollywood movie and to see how the lighting and camera was used and just to be part of it.”

He spent a week as an extra watching Alekan – and was present at the shooting of a scene in the Great Hall which was Lady L’s 80th birthday party. Loren was made up to look 80. “It took the make-up artist four hours every day to apply,” Keith says

Seeing the way Alekan lit the interior of the hall was a revelation to the young wannabe. The windows were blacked out, and get arc-lights set up outside so as to flood the interior with constant bright light.

“The experience gave me a great grounding on lighting technique,” Keith says.

He clearly learned a lot, because he went on to be an award-winning TV cameraman working on news and documentaries for the BBC and Sky, and even spent four years behind the camera with TV soap Emmerdale.

But if he is honest, it was Loren who impressed him most, he admits.

She was completely stunning. “We made eye contact at one point and… it did distract me,” he says.

“She had beautiful eyes. And the camera loved her. It is true that the camera does love some faces. She had this beautiful, natural serenity.” She was also charming to everyone she came into contact with, he says – there was none of the prima donna about her. “She had class.”

Loren was 30 and playing – at least in the scenes Keith filmed – an 80-year-old. It’s odd to think that today, she really is 80, he says.

At the time, the presence of such major Hollywood stars in North Yorkshire caused a stir, admits Castle Howard spokeswoman Hannah Cooke.

“Lady L was one of the first features to be filmed here,” she says.

“Reports suggest David Niven even popped in to nearby pub The Crown & Cushion in Welburn for a spot of lunch.”

York Press:
Sophia Loren on the set of Lady L at Castle Howard in March 1965. Picture: Keith Massey

Keith confirms that – in fact, he regularly used to walk down the road to the pub, he says. He never met Newman, but the American star clearly formed quite an attachment to the area himself.

“He came back to York a few years later with his wife and family and stayed at the Shoulder of Mutton in Heworth en-route to Scotland for a salmon fishing holiday,” recalls Keith, now 70 and living in Bishopthorpe. “He’d obviously gone in for a few pints during filming at Castle Howard.

“Many months previous the landlord had had a call from someone claiming to be Paul Newman’s agent saying he would be staying at the pub on such and such a date, and he kept ringing up every month, and of course no one believed him. But he arrived and did stay.”

Sadly, the film wasn’t a hit. It was an old-fashioned romp that came out in the same year as classics such as The Sound of Music, Doctor Zhivago, Cat Ballou and Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, and doesn’t seem to have gone down well with audiences.

The lack of chemistry between Loren and Newman might have helped account for that. According to Tony Earnshaw, the former artistic director of the Bradford International Film Festival in his guide to films made in Yorkshire, the pair were a chalk-and-cheese partnership that did not work.

Loren found her co-star offhand, blue-collar and vulgar, he once told Press arts correspondent Charles Hutchinson. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Lady L was such a turkey that Ustonov didn’t even give it a single line in his autobiography, Earnshaw said.

But flop or not, it was the film that probably marked the real beginning of the film industry coming to Yorkshire, Keith says. So to that extent, it was a massive success.

York Press:
Shooting the Lady L birthday scene in the grand hall at Castle Howard 50 years ago. Picture: Keith Massey

Nick recalls the filming fondly…

CASTLE Howard’s Nick Howard, who was just a boy at the time Lady L was made, recalls the filming fondly.

At one point, the plot called for the blowing up of the summerhouse by the lake, he says.

“The explosives expert panicked at the last moment, worrying about a big enough bang, so added another 50 gallon drum of petrol. Made a bang big enough to satisfy even a 12 year old boy.”

He also recalls Paul Newman leaving chewing gum everywhere – and Sophia Loren insisting one night on cooking pasta for everyone.

“It was terrible,” he says. “Arthur’s (the cook) was much better.”

He also has a lovely little story which captures Peter Ustinov’s famous wit.

The director was approached by Castle Howard’s butler, Mr Henderson.

“Port, sir?” the butler asked.

“Where’s the storm?” Ustinov replied.


What’s the plot?

Lady L was directed by Peter Ustinocv and starred Sophia Loren as 80-year-old aristocrat Lady Louise Lendale, recalling the loves of her life to her biographer, Sir Percy (Cecil Parker).

Fleeing humble origins in Corsica, the young Louise ended up in Paris, where she found work in a brothel. There, she fell in love with thief and anarchist Armand (Newman), and became pregnant by him.

She then met Lord Lendale (Niven), who was so enchanted by her he offered to marry her. She becomes a woman of wealth and a scion of high society, and raises a large family with her husband. But it emerges that Armand remained her lover all her life – posing as the family’s chauffeur and fathering all her children…

York Press:
 Sophia Loren on the set of Lady L at Castle Howard (with four-year-old Guy Willoughby) in 1965. Picture: Keith Massey 

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