From The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to Spooks, the stunning corridors, Grand Temple and distinctive exteriors of Freemasons’ Hall have played a crucial supporting role on screen. Ellie Fazan goes behind the scenes
In 2009 a member of the public, concerned by the presence of American soldiers loitering on the steps of Freemasons’ Hall, phoned the police in panic. Had the relationship between the UK and US broken down? Were the soldiers about to declare the Hall a forward operations base?
‘We were filming with Matt Damon for Green Zone,’ remembers Karen Haigh, Head of Events, who has overseen the film career of Freemasons’ Hall thus far. While things can get surreal, her first priority is to ensure filming does not obstruct the Hall’s primary function. So while Matt Damon was saving the world downstairs, meetings were going on upstairs as usual.
Karen has been working with Jenny Cooper from Film London to promote Freemasons’ Hall as a location. Funded by the Mayor of London and The National Lottery through the British Film Institute, and supported by the Arts Council England and Creative Skillset, Film London operates as the city’s film agency. It works to promote London as a major international production centre, attracting investment from Hollywood and beyond.
The agency looks after the capital’s most iconic backdrops, including The Savoy hotel and King’s Cross St Pancras station, but the Hall has also become a star, playing MI5’s base, gentlemen’s clubs and even Buckingham Palace. ‘Its versatile nature and flexible, friendly management, as well as the unique and lavish interior and central London location, have made it a firm favourite over the past ten years,’ says Cooper.
In 2012 Film London launched a tiered membership scheme, of which Freemasons’ Hall is a Gold Member, but the relationship goes back much further. Cooper explains: ‘Around seven years ago we got organisations, including the United Grand Lodge of England, to agree to work with Film London in promoting the city as a film-friendly destination.’
The response has been ‘tremendous’ with a notable rise in filming in London, where seventy-five per cent of the UK industry is now based, making it the third busiest production city behind New York and LA.
So expect sightings of US soldiers and alien landings to become more common on Great Queen Street.
‘Its unique and lavish interior and central london location have made Freemasons’ Hall a firm favourite’ Jenny Cooper
Take five: These days you’re almost as likely to see Robert Downey Jr in Freemasons’ Hall as another Freemason. Karen Haigh picks her top five films and TV shows at the Hall over the past ten years
1. Green Zone (2010)
The high-octane war thriller starring Matt Damon used the Hall as a bombed-out palace in Baghdad. For this role the building had a bit of a make-under, with debris everywhere and blown-out wires hanging from walls. ‘It was a great example of how even when a huge Hollywood production is here, our first priority is that the Hall can function for its members,’ says Karen. ‘So while Matt Damon was running around saving the world downstairs, there was a big provincial meeting going on upstairs.’
‘Johnny English was such a fun film. It was the first time I thought, This could really work’ Karen Haigh
2. Spooks (2002-2011)
Freemasons’ Hall played MI5 headquarters Thames House in this clever and compelling spy drama, focusing on the undercover work of a team of super spies. ‘It was amazing to have a starring role in such a groundbreaking TV show.
It showcased the Hall in such a fabulous way,’ recalls Karen. The only downside of being so involved in the production of the show, she says, was that the traditional end-of-series cliffhanger never had quite the same impact for her.
3. Johnny English (2003)
Peter Howitt’s action comedy parodies the James Bond franchise, with Rowan Atkinson playing an inept spy. The opening credits take a veritable tour of the building. ‘It was such a fun film and there was a lovely atmosphere. Rowan Atkinson is a British institution, and for many of our members he is the most exciting actor that we have had here,’ says Karen. ‘I think it was the first time I thought, this could really work. Film London gave us lots of support, because they knew we had potential as a film location.’
4. Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Some of the exhilarating scenes of the first Sherlock Holmes movie, directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr, were filmed in the Hall. ‘Guy Ritchie had been to the Grand Lodge before and really wanted to use it as a location,’ Karen reminisces. ‘You could see during filming that it was going to be really good.’ Karen and her team built such a strong relationship with the film-makers during shooting that the star-studded press conference was held at the Hall on the day of the premiere.
5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
Douglas Adams’ comedy tells the story of hapless Arthur Dent after aliens destroy Earth. The Grand Temple took on its first starring role, as the Nose, the base for John Malkovich’s character. ‘I carefully pick the films that shoot here,’ says Karen. ‘This film is very tongue-in-cheek and seemed a wonderful way of saying that we can laugh at what people say about us. We built a great relationship with Disney, so they held the premiere party here.’