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.’
Do you remember when twenty bombs went astray in Liverpool? Or what about the time Britain was on the brink of a deadly plague? Luckily, Harry Pearce and his MI5 officers are always on hand. From rogue states to ruthless assassins, Spooks has thrilled millions of television viewers every week as they see the British Security Service safeguarding the nation.
Now in its tenth and final series, much has changed since the BBC drama was first broadcast on 13 May 2002. One thing, however, has remained the same: the location of MI5’s headquarters, Thames House, where Harry Pearce runs his counter-terrorism department – Section D, for those in the know. In real life, Thames House is an office development on the bank of the River Thames, but in the Spooks universe, Freemasons’ Hall in Covent Garden has played the part for the last decade.
‘There was a big search years ago for a building that could double as Thames House,’ reveals Spooks producer, Chris Fry. ‘We were trying to find the right architecture that would match it. The Grand Lodge has worked brilliantly.’
Over the years, the lodge has become synonymous with Spooks. The opening sequence in an average show will often feature a bomb exploding or a similarly dramatic set-up. As often as not, the next shot will be of the Grand Lodge. ‘We need to settle the story down, so you’ll get a wide establishing shot of Thames House,’ explains Fry.
The lodge’s impressive interiors have also been used to great effect on the show. ‘Spooks does gritty terrorism but it also shows the corridors of power,’ says Fry, pointing to the visual distinction drawn between the wood panels and polished floors of the building, where high-level decisions are made, and the disused warehouses where the Spooks team execute orders. ‘We see the serenity in the meeting rooms but then our spies have to go out into the real world.’
And, when the Freemasons’ headquarters isn’t playing Thames House, it can easily double as a planning room or plush embassy. ‘When we are filming here we have to make a day out of it, so we will try and get the most out of the building,’ says Fry. ‘the actors love it because it feels special.’
FACT MEETS FICTION
Karen Haigh, who manages events at Freemasons’ Hall, has worked with the Spooks production team since the start. ‘I was laughing with the director who did the first two and last two series of Spooks about what the show has become. I remember him walking in for the first time and saying there was this new drama about MI5 – I thought it sounded really exciting. The show has been such a success and we’ve grown with it as a venue.’
So is there any sensitivity around the fact that Spooks is a show about an undercover organisation and uses the Freemasons’ headquarters? ‘The fact that it’s a spy programme and people have preconceptions about the Freemasons is quite ironic. It’s a nice twist,’ says Haigh. ‘The funniest thing for me is that the MI5 say on their website that the Spooks version of Thames House is Freemasons’ Hall in Great Queen Street, Covent Garden.’
MI5’s concerns about putting the record straight seem to be well-founded. Fry recalls an incident: ‘I was on the phone and this couple walked past. One of them said, “That’s the Spooks’ headquarters.” I thought that was brilliant – lots of people think that the Grand Lodge building is Thames House.’
With the final series revolving around tensions in the Middle East, the UK’s special relationship with America and Harry Pearce’s old Cold War connections, Spooks devotees can look forward to seeing a lot more of the Grand Lodge this autumn.
Welcome to the Summer/Autumn edition of Freemasonry Today. I first want to thank Michael Baigent who has retired, on behalf of all the readers, for the great job he did for us as editor of this magazine. I am delighted that he remains consultant editor and our thoughts and best wishes are with him in retirement. I would also like to thank Bill Hanbury-Bateman and Geoffrey Baber, who have retired from the Board of Grand Lodge Publications, for their enormous contribution to the magazine. I particularly wanted to highlight their tireless support during the merger of MQ magazine and Freemasonry Today. A merger that has evolved into the fantastic magazine we have today.
The first of the newly designed issues has been met with acclaim. What is particularly gratifying is the feedback from several members whose wives or partners have been interested enough for the first time to read the magazine and enjoyed it. One member even told me that, having read the magazine, his wife – for the first time – supported him being a Freemason. This underpins our core philosophy that we should strive for the important support of our family and friends through open communication.
It is wonderful news that our new members’ website was launched at the end of July. This covers the magazine and latest news from around the Provinces and Districts. So we now have in our communications armoury the magazine, the members’ website – which is an open site – and the UGLE main site designed to direct the non-mason for more information.
We have a great cross-section of articles in this issue for you and your family’s interest. A balance has been sought between current stories and historical features to show how our past connects with our present.
For example, with the Rugby World Cup returning to New Zealand, you can read about the origins of the game to see why the principles that bond the Craft together have historically drawn rugby players from across the world to Freemasonry. Meanwhile, find out how brothers Mathew and Christian Cleghorn from Lewis Lodge managed to row across the Atlantic Ocean. Follow how they contended with lost rations, a capsized boat and a bird called Elton – in order to raise much-needed funds for Parkinson’s UK.
On the subject of fund-raising, there is a fantastic profile of two classic Ford enthusiasts Marc and Lee Lawrence. Freemasonry has been the driving force behind this father-and-son rally team who embarked on an epic journey across America in order to raise money for good causes.
Speaking of connecting our past with our present, we recently celebrated ten years of filming Spooks at Freemasons’ Hall. You can read about how the building, built in 1933, has been leading a double life for the last decade as both the headquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England and MI5’s fictional home. We are delighted that the building has become such a recognisable icon in the show. As programme producer Chris Fry recalls when he was shooting an episode: ‘I was on the phone and this couple walked past the front doors. One of them casually said, “That’s the Spooks’ headquarters.” I thought that was brilliant.’
12 JUNE 2002
AN ADDRESS BY THE MW THE PRO GRAND MASTER the Most Hon the Marquess of Northampton, DL
Next Tuesday we are celebrating ‘Freemasonry in the Community’ week which is fast becoming ‘Freemasonry in the Community three weeks’, with a service in St Paul’s Cathedral at 11a.m. There are still a few places available and if you have not already done so please apply for tickets today using the form provided. You might be interested to know that we have well over 1,000 events taking place all over the country during this initiative.
On Wednesday, 26 June, the Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys are holding a Grand Choral Celebration here in the Grand Temple. The choir will largely comprise choristers from all over the country who have been supported by the Charity. Tickets at £10 each are available outside the Grand Temple.
Many of you may have seen the recent series on television called ‘Spooks’, some of which was filmed in this building. Filming here has proved a useful source of income for Grand Lodge, and we are grateful to the London Film Commission for supporting us. In return we are sponsoring part of the costs of a free public showing which they are arranging of the film ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. This is due to take place next Saturday evening at the Paddington Recreation Ground at 7p.m. and is open to the first 3,000 people to arrive. I don’t know what the weather forecast is for next Saturday but if you like ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ do give your support.
Brethren, we have received 400 hundred possible designs for the tie competition from 124 applicants and I hope this summer will give an opportunity for the judges to suggest a short-list for consideration.
And finally, Brethren, on Thursday, 27 June, I shall be opening the exhibition of the works of the Artist-Photographer, Alvin Langdon Coburn, who was also a prolific Mason. It is being organised by the Library and Museum Charitable Trust, will be the first major exhibition of its kind that we have sponsored and I recommend a visit. Brother Coburn had a long and distinguished Masonic career in North Wales and Freemasonry was central to his life. He wrote an explanation of it which seems appropriate for our Freemasonry in the Community initiative. He said “that Freemasonry is not a thing apart, cut off from life, it is interwoven with it, and the more it is studied with a view to spiritual progress, the more enlightened one becomes, and the richer in consequence are our lives!”
Brethren, this is the last time I shall be able to address you before the summer break, but I wish you all a very time with your friends and families and look forward to seeing you again in September, when the new Masonic season starts.