One of the most eagerly awaited dramas on the TV schedules this autumn is ITV’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.
It’s an epic tale that has been condensed down into seven episodes, but the story is no less sweeping thanks to the use of stunning filming locations both at home and abroad.
Find out more about where some of the key scenes were filmed with our guide to the series locations.
Where is Vanity Fair set?
It’s no surprise that such a long book takes in many different settings.
The main action takes place in London, exploring the grand houses and regal squares of the city as well as the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens which were a big draw for leisure time during the 1800s.
We’ll also see Martin Clunes’ character Sir Pitt Crawley’s country estate, Queen’s Crawley, and travel to Europe for a grand tour that some of the characters went on.
The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars and this adaptation makes much more of the Battle of Waterloo than the book does, including it as a major scene in the series.
Where were the London filming locations?
Director James Strong explained: “The book is set very firmly in London, with the exception of the Queen’s Crawley. For me it was crucial we shot in London, in as many of the actual streets and squares Thackeray talks about.
“We used Fitzroy Square for the Osborne and Sedley houses. It’s Russell Square in the book but it’s the same architecture.
“We also filmed in locations like Lancaster House, Syon House, Osterley House and Marble Hill, which, again, give you that authenticity. They are the real thing.”
Tom Bateman, who plays Rawdon Crawley, added: “There’s something quite wonderful about being out in places like Fitzroy Square, East and South London and having those actual London cobbled streets beneath your feet, looking up at historic buildings.”
The series also made use of London’s historic gems. Olivia Cooke, who stars as Becky Sharp, said: “We filmed the Brussels Opera House interiors at Hackney Empire and Lancaster House. All of these locations are so beautiful and exquisite. They really enhance the way Vanity Fair was shot. They bring an extra layer of opulence.”
One of the first scenes we’ll see is the young cast enjoying themselves at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, which was recreated at Syon Park.
Charlie Rowe, who plays George Osborne, said: “It was extremely loud as we were right next to Heathrow on the flight path. There were planes flying over us every 50 seconds. They built this entire world there, with a huge fair, fire breathers, jugglers, dancers, a little monkey dressed as Napoleon. It was fantastic.”
Olivia added: “We filmed on a fairground carousel - we were on that carousel for a few hours. There’s so many pictures of us crying with laughter – it made the time fly by. That was one of the best days on Vanity Fair because it was so much fun. We felt a bit sick but it was counterbalanced with the joy of being together.”
Their co-stars agreed – Tom said: “I just wanted to walk around the set for a few hours and very much wanted to have a party there.”
And Claudia Jessie, who plays Amelia Sedley, said: “We had the incredible Michael Palin there being William Thackeray. So it was all a bit surreal.”
Where else did the production visit?
Whilst London is the beating heart of the story, readers of the novel will know that there are plenty of other key scenes scattered far and wide.
Director James said: “The novel moves around a lot and goes to different places. The challenge was to have the scope of all of these different locations and places.
“In part of the story they go to Brussels on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. We found that Budapest gave us the perfect period architecture. It also doubles for Pumpernickel in Germany which is a place they travel to on the European tour.”
Talking about filming in Budapest for a week, Tom said: “It was very hot there. I was sat on a horse, with a big hat on and dripping with sweat. At that point in the story they do leave England and set up camp abroad. There’s something quite wonderful about art reflecting reality and thinking, ‘We’re all on the road here.’ There’s a different location, language, heat and energy to the place.”
Closer to home, one of the most important locations was Sir Pitt Crawley’s country estate, Queen’s Crawley.
Martin Clunes, who plays him, said: “We filmed at West Horsley Place in Surrey. The surroundings definitely help get into character. West Horsley was my favourite of all of the houses we visited. Freezing but beautiful. It’s colder inside than out. But it is really pretty. And it looks real, lived in and a bit wonky.”
How did they film the Battle of Waterloo?
Thackeray’s readers will be aware that despite being set during the Napoleonic Wars, the writer doesn’t flesh out the battle scenes in much detail, preferring instead to focus on the loved ones left at home.
However, a big difference with the ITV adaptation is that it has really featured the Battle of Waterloo, something that the actors involved found very affecting.
Explaining the scope of what they did, James said: “We had 400 supporting artists, stunt men, 50 horses, special effects and drones with two to three units shooting every day. It was an amazing logistical experience to transform this farm in Reading, Mapledurham, where they shot The Eagle Has Landed.
“We were there for over a week and there was a massive camp site, including 200 men who trained in a boot camp to depict Napoleonic soldiers. There was a lot of planning and storyboarding to maximise what you get. Because there’s no point in doing all of that and not capturing it all. And we got some amazing stuff.”
Tom reckoned the effort had paid off: “It looked amazing. There were a hell of a lot of people in those scenes. They were blowing the field up with explosions. It really was the business.
“It must have been terrifying with the French cavalry charging. But Rawdon is sat on a horse up on a hill with a telescope. They showed us some of the footage from down below and it looks amazing. It is very tense and dramatic.”
Charlie agreed that he had been terrified: “Filming the Battle of Waterloo was one of the most exciting weeks of shooting I’ve ever had. We were lying flat on the ground as this army of French Napoleonic soldiers walked through the smoke towards us. Your heart starts to race. It was completely terrifying. I’ve never felt that before and I was genuinely scared. And that was just filming the battle. You can only imagine what it would have been like for real.
“The weather was brutal when we were filming. It was raining and the wind was so strong that the rain was coming down sideways hitting the sides of our faces.”
Johnny Flynn plays William Dobbin and said he had been moved by the experience.
“Filming the Battle of Waterloo scenes went quite deep with me,” he said. “Mapledurham has the same geographical layout as Quatre Bras and Waterloo. We had lots of horsemen, cavalry, and hundreds of guys in military uniform playing the infantry. They were re-enactors camping on the site and doing it for real with a drill sergeant leading them through all the manoeuvres.
“I had time to really think about what it would have been like to be standing on a field and expecting a cavalry charge. Or to form the gun lines and give the command to shoot. Knowing you were right in front of the French guns when you’re wearing a bright red uniform and you’re not allowed to move. Absolutely bonkers. The craziest thing dreamt up by aristocrats from the safety of their castles. Like a big egotistical game of chess.
“Unlike the real soldiers facing this horror, I had the warmth of a trailer to retreat to when you had been out in the rain. I rode on horses. While that was fun, I just thought, ‘This would be absolutely terrifying if you were doing it for real’.
“The whole thing was exciting in terms of filming. But I’m a big advocate for peace and support a few movements that are in dialogue about conflict resolution. So this was a good time to meditate on all of that. It was a wonderful experience but also quite harrowing to consider what it would be like for real.”
Episode 1 synopsis:
In a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having, no-one is more determined to climb to the heights of English Society than Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke).
The lowly teaching assistant issues her headmistress, Miss Pinkerton (Suranne Jones), with an ultimatum – pay her properly to teach at the Academy for Young Ladies, or find her a situation elsewhere. But Miss Pinkerton calls Becky's bluff, deciding to send her off into exile as a country governess. Kindly stockbroker's daughter Amelia Sedley (Claudia Jessie) takes pity on the poor homeless orphan and offers to take her home.
Amelia’s dreams are like any other girl’s – she wants to be married and happy. But Becky wants to make sure tomorrow is better than today, and she seizes this opportunity to better herself.
Becky quickly makes herself at home at the Sedley house, where she targets Amelia’s wealthy but oafish brother, Jos (David Fynn). With Amelia's enthusiastic help, Becky makes it her mission to charm Jos into proposing marriage before the week is out.
Amelia persuades her snobbish fiancé, Lieutenant George Osborne (Charlie Rowe), to take the whole party out for a romantic night at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens - the perfect chance for Becky to secure Jos's affections. George brings along his best friend Captain William Dobbin (Johnny Flynn), who is secretly in love with Amelia.
At Vauxhall, Becky hangs on Jos’s every word, willing him to propose to her. But Jos is much more interested in drinking rack punch and ends up making a drunken fool of himself. When George ridicules his choice of a lower class bride and scares Jos off, Becky knows exactly who to blame for scuppering her plans.
Becky must now leave the Sedley house and journey to darkest Hampshire, to take up her position as governess at a rundown old mansion. Alone in the world again, Becky cheers up at the sight of Rawdon Crawley (Tom Bateman), her new master's dashing youngest son...
Vanity Fair begins on Sunday, September 2 at 9pm on ITV.
Never miss an episode with BT TV – catch up via the ITV Hub app.