The Changing Face of Downing Street 

5 September 2022 tbs.pm/76841

 

Television & Radio 1983 cover

From Television & Radio 1983, published by the Independent Broadcasting Authority in December 1982

Dr Joan McKinnon, daughter of former Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, stood aghast in Yorkshire Television’s massive Downing Street set and was transported back nearly 60 years as she watched ‘herself’ skip home from school as a little girl.

‘It’s uncanny. That’s my school uniform. Where did you get it? The school doesn’t exist anymore.’

The exclamation was a tribute to the exacting research and effort put in by the Number 10 production team in the interests of accuracy – even the badges of the now non-existent Camden Town school were accurate to the last detail. And the same methodical work and research went into each of the other six programmes in this prestigious drama series.

But perhaps the most outstanding technical feature of the series is the huge set, which was constructed in a massive old underground aircraft hangar alongside the Leeds and Bradford Airport in Yorkshire. The largest set ever built for a programme by Yorkshire Television, it is a near perfect reconstruction of Downing Street and the home of the First Lord of the Treasury, the official title of the Prime Minister.

Number 10, produced by Margaret Bottomley, tells of the private lives of seven Prime Ministers as they were lived behind what is probably the best-known front door in the world. The subjects range in period from the 1700s – William Pitt the Younger – to Ramsay MacDonald’s first period of office in the 1920s. Other Prime Ministers in the series are Lloyd George, Gladstone, the Duke of Wellington, Asquith and Disraeli.

A woman and a man stand in front of a black door with a large 10 on it

The two Prime Ministers. Margaret Thatcher was welcomed into a 1797 version of her own home by Jeremy Brett, as William Pitt, on her visit to the specially constructed set of Downing Street.

It was that time scale which caused some headaches for the production team, for Downing Street’s make-up has changed considerably over the past 150 years. For example, at one time there were two pubs in the street which, when it was given to Robert Walpole by the then King, was the centre of a rather poor, rough area. Over the years, buildings have been knocked down or changed as Downing Street developed into the street we know today.

The staff at Number 10 itself could not have been more helpful. Margaret Bottomley, the author Terence Feely, and the designer Roger Andrews were given a conducted tour of the building and considerable help with historical facts. A huge publication called A Survey of London also proved invaluable, and the Department of the Environment supplied numerous photographs and prints. The interior sets of Number 10, reconstructed in Yorkshire’s own studios, were not quite such a problem. The Board of Works have immaculate records of all work done inside the building, the exact cost of every item, and even the colour with which each room was decorated. Of course, certain pieces of well-known furniture – the porter’s chair in the hall for example – had to be specially reproduced.

‘It was a fascinating exercise,’ says Margaret, who, when the project was first given to her, was terrified because history had been one of her weakest school subjects. ‘I’ve become quite interested in history since we began the series, and my head is now full of facts and figures on Number 10.’

 

A man in pince-nez holds a sheet of paper

William Ewart Gladstone (Denis Quilley) working on his policy of Home Rule for Ireland.

 

And the knowledge paid off more than once. A descendant of the Duke of Wellington, reading that the Duke was to be one of the subjects of the series, rang to deny that he had ever lived in Downing Street. ‘It was quite common for Prime Ministers not to live at Number 10 at one time, but we were able to point out that he had done so while his own home, Apsley House, in Piccadilly, London, was being redecorated – and that took over a year.’

 

A film crew at work

Downing Street in the 18th century. A Yorkshire Television film crew shoots a sequence for the episode on Pitt the Younger – ‘Bloodline’.

 

On another occasion, Margaret was in the studio watching an episode being recorded when she noticed ashtrays on the table of the Cabinet Room. She was able to point out that smoking was not allowed in that room until Ramsay MacDonald came into power in 1924!

 

Workmen on set

Putting the final touches to the building of Downing Street in an old underground hangar near Leeds, Yorkshire.

 

Men sit around a boardroom table

Lloyd George (John Stride, left) in a meeting with members of the Admiralty to put forward his plan for a convoy system for the Royal Navy.

 

A man sits at a desk holding a quill as three people look on

The Duke of Wellington (Bernard Archard, seated) writing the letter which resulted in his fighting a duel in Battersea Fields.

 

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