From the Clampetts’ Beverly Hills mansion to Lord and Lady Grantham’s pile o’ bricks, a.k.a. Downton Abbey, television has inspired house envy in viewers pretty much since its invention. The newest entry, however, puts them all in their place: the behemoth Baroque estate inhabited by the modern British monarchs of “The Royals,” the first scripted series by E!, already renewed for a second season.
While the show’s plot may raise eyebrows with salacious shenanigans depicting badly behaved princes and princesses (the network emphasized that it’s not based on England’s actual Windsor family), the setting couldn’t be more proper. Serving as the family castle is Blenheim Palace, the opulent 300-year-old Oxfordshire mansion where Winston Churchill was born. Occupied in real life by the Dukes of Marlborough, Blenheim has exorbitant upkeep costs, so like many vast, privately-owned European estates, it throws open its doors to the paying public for private events (weddings and parties) and as a film location (the next James Bond film has been shooting there of late).
“Really, the bottom line for this royal family was to make their surroundings as rich as possible, so Blenheim was an obvious choice,” says production designer Max Gottlieb. “Colors like red and gold play so well on film and there’s quite a lot of it there.”
Gottlieb says a starting point for creating the show’s look came from something his brother once told him. “He was at Buckingham Palace on a tour and there was a particular corridor that a guard pointed to and said, ‘If you went down that hall, I’d have to shoot you.’ For ‘The Royals,’ I absolutely want to take viewers down that hall.”
While the exterior and more palatial areas of Blenheim are authentic (other locations include Greenwich Naval College and Wilton Hall, a grand country house in Salisbury), the private rooms of the series’ sovereignties were created on soundstages near London. Princess Eleanor’s bed chamber reflects her edgy, rebellious nature with antiques that haven’t been treated reverentially. “We took that element of her personality into account — her disregard for the palace’s vintage pieces means that she’d shove them off to the side and put in some new, modern pieces.”
Most of the furnishings come from prop houses, with some pieces bought at vintage stores and the Kempton Park Market, a popular outdoor shopping extravaganza that takes place each Thursday in the town of Sunbury. The wallpaper in Eleanor’s room, a platinum and matte design purchased from a prop house, was given a hazy blue wash. Heir to the throne — and mostly good guy (think Prince Harry) — Prince Liam’s University room sports rich, red walls with a mix of modern and Tudor furnishings. Lecherous Prince Cyrus’ quarters are all paneled wood walls with chesterfield sofas and an always-blazing fireplace. “It’s very much like an old-style English gentleman’s club,” says Gottlieb. “Cyrus is a camp character with a vicious edge, so it’s all a bit too much in a sense.”
The palace’s head of security oversees the goings on from an office in a clock tower, also re-created in a studio. “There’s an actual clock tower at Blenheim, so we used that as an inspiration,” says Gottlieb. “We try to make every detail as real as possible, so his office walls appear to be chiltern stone, a very lovely honey-colored type that you can only find here [in England]. Of course, it’s actually made in a plaster shop and painted by my team!”
The series’ sets are so luxe that it prompts the question: Do the actual royals live this well? Says Gottlieb, “I believe that the actual bedrooms in Buckingham Palace are smaller, but since I’ve never been down THAT corridor, I don’t really know!”
Note: If you want to give your own digs the “Royals” treatment, Sothebys and online auction houses like 1st Dibs can provide authentic, period furnishings, while Horchow has several quirkier takes on the look (gold lion-footed stool with leopard print upholstery, anyone?).
‘The Royals’ airs at 10 p.m. Sundays on E!.