It’s a kind of magic

The romantic Ch�teau de Pierrefonds is enjoying a new lease of life thanks to a hit BBC TV series. Eve Middleton charts the history of the magical castle that has become a big star

Perched on top of an impressive hill overlooking a small corner of Picardy, Ch�teau de Pierrefonds’ hulking presence makes it hard to miss. Originally built at the beginning of the 12th century by the aristocratic Nivelon family, the ch�teau sits on the southeast edge of the forest of Compi�gne, 45 kilometres northeast of Paris. Classified as a monument historique by the French government, it boasts an array of fortified turrets and walls designed to make even the most fearsome knight quake in his chainmail.

It’s not just the authorities who’ve picked up on the ch�teau though – over the past two summers, the small commune of Pierrefonds has played host to an ever-increasing array of set-builders, make-up artists, and cameramen as the BBC set up production for the filming of Merlin, the popular Saturday night family series. With a cast including acting heavyweights Richard Wilson as the court physician Gaius, John Hurt as the voice of the dragon and Anthony Head as King Uther Pendragon, it has done much to raise the profile of Pierrefonds. Younger cast members, including Colin Morgan in the title role of Merlin, Bradley James as Prince Arthur, as well as Katie McGrath as Morgana and Angel Coulby as Gwen, are also part of the dedicated team who set up camp in France for four months of the year.

“The castle really is like another character in the series” explains Morgan. “It’s a fantastic environment to work in, and really helps us as actors. It helps to get you into character – it’s almost like putting on another costume, because it forms an essential part of the version of Camelot that we’re creating”.

Both the exterior and the interior of the castle have been used in filming, with much of the emphasis on seamlessly blending the ch�teau’s unique vantage point and medieval architecture with the show’s major storylines. Fans of Merlin will easily recognise the Disney-style soaring turrets and solid drawbridges from scenes involving even the most minor of characters.

Romantic ruin The history of the castle is as much a draw for tourists as the glamour of its current reincarnation as a film set. Its first purpose as an outward emblem of the nobility of the Nivelon family was soon eclipsed as it passed into the hands of the king Philippe Auguste. The ch�teau was given a new lease of life in 1392 when the Duke of Orl�ans commissioned his brother King Charles VI’s court architect to carry out extensive work. Pierrefonds was partly demolished in the 17th century in a siege undertaken by a rebellious faction led by Henri II, Prince of Cond�. Although it wasn’t completely decimated, it remained in a semi-ruined state until Napol�on bought it for 3,000 francs in 1810. The rediscovery of medieval architecture in the 19th century led to the ch�teau being lauded as a romantic ruin’ – it became popularised through social events, and through the work of the artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, who painted Pierrefonds in several of his works.

Napol�on’s nephew, Louis-Napol�on Bonaparte, later to become Napol�on III, was so enamoured with the ch�teau that he asked the famed architect Eug�ne Viollet-le-Duc to undertake its restoration. As a result Pierrefonds was entirely rebuilt at vast expense to the tax-payer – although the interiors of the castle were Viollet-le-Duc’s interpretation of how the ch�teau ought to have looked, the exterior has been widely praised for its accuracy in portraying military architecture of the 14th century.

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Now open to visitors, the ch�teau has a parapet walk for tourists allowing them to take in the views over the surrounding countryside. The large inner courtyard is accessed by a series of three drawbridges, leading to a number of curiosities inside Pierrefonds. The Salle des Preuses, a former courtroom now serving as a banquet hall, leads through to the leadsmith workshops where, since the 19th century, workmen have taken part in extensive restoration projects. The pieces created by Pierrefonds craftsmen can also be seen on display in the ch�teau, and have previously been displayed at the Exposition Universelle. The reception rooms are also of note – the ceilings of the entrance are decorated with wooden sculptures based on the nature surrounding Pierrefonds.

Central location The ch�teau just north of Paris is also strategically placed between the capital city and the main ports in the north of France. Like many tourists visiting the ch�teau, the cast of Merlin are also eager to explore on their days off.

Katie McGrath, who plays Morgana, the king’s ward, admits that “every trip to Paris starts with sight-seeing intentions, but ends up with us all going from caf� to caf�! The best thing about filming in France, for me, is that we’re all together. It sounds silly, because you think that if you’re all on the same film set then you spend far too much time together as it is. But our time off is precious to us, so we tend to just hang out – I feel that in France the emphasis is more on enjoying the pace of life rather that working at a break-neck speed. The cast has even paid a visit to Disneyland Paris!”

Richard Wilson, best-known for his role as Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave, admits that the Space Mountain rollercoaster was “a dubious pleasure”. “However”, he concedes, “I do enjoy the fact that we are so close to Paris – last time I was there I stayed at H�tel le Bristol and saw a marvellous modern dance production, which was a real treat”.

Since opening its doors to the BBC film crew, the ch�teau has also further expanded its outreach thanks to a new law introduced by President Nicolas Sarkozy. This year the French government agreed that all under-26s resident in France – along with their accompanying teachers if on a school visit – would be granted free admittance to all monuments nationaux. At the end of July this was extended to all members of the European Union under 26, along with their accompanying teachers. Introduced as a measure to expose young people to more diverse areas of culture, the law seems to have worked well – in the four months (April through to July), the number of 18 to 25-year-olds visiting the monuments has increased by 15 per cent. While having an influx of young people running round on set can cause problems – the ch�teau is still open to the public while filming takes place – it’s also an indicator that Merlin is garnering more popularity in France. Since it first hit the French screens in April, the cast has been increasingly recognised in its adopted homeland.

“I had a little boy follow me round the supermarket the other day!” laughs Morgan, “I think there’s something about magic and legends that captures people’s imagination and translates into every culture, regardless of the language”.

As for the cast members, their language skills have required a little polishing. “Marie is in charge of looking after the French supporting artists, and she’s been leaving us notes stuck to random objects so we’ll learn a sentence a day” says Morgan. “My favourite so far is; “Parlez � ma main, je vais dans ma caravane!” (“Talk to the hand, I’m going to my trailer!”).

It’s safe to assume that when he becomes as big a star as the ch�teau, it’s a phrase he’ll need to learn.

FRANCOFILE

Ch�teau de Pierrefonds Rue Viollet-Le-Duc 60350 Pierrefonds Tel: (Fr) 3 44 42 72 72 www.pierrefonds.monumentsnationaux. fr

HOW TO GET THERE By train: If you’re travelling by Eurostar you’re in luck – the train to Compi�gne (the closest station to the ch�teau) takes just 45 minutes from the Eurostar terminal Paris Nord. To get to Pierrefonds from Compi�gne takes another 20 minutes by hire car or by taxi. Standard fares from London to Compi�gne start from �83 return from Rail Europe. Tel: 0844 848 4064, www.raileurope.co.uk

By car: The ch�teau is easily accessible for those driving from any number of the main ports – the journey will take around two and a half hours from Calais or Boulogne.

TOURIST INFORMATION Centre des Monuments Nationaux H�tel de Sully, 62 Rue Saint-Antoine 75186 Paris, Cedex 4 Tel: (Fr) 1 44 61 20 00 www.monuments-nationaux.fr

Comit� D�partemental du Tourisme de l’Oise 19 Rue Pierre Jacoby BP 80822 60008 Beauvais Cedex Tel: (Fr) 3 44 45 82 12 www.oisetourisme.com

Pierrefonds Tourist office Place de l’H�tel de Ville 60350 Pierrefonds Tel: (Fr) 3 44 42 81 44 www.pierrefonds-tourisme.net

RESOURCES Pierrefonds Castle by Robert Dulau (book), €7; ISBN 978-2858222391.