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Image of Timothy Spall stars in Mike Leigh's Mr Turner

Theatre Royal Stratford East in Mr Turner

Date posted: 01.10.2014

Acclaimed British director Mike Leigh is back with Mr Turner - depicting the latter years of the renowned and controversial 19th century artist J.M.W. Turner. The film has already garnered critical acclaim, with Timothy Spall receiving the Palme d'Or Best Actor accolade at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, and Dick Pope taking the special jury prize for the film's cinematography.

Dorothy Atkinson (Call the Midwife), Paul Jesson (Coriolanus), Marion Bailey (Him & Her) and Ruth Sheen (Welcome to the Punch) star alongside Spall.

Unconventional Life and Ways

Timothy Spall as JWM Turner

Loved and loathed in equal measure, Turner was an eccentric artist who found new and unconventional ways to view the world. One scene in the film sees him strap himself on the mast of a ship to paint a snowstorm.

A sometimes anarchic member of the Royal Academy of the Arts, Turner lived a colourful and varied existence socialising with the upper echelons of society one minute, visiting brothels the next.

Picking up with the artist in the latter part of his life, the film shows the profound impact of his father's death, and explores Turner's relationships with various women - including his loyal house keeper Hannah Danby (Atkinson) who remains devoted to the artist despite being exploited by him, and a seaside landlady with whom he moves to Chelsea, where he eventually dies.

A portrait of the artist

In preparation for the role, Timothy Spall was coached in painting by artist Tim Wright. In exchange, the actor posed for the painter and the National Portrait Gallery showed the result as part of this year's BP Portrait Award exhibition. You can still see the painting as part of the BP Portrait Award tour – at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens (4 October, 2014 – 16 November, 2014) and The Scottish National Portrait Gallery (28 November – 12 April, 2015).

The National Portrait Gallery is film friendly. If you're interested in fiming there, contact Matthew Bailey 020 7312 2475. 

Painting the Scene

The auditorium at Theatre Royal Stratford East

A quintessentially 19th Century character, finding the right location was vital to capture the essence of Turner – a task that sometimes proved more challenging than anticipated.

One scene involves Turner visiting a theatre and witnessing a skit parodying his work. Location Manager Henry Woolley needed the perfect setting: a period theatre that was in between plays so it could accommodate filming. Outlining the challenge, Woolley explained the team had to be able to "create our own set", so "a theatre that was dark [ie. didn't have a play running] and allowed us access to the stage was essential". They found the perfect solution at Theatre Royal Stratford East.

"We looked at many theatres, both in London and around the country" said Woolley, explaining how Stratford was chosen. "But it was serendipitous that Stratford was both perfect visually and dark for the period we needed."

Working together

The theatre wasn't just a perfect setting, it was also hugely accommodating to the needs of the production, with Woolley commending the location for its support: "the Theatre really went out of their way to understand what we needed and then to help us find the best possible way of achieving it".

Lee Henderson, General Manager at the Theatre Royal Stratford East was also pleased, "it was a nice surprise to receive a call asking us if we had time to fit them in filming for Mr Turner. We were delighted to accept." Henderson adds "[the] auditorium dates back to the 19th Century and is full of character, so a fitting backdrop for what is sure to be a great film."

Woolley explained that Mike Leigh's "unique way of developing the scene and creating the action on location" could have made things difficult on set, as requirements evolved. But the venue was more than happy to work with this fluid approach, "they even took the request to light the scene using vintage lamps in their stride," recalled Woolley fondly.

History of the Theatre Royal Stratford East

This Victorian community theatre built in 1884 became well-known in the 1950s for the Joan Littlewood theatre workshop productions. Constructed on the site of a wheelwrights' shop, its first production was a revival of Richelieu by Edward Bulver Lytton. 

It is the only surviving example of London Suburban Theatre with its un-cantilevered auditorium supported by columns. It is protected by English Heritage and is Grade II* listed. Features include:

  • Interiors that boast rich Victorian splendour (suitable for period productions)
  • Fully restored auditorium with 460 capacity
  • A completely redeveloped front of house and backstage area (to create Stratford Cultural Quarter) after winning a Heritage Lottery bid in 2001

In 2005 the theatre made history by having the first British Black Musical transfer to the Apollo Theatre in the West End; The Harder They Come. Films that have shot here include Death Defying Acts.

To film at the Theatre contact:

Lee Henderson, General Manager

020 8279 1132 / lhenderson@stratfordeast.com

Mr Turner used the Sarah Bonnell School in Stratford as its Unit Base to service this location.

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