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01 July 2009

A Grand New Episode

Written by Published in Issue 16 - Wisdom Read 2868 times

A complex blend of historic beauty, a difficult past and a bright new vision, there’s more to the Harewood Estate than meets the eye. Its owner, Viscount David Lascelles, is first and foremost a straight-talking Yorkshireman with a passion for film, history and conservation.

Sublime: David, your name is associated with actors Sir Ian McKellen and John Thaw, and you have a BAFTA. How did you get into film?

David Lascelles: Back in 1969 there was no such thing as a media studies course, so I was pretty much self-taught. I studied drama at Bristol University for a while then worked with film groups and film workshops, getting experience in different aspects of film. These were the early days of Channel 4, when they were taking risks on young, inexperienced filmmakers. That’s where I got my first break I guess. Later, working in more mainstream TV, I produced two series of Inspector Morse – the equivalent of producing nine feature length films in two years. We had enormous audiences, up to 15 million. That’s more or less the population of Australia, where the very last episode I produced was filmed.


I loved producing Morse and got to work with some very interesting people: John Thaw of course, but also writers like Anthony Minghella and directors like Danny Boyle. Danny’s been generous enough to say I gave him his big break – not true, he would have made it anyway! Then I was the line producer on Richard III, which was a very ambitious film on a tight budget. Ian McKellen was a producer on it, and did it for a very low fee. It was his good example that meant we got a really great cast, including Robert Downey and Annette Bening, who bought in mainly out of a passion for Shakespeare.


S: Producing Hollywood actors seems a long way from protecting the 4000-acre habitat of Harewood – why the change in direction?

DL: My wife Diane and I made a strategic decision in the 1980’s to instigate a fairly major change to the management structure at Harewood and to become more involved personally. Before that, like many stately homes, it was open to the public, doing OK but run on what you might call an 'informed amateur' basis. We recruited a very experienced museum professional to run the operation, with considerable success. Later, I realised I was becoming disillusioned with the TV industry, finding it a less and less interesting place to work. So when our CEO retired in 2006, rather than rushing to appoint someone, I took on the role for a year. I needed to know the business at a grassroots level and realised quite quickly that, to take Harewood on to the next stage, our new CEO needed to have a business rather than a museum background.


S: Your career change took you from international travel and an urban lifestyle to sleepy, rural England. How is that possible?

DL: The important thing is to keep Harewood alive and current. We keep asking the question 'How do we engage with our audience so that we are relevant today?' Although Harewood is a quintessentially English place, it has cultural traces from all over the world. We try to promote that through our educational programmes, including for example a global trail round the House, showing the origins of some of the objects on display.


S: You are very open in your exhibition and publicity about the slave-trade past of the Harewood Estate. What would you say to people who might dismiss your work on ethical grounds?

DL: The legacy of the slave trade is all around us. It generated wealth for, among others, the Church, the Royal Family, Oxford colleges, the National Gallery and many of our financial institutions. Ignoring it is not helpful. Nor, in my opinion, is apologizing. None of us can do anything to change the past. What is important is to get the information out there and we’re working with the Heritage Lottery Fund and York University to make our archives accessible.


In 2007, the bi-centenary of the abolition of the slave trade, we showed work in Harewood House by contemporary artists responding to that legacy, including Nigerian-born sculptor Sokari Douglas Camp and Barbadian artist/filmmaker Sonia Boyce. We also staged a major musical celebration of Caribbean culture, Geraldine Connor’s Carnival Messiah. Carnival grows out of slavery, a celebration of the end of the harvest, cannes brulees, the burning of the cane, often featuring heavily disguised carnival characters that can be traced back to African roots. Through this show we were able to engage in a very contemporary way with the heritage of slavery and, hopefully, leave a legacy for all of those involved in the show.


S: Conservation of the environment, as well as heritage, is another passion of yours. What is your vision for this aspect of the estate?

DL: Harewood Estate is set in a lovely bit of countryside, which we have sought to bring to life by dramatically changing the management of the land. Measures we’ve put in place to do this have included creating habitats for barn owls, introducing a deer park, initiating organic methods, generating our own energy and replanting hedgerows. We are trying not only to conserve the environment at Harewood, but also to use it as a fantastic platform for best practice.


S: I understand you have a creative way of funding these measures.

DL: The replica Dales village where ITV film their soap opera Emmerdale is on the Harewood Estate. The income we get from that, on top of rent from our residential properties and old agricultural buildings converted into offices, goes straight back into our conservation projects. Looking after Harewood House and the landscape that surrounds it is very important. But its just the starting point. There’s something for everybody here and we must make it sustainable – for the benefit of future generations of both residents and visitors.

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