The hit wartime drama filmed in the Midlands returns to our screens this month. Roz Laws caught up with the cast and crew.
The two things really shouldn’t go together.
The top half of the room is all grand chandeliers, vaulted ceilings with beautifully intricate plasterwork and stained glass windows.
So far, so Grade One listed ancestral home. But cast your eyes downward, past the large portraits in oils, and you find rows of hard beds and nurses in 1940s uniforms.
This is how Arbury Hall has been turned back in time for the third series of Land Girls.
The focus of the acclaimed BBC1 series – screened every day next week in the run-up to Armistice Day – has shifted away from farming and towards the fictional Hoxley Manor, home to Lady Ellen, played by Sophie Ward. The house becomes a makeshift military hospital when the real one is bombed.
It’s a little like Downton Abbey, but this is the Second World War, not the first.
As I walk on to the set at Arbury Hall in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, I notice all the authentic period touches. There’s a copy of The Times from May 1943 on the table and original medical equipment like bed pans and coal tar inhalant.
And occupying the beds are soldiers in pyjamas, some of whom have nasty fake injuries, thanks to realistic make-up.
But four of them are really missing arms and legs.
They are here through Amputees in Action, which supplies people for dramas and casualty simulations to train emergency workers.
One is Stephen Bunce, who has previously appeared in the background of Torchwood and Holby City but is now to appear in all five episodes of Land Girls.
Both his legs were cut off below the knee when he was 12 and contracted meningitis.
“It was a life or death situation,” says Stephen, now 24.
“I was in a coma for nearly four months and in hospital for a year. I had the deadly meningococcal bacteria poisoning my blood. They had to amputate my legs to save the rest of my body.
“Originally I was going to lose my arms too, but they worked miracles to save them.
“I was very reluctant at first to try to walk again with false legs, because it was so painful. But then I thought ‘Sod it, I’m not going to sit in this wheelchair forever’, and within a year of the operation I was walking again.”
Looking at Stephen now, it’s almost impossible to spot that he’s wearing false legs.
“Technology is brilliant,” smiles Stephen, who lives in Reading with his girlfriend Leena and their five-year-old son Zak.
“I can walk very well, I can drive a car and do as much as anyone else. People often don’t believe me when I say I’ve got prosthetic limbs.
“They are only NHS legs but they do the job. I have Lycra camouflage covers and a special pair for swimming which my son calls my crocodile legs.”
Producer Ella Kelly says: “We’ve tried to be as realistic as possible, hence the use of amputees.
“We thought we’d give Land Girls a different slant this year to bring in a bit more danger. It’s gone a bit darker as the war is brought home to their doorstep with the bombing.
“For Lady Ellen, the war has been thrust right into her home, as there are injured soldiers everywhere. She has to get her hands dirty, working in the hospital, and not be so zipped up.
“We wanted to use a Lancaster bomber and there are only four left in the world. We had to go to the plane, in Lincolnshire, for a night shoot to film the opening sequence of the first episode.
“It’s very exciting – it starts with a real bang. We blow the budget in the first four minutes!
“There’s a German attack on the airfield and a massive explosion involving a Jeep and a car.”
Filming also takes place at a farm near Henley-in-Arden, in Bretforton village in Worcestershire and at the Black Country Living Museum.
But Arbury Hall has taken centre stage for this series. Famous as the birthplace of Middlemarch author George Eliot, it’s been the home for 450 years of the Newdegate family.
The 5,000-acre estate was actually used as a prisoner of war camp during the war, housing 40,000 prisoners.
It’s currently occupied by James Edward Fitzroy Newdegate, the 4th Viscount Daventry, along with his wife Georgia and their three children.
“They are fantastic,” says Ella. “Lord Daventry loves it and comes to watch us film.
“On the first day I was paranoid about damaging stuff, but we haven’t broken anything, despite having a crane in the Great Hall.”
Actress Becci Gemmell plays land girl Joyce, who becomes a nurse in the hospital and tends her husband John when he’s injured.
“The first episode is pretty full-on, people are coming into Hoxley Manor with horrific injuries because they’ve been bombed,” says the Birmingham-born actress.
“They are pouring with blood and at one point Joyce is holding someone’s leg together. She’s not very good with the gore and starts shaking, but she’s not a total wimp.
“I’m not great with the blood either. I wouldn’t have been able to cope in her situation. All the old medical equipment looks pretty scary, an array of metal with saws and so on. They’re like gardening tools. I don’t know what they are used for and I don’t want to ask!
“Filming next to the Lancaster bomber was incredible. It’s such a massive, imposing structure but when you touch it, it’s just paper. It’s amazing to think there were people up there flying it.”
Next it’s time to meet the lady of the house – for today, at any rate – as Sophie Ward walks into the room.
“Welcome to my small abode!” laughs the 46-year-old. “It’s such a lovely location, it does feel like my home now.
“I love it that more action is taking place at the manor, because quite often in previous series I was here on my own while everyone else was down on the farm.
“With the hospital, Lady Ellen feels like she’s doing something worthwhile. And she has a romantic storyline, as a dashing old flame, Dr Richard Channing – played by Dominic Mafham – arrives unexpectedly.
“She can be a tricky woman but she softens under his attention. She is a snob, which is never endearing, but I like her.”
So what does Sophie think is the appeal of Land Girls?
“It has a very wide audience, from students to pensioners,” she muses. “It’s one of the few things I’ve done that I’m happy for my granny to watch.
“We will never tire of watching programmes about the war, it’s endlessly fascinating.
“It’s nice to wear the clothes from that period. I don’t have to wear a corset, which is a boon, but you stand differently when wearing a nice dress, stockings and heels.
“Normally I slop around in very comfortable jeans and fleeces, which isn’t very Lady Ellen.”
Sophie lives in Gloucestershire with her partner Rena Brannan and her two sons by her former husband.
Her home is not too far from that of her co-star Dominic Mafham, who lives near Evesham with his wife Higgy and their two sons.
Stafford-born Dominic has appeared in Our Mutual Friend, Foyle’s War and Kingdom, but he’s spent a lot of his career playing doctors, from the ITV1 drama Always and Everyone to the Irish hit The Clinic.
“I’ve played a doctor 473 times!” jokes the 43-year-old. “I’ve lost count, but it’s at least half a dozen times. I started off as a junior doctor and I last played a consultant, so I almost feel I know what I’m doing.
“I was out with my children once and one of my boy’s friends fell off a wall and was clutching his ankle. I was doing Always and Everyone at the time. I felt the ankle and said ‘I don’t think it’s broken, it’s fine’. I had no idea.”
Dominic also has some fictional experience of war, having had rave reviews for his part in the First World War play Journey’s End, in the West End and on tour including Malvern.
“Going from that to Land Girls has made this a funny year,” he says.
“In wartime, the contrasts were so extreme. For all the awful things that happened, the country had an incredible sense of identity and positivity.”
* Land Girls is screened every afternoon from Monday on BBC1.