Dr. Laura Hobson: “This is Oxford.”
Detective Inspector Robbie Lewis: “Don’t I bloody know it.”
From “The Quality of Mercy,” Lewis, Season 3, Episode 2
Ian Pearce was the Assistant Location Manager for the ITV mystery series, Lewis, for eighteen episodes, from 2012 to 2015 and for the pilot of Foyle’s War. Pearce has had a long career as a Location Manager for many British films and TV series. Currently he is the Managing Director for the film company Supply 2 Location in Scotland.
Lewis was an off-shoot of the original Inspector Morse TV series, based on the novels of Colin Dexter. Lewis ran from 2006 until 2015 and followed the police investigations in Oxford of Detective Inspector Robbie Lewis played by Kevin Whately, and his partner, Sergeant James Hathaway, played by Laurence Fox.
Few mystery series owed as much as Lewis did to its locations, where crimes were committed and investigated among the staid, historic Oxford colleges—what the poet Matthew Arnold called “that sweet city with her dreaming spires.” I wanted to talk to Ian Pearce about how the series was able to shoot in all the quads and hallways of those colleges. Less seriously, I also wanted to understand how the series was able to capture sunshine in Oxford, something I recall rarely seeing during my years in the city.
The following interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Frederick: Tell me about the filming schedule for “Lewis” and how you managed to film in Oxford in the sunshine.
Ian: Typically we’d do four episodes in a season. Each episode was filmed in a five-week period, and we’d spend one week, usually the third week, in Oxford. In order to take advantage of filming in the colleges, we really needed to incorporate the summer break.
We’d maybe come together in late April to start the prep, read scripts, move into offices, and start developing everything. We’d go out and find the locations and then start shooting around the second week of June. By the time we got to the third week of filming and the first visit to Oxford, we’d be about at the end of exams. And then we’d repeat the process in July, August, and September, all without students. And so by default, we’d get the best of all the summer weather in the show.
Frederick: I take it that the colleges wouldn’t allow you to film while the university was in session. Is that right?
Ian: It would be very difficult when the university was in session to do serious filming. In the summer, the colleges were still booked up with summer study groups and various activities. So the college quads and the town itself were well populated in the background for location filming. You might have hundreds of Chinese or American students visit for a month. Quite a few major films were made there. Every Harry Potter film featured the Oxford colleges in one way or another. One of the main staircases in Hogwarts is actually a staircase in an Oxford college. So in our own filming we had to contend with literally queues of people coming to see that Hogwarts staircase.
Frederick: How does a location manager work?
Ian: Any kind of major production starts with the producers deciding they want to make a story. They’ve found a writer, and they’re happy with the script. They’ve also found a director they want to work with and vice versa. At that point, they need two things: a production designer and very closely associated with that, a location manager. And the reason for that is, the production designer is the one to work with the director and have a view of how to present the script and stay within the budget, because that decides a lot of things.
The location manager reads the script with the production designer and the director. They make a list of, say, the 27 different places in the script. When I read through the script, it’ll say cut to a field with a view of the college in the background. Okay, that’s one place. And then there’s an interior college laboratory. That’s another place.
We used to use a cafe in the same way as in real life. A police officer and his detective sergeant might like to sit at the same pavement cafe and have a coffee, when they could, or have a pint in the pub when they could, and those would be the same places, so they were heavily featured and so we would go back every episode. We tend to go back to the same pub, the same cafe, similar places.
Frederick: I notice you used The Trout Pub fairly often.
Ian: Yes. The Trout was heavily featured. Our producer was Chris Burt, who worked on the Inspector Morse series before Lewis. Chris loved The Trout as a place to go and have a nice meal and a beer or several. Sometimes all the heads of department would go on a bus to visit all the places that we were going to film in Oxford and across West London, and then we’d have dinner at The Trout in the evening after work. So The Trout was quite popular with everyone and certainly featured in lots of episodes. We used to shoot there whenever we could.
Frederick: So once you had the locations, it was your job to make arrangements for their use with the relevant people?
Ian: That’s right. David Kellick was the Location Manager on the series. He and I got to know the infrastructure in the city and the key players in Oxford in order to make something like this happen. So we knew all the bursars [financial administrators] at the main colleges, the Chief of Police, the mayor’s office, the people at the major stores like Blackwell’s Bookshop, and all landlords in the pubs. These people would be a kind of a network or a fabric that we would work with in order to make everything happen. For example, we’d work with the Council and the Traffic Department to help us close roads or move cars on certain days for our logistics. And all those kinds of things would be the way we’d structure the week of filming actually in Oxford.
Frederick: Were there times when you wanted to use a location, and you weren’t allowed for some reason?
Ian: No. David and I were good at working together. He got along with the bursars, who were the key to the colleges, and I was good at getting into places that might have been off-limits. For example, the Bodleian Library built a new library called the Weston Library. It’s an extraordinary piece of architecture. You’re not allowed in. You can’t touch the books. You can’t film. You can’t take photos. I’m not sure they like you to breathe in there. But the director said it would be amazing if we could film in there. So I found our way in. And not only were we the first people to film there, we were the only people to film there. They took some books off the shelf with gloved hands and very carefully. We replaced some of the books. So that in one point, Hathaway reaches up and pulls a book off the shelf, and he would not have been allowed to do that with the real books.
It’s a game, you see. But we managed to get into all those places.“It’s a game, you see. But we managed to get into all those places.”
There was another new building that’s the home of the Mathematical Institute. It’s named after Andrew Wiles, who was famous for solving this 350-year-old math puzzle called Fermat’s Last Theorem in 1994. We were filming the final Lewis episode called “What Lies Tangled.” The director wanted to use that building, and the script called for an explosion in the first floor, blowing out the window frames and kind of blowing the balcony off this new building. I mean, everybody was totally horrified that we were even looking to do this. But again we found a way to negotiate and make it happen. There was funny bit, too. In the background of one of the scenes of that episode, you see a professor walk up to the reception desk. The guy playing the part of that professor was the real Andrew Wiles, who the building was named for.
Frederick: Speaking of famous people in the background, I understand that Colin Dexter, who wrote the Inspector Morse novels, appeared in Lewis.
Ian. That’s right. Actually he was in every episode, a bit like those Alfred Hitchcock cameos. Colin was a quiet, humorous, and very warm person. He would join us on set. He’d have his own kind of director’s chair, and sit with the producer and have a tea. He had a polite kind of friendship with Kevin and the leading artists, because he’d met them many times. His cameos usually involved putting him somewhere with a drink in his hand in the background, but always well placed.
Frederick: Did you have trouble shooting scenes with the public intruding on the set?
Ian: Once we were filming outside a college, and this guy appeared who was actually doing a visitor’s tour of places where “Lewis” was filmed. He came and stood right in the middle of our scene. He was saying, “So now the famous TV series Lewis was filmed here.” I walked up to him and said, “Excuse me, Sir, you’re in our scene right now!” But he was so intent on his tour that he was cross that we were interrupting his tour.
Frederick: When you were shooting a scene, say, in a cafe on Broad Street, are the people in the background extras or just members of the public walking by and driving by?
Ian: We don’t use the word “extras” anymore. They’re supporting artists, or SAs, these days. If we’re in a cafe, the people in the cafe would be SAs. They would be with us, and they would have been appointed by the appropriate agency that would offer them up for that scene. And the people walking immediately outside the windows, up and down the pavement, would be the general public.
When we were filming outside, say, along the river, there’d be people walking on the other side of the river. So we’d tell them, can you just please continue and walk straight through. Don’t stop and look around at the camera and the actors. And people would be just thrilled, and they’d just walk through.
Frederick: I always appreciated the number of times “Lewis” utilized Oxford’s more picturesque buildings and views such as the Radcliffe Camera, the Bridge of Sighs at Hertford College, and views of the college spires from Boars Hill.“As location teams, we were allowed to go to places where no one else goes.”
Ian: As location teams, we were allowed to go to places where no one else goes. We were able to go up on the roof at the Radcliffe Camera multiple times. We’d go there and we’d find a camera position that the director liked. And we do a slow pan across the city or look down at a character in the square. All of those things. Again, the people in charge would make these places available to us because we knew them.
And, while the ordinary shoot was happening, we used to have a little team—two or three people and a camera, and we’d go to Boars Hill and do global views of the city, just a slow pan or whatever.
Frederick: It sounds like Oxford really welcomed you, because Lewis had a good reputation as a TV series and for portraying the city well.
Ian: The colleges certainly enjoyed and wanted the kind of promotion and international screen time that the high-profile TV and movies brought. Oxford colleges need a lot of money, and bursars are tasked with finding ways to get funds to support all the different activities within the university. And filming was definitely part of it. It’s long been standard practice for TV and film companies to pay for the use of locations. But you’re quite right. There was a real love among the bursars and city officials for Lewis.
The Oxford gift shops and bookshops have guides to locations from Morse and Lewis. While we were filming, every day there’d be a handful of people there taking pictures and trying to steal our call sheets [daily filming schedules]. They’d take photos of the cast and crew when they could.
Frederick: Were the interiors shot in Oxford or London?
Ian: Most of them were in London. The weeks we weren’t in Oxford, we’d be in west London, so the crew could all go home at night. We’d often base ourselves in Uxbridge, say, close to the M4 and M25 motorways. We could get away with using an empty bar in Hammersmith, if it was appropriate. We could use a bit of Buckinghamshire or Berkshire, or Slough, Reading, and maybe High Wickham and some of the countryside just northwest of London. Then we’d save everything further afield for the actual trip to Oxford.
Frederick: Did you have interactions with Kevin Whatley and Laurence Fox?
Ian: Absolutely, yeah. I got to know Kevin fairly well over the time. You know, firstly, it’s the amicable hello, the new people on the show kind of thing. Kevin would always be the statesman. As a new location team, he made sure he came over and greeted us and said hello and welcomed us and all those things when we went out on location. By the time we met him, we’d already been at work on the process for maybe nine or ten weeks. And then we got to shoot and spent time with him on the set.
Frederick: What was the atmosphere like with the crew of Lewis?
Ian: We used to stay at the Holiday Inn in Oxford for the week that we were there. And it was a proper week away. We would finish filming at seven, and we’d be back at the hotel by kind of seven-fifteen for most people normally. Maybe a quick shower and a change, and then everybody would congregate in the bar for a beer. And then it was like, “Oh, we’re off there tonight. Are you coming? And we’re off there . . .” The social part of it was quite extraordinary because every night that we were in Oxford, everyone was out somewhere with someone doing something. Various restaurants, bars, nightclubs, live bands. Then we’d gather back at the hotel and keep the bar open until maybe one o’clock and have last orders. And then we’d all be up at half past five, six to get on with the next day.
The team that was running the show were all very senior, very experienced. It was very much a kind of Rolls Royce of a show. And everybody was kind of on the same team and supporting everybody else. A few issues here and there. But generally, that was the shape of things. And we had a very good time together. A lot of laughter. A lot of fun. Proper, old-fashioned making TV on the road. I’ve been involved with various films. Making films these days can be the same, but it’s just tougher. It’s just longer hours and more pressure. And, you know, there’s that side of it, and you can’t escape. And often you’re away from home for long periods of time as opposed to a week. The fact that we were working for five weeks, where for four weeks we were able to go home at night. But the middle week was this week when we used to look forward to the idea of going up to Oxford for a week.
Frederick: Are there any stories or memories you can share?
Ian: There’s one story that happened when we were filming. For this episode, our unit base was at the University Running Track, and we were filming at a boathouse on the river. This boathouse was probably no more than 200 meters from the unit base. But there was no road to the boathouse, and there was a tributary of the river between the boathouse set and the unit base. The other problem was that Oxford has this one-way road system. So we’d have to drive all the way around the city to the other side of town to get to the boathouse. We realized that, to break for lunch, we’d all have to get in our vehicles, drive to the unit base, have a reduced lunch, and travel all the way back to the set. After two days of this, David and I thought, if we had a bridge across that tributary, we could walk to lunch in four minutes. We calculated the time saved would equal a few thousand pounds. So we hired a company that makes these floating pontoon bridges for events. They came in at night and set up a bridge for us across the water.
Then, being a former musician, I made a recording of that famous whistling tune, the “Colonel Bogey March” from The Bridge on the River Kwai. And I sent it to all the crew, and we printed up notices on posts by the side of our bridge. The notices said, we’ve sorted out this bridge to make it easier for everybody to work. But you’re not allowed over the bridge unless you’re whistling.
The lunch break came, and we saw Kevin walking along the path. And the moment he hit the bridge, he just started whistling. The whole crew thought this was a riot, and after that they all whistled across the bridge.
Frederick: Can you tell me about your experience with Foyle’s War?
Ian: I did the beginning, the pilot. We filmed it very similarly to Lewis. Foyle’s War was set in the Hastings, which is a seaside town. We used to stay in Hastings for perhaps four days per episode, a similar kind of structure to “Lewis.” We filmed the bits on the beach and outside Foyle’s house. And the rest of it was filmed in London.
The old part of Hastings is largely Victorian and earlier. Foyle’s house is set up a hill on a corner. It’s quite a beautiful old home, built with curved walls where the property goes around a corner in the road. So you would see Foyle go into his house. And the moment he went in the door, the view you’d see of him inside the house was actually inside a disused warehouse in Chertsey in southwest London. We built the inside of the house in this warehouse. So we never once filmed inside the actual house in Hastings. We filmed outside the house. And that was the same with many of the properties.
The police station in “Foyle’s War” was an old, empty grammar school in Borehamwood near Elstree. The council was going to refurbish it and reopen it some years later. We built the police station inside the school hall—basically four walls, a parquet floor, some corridors, and the reception desk.
It was a fascinating thing to be involved with that show and to see how it was possible to make such a period piece. I got to know Michael Kitchen [who played Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle] during that time as well. Superb actor.
Frederick: What projects have you been working on recently?
Ian: My company, Supply 2 Location Scotland, is the leading supplier of location equipment and services to film and TV in Scotland. We’ve been the main supplier to a number of productions while they’re filming in Scotland, including Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War, Netflix’s Outlaw King, HBO’s Succession, Fast & Furious 9, Fast & Furious: Hobbes & Shaw, No Time To Die [new Bond film], BBC’s Peaky Blinders, Jurassic World, and Pikachu. We also now have offices in the North of the United Kingdom, so we’ve done the new Batman film in Glasgow and Liverpool and the recent The Secret Garden with Colin Firth in York and Newcastle.