In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, I speak with my first returning guest, Abbigail Ollive. Head of Marketing, Sales and Programming at Castle Howard, the Stately Home and visitor attraction in North Yorkshire.
“We were really clear with them about our ambitions and the key messages we wanted to communicate by having a year in the life at Castle Howard filmed. It was an opportunity for us to communicate that real conservation aim and the fact we have a conservation deficit, we’re not a charity, it was a really good opportunity for us to communicate where visitors’ admission fees go.”
What will you learn from this podcast?
- What it’s like to film a TV production at a visitor attraction
- Storyboarding, editing and when to give up control of the process
- Abbi’s advice to other attractions thinking about giving it a go
- Peacocks. Trust me – you need to hear this!
To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.
You can also read the full transcript below.
Your host, Kelly Molson
Our guest, Abbigail Ollive
Kelly Molson: I am very excited to have Abbigail Ollive back on the podcast today.
Abbigail Ollive: To be the first returner. It mustn’t have put you off too much first time round.
Kelly Molson: Well, I think it’s more like I didn’t put you off, because you were episode six of season one, which was all the way back in 2019. And I didn’t ask people icebreaker questions then, so you might regret this after this. Who knows? First one, what is the strangest or worst gift that you’ve ever received?
Abbigail Ollive: Last Christmas, my partner basically took Christmas as an opportunity to solve anything I’d been moaning about. So my Christmas presents were things like those little hand warmers, because I’d obviously been complaining that my hands were cold. And I’d been complaining about my drive to work here at Castle Howard in rural North Yorkshire sometimes being a little bit hairy. So my Christmas present was winter tires and a four by four driving experience to try, which at the time I was like, I really would’ve loved a baking experience or a pizza making course or something, and I was pretty grumpy about going.
But it actually turned out to be a really excellent gift and I had a fab time. I feel like I’m qualified now to drive people through a field or through a stream if they need, and I know how to use my ridiculous rural vehicle. So I was a bit grumpy about it, because I was like, it’s very kind but it feels like you really wanted to come and do this.
Kelly Molson: It’s quite thoughtful though, isn’t it? That’s quite a well thought out gift.
Abbigail Ollive: I guess so.
Kelly Molson: He’s been listening. He’s just interpreted it in a slightly more original way than you were expecting.
Abbigail Ollive: See, that sounds very ungrateful, doesn’t it? And I did have a fab time, but I have dropped some hints this year about… I guess I’ve decided to complain about different stuff. In case that gets resolved in a different way.
Kelly Molson: I’m running out of mascara.
Abbigail Ollive: My shoulders are really tense. I think a massage might really help me this year.
Kelly Molson: Like it. Yeah, I’m running out of mascara, if anyone’s listening. I need some of that on my shopping list. Spa day would be excellent. My shoulders feel tense too. I like this subtle hint dropping.
If you could only listen to one album for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Abbigail Ollive: Whenever people ask me like, what’s your taste in music? It’s just very eclectic. And at the minute I am listening on repeat to Self Esteem, who I think is just amazing. I don’t know if you are at all familiar with her. She’s called Rebecca, she’s from Rotherham, where my dad is from. I don’t think many pop stars have come out of Rotherham, South Yorkshire. But give her album a listen.
We saw her at a festival when she was quite up and coming, and she’s just done Jools Holland and is now on a bigger tour next year. We booked again to see her. And it’s just hugely empowering. I think for younger women, teenagers kind of finding their way through what can be quite a complex time, I just think her lyrics and her whole approach to empowerment is really, really inspiring.
I don’t know whether that’d be the one I’d listened to forever, but it is on repeat in my car on my journey to work constantly at the moment. And that’s my top tip I think. Give her a listen. She’s very cool.
Kelly Molson: Did you combine that album with the off-road driving as well at the weekend to give you a little bit of an extra boost?
Abbigail Ollive: No, I think maybe empowerment but, yes. Women driving through fields in pickups.
Kelly Molson: Awesome. Good response. Okay, final one. If you could bring back any fashion trend, what would it be?
Abbigail Ollive: I think I was meant to be in the 1950s. I think that kind of grease styling is… I’d love to just look like that every day, really, if I could get away with it and if I had time to properly do my hair in rollers and all of that jazz. I think that’s the period I’d probably go back to and I think be quite into, that sort of retro 50s. Really bright. I like the bright, vibrant… I’d happily drive an American pink Cadillac through the country roads of North Yorkshire.
Kelly Molson: I remember this about you. You’re all about colour. I do remember this about you when we met in person. You love a colour and you love a patterned dress, an excellently patterned dress.
Abbigail Ollive: Yeah, I do. And I wish I could suit a hat better. Some people are like… My brother’s always in a very cool hat, but I just don’t suit it. I think it’s the fringe. The fringe, glasses, hat combo is one I can’t pull off.
Kelly Molson: Fringe with a wooly hat is really difficult, isn’t it? Because it just pushes it down into your eyes. I’d like to be a hat person as well. I feel like people that wear hats, they just exude confidence. Do you know what I mean? Just have that… They walk with confidence. They walk high with a hat on. I’d quite like that too.
That’s good choices. All right, what about your unpopular opinion, Abbi, because we’ve never had one of these from you.
Abbigail Ollive: No, we haven’t. And I’m sure I’ve got plenty I could share, I mean, my initial instinct with this was, I would never be upset if I didn’t ever hear an Oasis song again, but that’s not the one I’m going to go with. Sorry.
It’s a podcast related one. I thought I’d be topical. I really hate comedians on podcasts. I just can’t be doing with all the trying to be funny and all the chat in between what it is they’re actually meant to be talking about. I love the foodie podcast, but I just want them to cut to the chase and I want to hear somebody talk about something they’re knowledgeable about. Maybe I just don’t really comedians in general, but on a podcast that’s my unpopular opinion.
Kelly Molson: Do you think it’s because they’re trying a bit too hard because that’s their job and they’re trying to… If a supplier comes on and they’re trying to plug their thing, they’re trying to plug their I’m funny, really?
Abbigail Ollive: I think it’s just like… I was going to try and not name names, but I’m quite a foodie and I like a foodie podcast and I think maybe I’ve realised that actually I want to hear about the food and not all the chat that surrounds it. So yeah, comedians on podcasts.
Kelly Molson: All right, good one. Glad I’m not funny or I’d be right out.
Abbigail Ollive: Well, I’m not either, so we’ll have no comedy. We’ll just get the questions.
Kelly Molson: That’s it. We’re done now. We’re done with anything humorous for the rest of the episode. Excellent. Thanks for setting the tone.
Abbi, just for our listeners that don’t know of you, I’m sure there’s not many, tell us a little bit about who you are, what you do.
Abbigail Ollive: I at the moment am very fortunate to be kind of running the visitor attraction side of things at Castle Howard. So anybody who hasn’t heard of Castle Howard, Castle Howard is a stately home in North Yorkshire. It was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in 1699, so it’s a historic house open as a visitor attraction, but also sits within a 9,000 acre estate. It’s still home to the Howard family, they are directly my line managers, and Castle Howard’s opened 364 days a year as an attraction.
But I think it’s also a really interesting place. I arrived here knowing that I was coming to be involved in a visitor attraction, but I think maybe it was more of a pleasant surprise that we’re actually foresters and farmers and we have a holiday park and holiday cottages and a farm shop and a garden centre and all the catering and retail outlets as well.
I think in total it’s nine different businesses, and my role kind of heads up marketing and events and programming and sales and that kind of visitor experience side of things. I’m not actually being asked to be responsible for the farming and forestry, you’ll be relieved to hear, but it’s also just unlocks so many stories that as a marketer at heart, I guess, is really exciting on a daily basis.
We’re not a charity, so all the income generated by footfall and visitors paying for an admission ticket goes directly into the restoration and heritage of the building and the listed landscape.
I’ve been here for just over five years, so I’m just in the middle of Christmas number six. It’s a joyous time to be at a place like Castle Howard, when it’s all decked out for Christmas and we’re welcoming literally thousands of visitors a day over this festive season.
Big day today. It’s a kind of rainy, North Yorkshire, midweek day, but we’ve got 11 coaches here and they’re all having a fabulous time. And I’ve just had a message saying, “can someone come and help with the Queues in the bauble emporium?” So that’s the kind of thing that can occur on an hourly basis.
But yeah, I’m Yorkshire, so I haven’t actually moved very far. Not deliberately, but just because stuff’s come up here, and it’s a gorgeous place in the world to be. I’ve got a little boy, so living in the countryside and having quite an outdoorsy life really suits us. My background’s in theatre, but theatre marketing and comms, so did 10 years in theatre before moving across into visitor attractions, which is just a theatre of a different kind, I think.
Kelly Molson: It is. It’s a show, isn’t it? You’re creating a theatre for people that come and visit. And that leads us a little bit to what we’re going to talk about today, really, a show of a slightly different kind.
I think there’s been a bit of a run of programs like this. I’m talking about programs like the Secret Life of the Zoo at Chester Zoo, Inside the Zoo, Edinburgh Zoo. There’s been quite a lot of zoo related TV programs on recently that give you a bit of a snapshot of behind the scenes. I think One Zoo Three was the other one from Paradise Wildlife Park. But you have been involved in shooting a TV program for Channel 4, called Castle Howard: Through the Seasons. Tell us a little bit about what the TV series is, and then tell us what on earth made you decide to be part of a TV program.
Abbigail Ollive: I suppose dialing back a little bit from the TV show we’ve just been making this year is… I guess Castle Howard’s one of the original screen tourism destinations and has been in some pretty iconic period dramas. It’s very well known as Brideshead Revisited, both the 1981 Granada TV show and then the later movie in 2008. And we had our Bridgerton moment, so series one, episode six, or episode sex, as most people know it in Bridgerton, was all films here at Castle Howard. And I could definitely tell you plenty of stories from that few weeks of my life that I’ll never forget.
But I think we’re kind of used to being a location, and Castle Howard plays its own part in a period drama. It’s almost a character in its own rights, and we’ve been in plenty of them. And we’ve also filmed the Arctic Monkeys music video here from their most recent album, and we’ve also played host to an American TV reality show, which was… I describe it as kind of Love Island with a Regency twist, which recently someone said should be the name of a cocktail, which I [inaudible 00:11:57]. That was an American reality TV show.
But I think it’s the first time then that we’ve actually considered seriously and gone ahead with us being the subject of what is being filmed, and I think that’s the big difference really for us with an observational documentary or, ob doc, as it’s known in the business.
Abbigail Ollive: There were a few things really that made us decide to go ahead with that, and you’ve mentioned already a couple of those really reassuring series that happened, mostly zoo related, that made us feel like actually there’s a real warmth and positivity to how they’re not trying to stitch you up, they’re trying to tell a really positive story about your people and your attraction.
I think that’s maybe changed over the last few years. So we’d seen Chatsworth go first really, they opened their doors and did a year in the life at Chatsworth, and that actually ended up being during the pandemic, so it was a very unusual year in the life of Chatsworth, in that a lot of the time it was during lockdown. But even through that challenging period of time, when we watched it as viewers, we could see that that team had really taken a lot of care to tell Chatsworth stories and to be really respectful and positive about the whole estate.
I think that that was a huge reassurance for us. I think in the past I’ve had loads of filming inquiries over my time here and we’ve really avoided the sort of fly on the wall documentaries. I think there’s been a general perception and nervousness that they want to stitch you up. And also, for me, the format only really works if you have the buy-in and the involvement of Nick and Vicky Howard, who are the custodians of this place, and have them authentically involved. And I think they had seen in years gone by maybe some not so positive examples and that had put them off the idea.
I think we started talking to the ITN team who’d been working with Chatsworth during the pandemic, and it was a real slow burn. It was about building that relationship and having meetings with them, them getting to know me and the Howards, and talking really about what the stories were that we wanted to tell.
They came to us originally as part of their Christmas series they were doing, so last year when we had Narnia as our Christmas theme, they made a four part series across four different houses and we were one of those, so it was a more intensive Christmas at Castle Howard experience first off, and that’s been quite different to then them coming back and being here all year.
Abbigail Ollive: But I think it’s definitely, I’d say, we said no quite a lot before eventually we said maybe, and then over the course of probably a year of meetings and building trust and really bottoming out what we all want to get out of it, we eventually said yes. And I think in that time as well we’d seen things released like Secret Life at the Zoo.
I think our other main concern or nervousness about saying yes was we were sort of waiting for a vintage year at Castle Howard. We knew that coming out of the pandemic, everything’s been challenging and difficult and we felt like, maybe next year or in a couple years time we’ll be doing a really big significant bit of restoration to a monument or we’ve got plans to reinstate some of our burnt out rooms after the fire that Castle Howard suffered during the war.
I think we felt like there’s going to be a big story to tell, and we better hold off for that moment in Castle Howard’s history before we let the TV cameras in. And I think actually what changed that was the pandemic and thinking, well, actually, in any kind of normal or abnormal year we have amazing people, we have amazing stories to tell. Sometimes it’s those smaller stories of truly getting under the skin of the life in a country estate like this that viewers will ultimately really enjoy. So we stopped holding off for that perfect moment and went for it.
Kelly Molson: It’s interesting though, because you’re thinking about, I guess, once you agree to go ahead with something like this, you are thinking constantly about, how entertaining is this actually going to be? Is just our day to day stuff that goes on all the time, is that enough for people? Are they going to actually tune in and watch it? And how is that going to… I guess there’s a thought all the time about how we’re going to be portrayed and how will that come across. So if you hold out for this room needs renovation or looking after, that gives you a focus that will detract from just some of the normal stuff that would be happening.
Abbigail Ollive: We actually started with ITN and Channel 4 in 2020, and we were trying to pull off a Christmas in the middle of COVID. When the tiering system and all that business came in, we couldn’t go ahead, like many attractions and houses. So we started making a TV program about… I was billed on this…
I was definitely shown as head of saving Christmas, and then we had to cancel it, so we canceled the whole thing and we took the difficult decision that it wasn’t going to be the show we wanted it to be. We mutually agreed, really, to pull out of that, because we didn’t want a show about trying to make a big Christmas happen and then the government saying, “You’re in the wrong tier, you can’t open,” and a show about how disappointing that was. So we took that decision.
Actually, that was a gamble at the time because I thought maybe that would be that done, really, but they agreed to come back the following year and make Christmas in Narnia as a documentary. I think it’s definitely had its ups and downs over quite a period of time. So, again, that build of trust and them getting to know us during the year that didn’t happen. I think they saw enough potential to think, actually, we’ll come back and go again. But all of that’s really challenging when they and us have put budget and resource into a whole period of filming that we then pull the plug on.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, of course. And by no fault of your own. Actually, there was nothing that you really could do about it. You made the right decision at the time.
I guess I just want to step back a little bit, because you said that you… I can’t remember if you said that you were approached by them or if you approached them to talk about it, and how do you work out what the focus of the TV show will be about?
Abbigail Ollive: I’d been approached by quite a number of observational documentary companies, and I’d met with quite a few, and it was this exec producer who’d been working with Chatsworth, and we’d seen a bit of what they’d done at Chatsworth, that made us agree and further that conversation with this particular production company, which is ITN for Channel 4.
We’ve been approached a lot, and continue to be, actually, and I think, like you said, at the beginning, there’s a real rise, isn’t there, in these sort of observational documentaries at places within the visitor attractions sector. So we didn’t actively go out to try and do this, I suppose we were courted and approached and took a little bit of persuading.
Kelly Molson: I guess everyone that’s going to be part of this has to be really comfortable with being on camera, right, because they’re going to be recording for a whole year at your venue, so you’ve got to get used to people being around, you’ve got to be able to run your events around while all this filming is happening as well. So it’s not a quick decision to make at all by any means.
Abbigail Ollive: No, there’s a lot to think about, actually. And I think we made sure we’d properly thought about that and met and bashed a lot of that out internally before we started. I think the things that made us most nervous were around control and editorial control and how much of that you just have to relinquish and how much we would be allowed to input into the storytelling and storyboarding. I think there was that, but also the ability for us to resource it.
Like you’ve said, it’s no small thing to take on. We’re quite a small team, we’re still doing everything we need to do in a normal year, pulling off big events and big projects, and having a film crew with you three to four days a week every week of pretty much a year, is quite intense.
I think what we tried to do to overcome that was before anybody had a camera put in front of them, we tried to do a really good amount of kickoff meetings with all stakeholders, with the producers. We were really, really clear with them about our ambitions and the key messages we wanted to communicate by having a year in the life at Castle Howard filmed. It was an opportunity for us to communicate that real conservation aim and the fact we have a conservation deficit, we’re not a charity, it was a really good opportunity for us to communicate where visitors’ admission fees go.
It’s really powerful to actually see somebody restoring a chimney or repainting windows, and understand what resource has to go into that. And that’s across the board, across the whole estate. So I think sometimes that’s hard to communicate, actually, with visitors, but having this mass market platform to do that.
We were really, really clear about what we wanted to get out of it and what actually goes into running a rural estate and managing that in the 21st century coming out of the pandemic with all the wider world landscape going on as well around us. That was really important, actually, that we felt respected and like the TV crew and their producers understood what we wanted to get out of it. I think that’s really helped throughout the whole year, that they can go, “This scene that we’re filming now, that really relates and helps tell that story from your objectives.” So yeah, that was certainly helpful.
Kelly Molson: That’s great, isn’t it? That they’re so aligned with your objectives that they’re actually highlighting things that reference back to them as you’re shooting. Because sometimes you might think that gets discussed at the top and then it gets parked and then we might not think about that again until it gets to the editing stage and by that point there’s so much content, how are they going to really get the message across that we want them to? And I guess that comes forward to one of the questions about that content and the editing process and how much of that were you involved in as you go through the filming.
You’ve had those initial conversations about objectives, but were there any times where something was happening and they were shooting, and in your head you’re watching this thing unfold in front of you going, “This cannot go out on telly, and they’re really going to want this to go out on telly and that’s not going to happen at all”?
Abbigail Ollive: That has changed throughout the year. We’ve all learned a lot as the year has progressed. We started very structured and I planned out everything to within an inch of its life. For last Christmas I kind of diarised everything the film crew were going to be attending, made sure we had pre-meetings with everybody involved, made sure departments were all on board and had key messages and understood what we were trying to get out of every scene. I pretty much storyboarded the whole episode, and I remember the producer saying to me, “We don’t normally get quite this level of input from the team on the ground.”
I think I’m just a bit of a control freak, because I can’t have people just wandering around with a camera, who knows what they’ll discover. But actually I think what I quickly discovered is that that doesn’t always make the best TV, and they’re experts, they’re really good at what they do, and I just needed to learn to trust that we were all actually aiming for the same outcome. They weren’t trying to sneak around and find stuff that I didn’t want to be filmed.
Actually, as the year’s gone on, I think by the time we got to the Christmas episode, which they only left last week and are busy editing that now to turn it around, they knew the Castle Howard team so well and our team knew the Channel 4 team so well and are so used to them being around, it just has needed a lot less input from me and my team. They really had a sense of workflows around who’s responsible for what. They felt like an extension of our team as the year has gone on and we’ve really built that trust, so I had no issue then with them kind of going off and filming something happening without me being present, because I’d learned to really trust them. I can’t really do this chat without mentioning Peacockgate.
Kelly Molson: Please.
Abbigail Ollive: I think that’s an example really early on where it was a day where on my schedule we were having a historic paint specialist scraping off layers of the paint on Castle Howard’s windows to try and discover what the original amber colour would be, because we’re now in the process of repainting all of the external woodwork, which needed doing, and white paint didn’t actually exist then and so was never the colour that Castle Howard would’ve been painted on the windows and woodwork.
We had this amazing guy doing his historical paint scraping, which is what I had the Channel 4 crew focused on, because I thought that would make a very interesting restoration story. And then got the call from World War III that appeared to be kicking off in the car park because it was breeding season for our peacocks. We’ve got about 20 peacocks on the estate and, well, we think there was a male interloper to our peacock gang.
I don’t know where he came from, but this male peacock was very rowdy and very randy, and was seeing his reflection in cars, so in the visitor car park. Any kind of car, especially if it was a dark colour or blue and was clean. So luckily my car was always very safe, it’s never clean. It was seeing its reflection and trying to attack what it thought was a rival peacock.
Abbigail Ollive: I’ve got the person who looks after our security on high alert trying to basically chase a peacock out of the car park, and people very concerned that both staff cars and visitor cars were going to get damaged. So this was all kicking off and I was like, “Right, everybody keep the Channel 4 team focused on the windows. Do not let them come anywhere near what’s occurring up here.” Because I could see our head garden running around with what can only be described as a giant butterfly net, like something a Victorian explorer, trying to literally catch and net a peacock.
Anyway, it escalated fairly quickly and the peacock got onto one of our staff cars and smashed in the back windscreen. So it became actually not that funny quite quickly, because then we were suddenly into a really difficult scenario. The person involved was very upset, as you can imagine, and from an animal welfare point of view we didn’t want to do anything to the peacock that… T
his is during visitor opening hours and, of course, on the day where we had the Rolls Royce Society coming on a trip. So we then suddenly had to pull off people from various parts of the attraction to go and be Rolls Royce security. They didn’t even notice the peacock, they thought we were giving them such an amazing service, they were delighted. They couldn’t believe the amount of security we have in our car park.
Abbigail Ollive: So, all this was kicking off, and we had a couple of emergency senior management meetings assembled that day to decide what ultimately the different options were. And in this meeting we discussed what should we do about the Channel 4 film crew, and everybody’s instinct was, we’re now involved with insurers, the insurers are saying, “It’s a wild animal, so we can’t really help you.” But we’d just put on social media in National Gardening Week the week before that the head gardener has names for all the peacocks and has hand reared them, so there was kind of an insurance argument going on.
We love the peacocks, and visitors absolutely love the peacocks, and they make Castle Howard really unique, so it’s really difficult when you’ve told that story.
It was like Jurassic Park, I’m not joking. It was absolutely carnage. All the peacocks then got wind of the fact that someone was trying to catch one of the crew and they started… There’s a video from inside the main house, which Nick Howard took, of them all lined up on the windows pecking the glass. And I was thinking, they’re now going to actually smash in the windows. They just went feral.
But in this meeting we had this big debate then. This is all quite unusual, I guess, maybe not on a Tuesday in whatever it was, April, May. And I brought it up in this meeting, I said, “What are we going to do about Channel 4? We’re not going to be able to keep this secret, really. We have to decide whether it’s something we’re happy to let them film and cover, what’s it’s reality, it’s what’s going on.”
And Vicky Howard, to her credit, she said, “I think it’s going to make excellent TV. If you’re doing a year in the life at Castle Howard, you want to show some of the slightly more quirky things that go on.” And it was reality, it was what was happening. So we made the call to their exec producer and explained what was going on, and then obviously you won’t be surprised to hear in episode one, which was aired week before last, the historic restoration of the windows does not make the cut, but the whole story of the peacock, which went from the sublime to the ridiculous over the next few days, does make the cut, and we’ve now got peacock merchandise in the gift shop for Christmas, and he’s famous.
Kelly Molson: You capitalised on every element. I love it.
Abbigail Ollive: Yeah, we have. I think that’s a good example. You’ve asked how… At the point where we go, I think we need to relinquish control. I can’t storyboard this within an inch of its life. I can’t actually control everything I want them to film. And this is going to make great TV.
Kelly Molson: I mean, it makes great TV, but it also makes a great talk. I’m not going to lie listeners, I have heard this story before and I had to go on to speak after Abbi shared this with the room, so you can imagine just how my talk bummed the room. Outdone by a peacock. Thank you.
Abbigail Ollive: I didn’t think we were doing Secret life of the Zoo here, but as it turned out.
Kelly Molson: Who knew? It’s a brilliant story. I think what you said is, you just at some point have to relinquish control, because it is going to make good telly. It’s a bonkers thing that happened that day, you had no way of… There was no part of planning that that was going to happen. It wasn’t a normal thing that happens every day. Yes, you’ve got peacocks, but they don’t normally go feral and start smashing up cars. What could have made for a better TV moment than that?
Other than Peacockgate, is there anything else that surprised you about the process of the filming?
Abbigail Ollive: Maybe that the people you think are going to be great characters sometimes aren’t, and those who are really reluctant to feature and would naturally run a mile if you try to put them in front of a TV camera, often make the best TV. I think finding your stars and the really authentic people who are incredibly passionate about what they do. And in a place like Castle Howard those are people around every corner, people who are been working here for four generations and have amazing passion and connection with the place. And then those people who have really unusual skills, like my paint specialist, or people who are just doing incredibly niche things.
I think it’s not hard to find the stories, but I think it was that, really. There were people who I was trying to navigate the cameras away from and then there was really willing people who… I put myself in that category, I didn’t mind at all being on film, but I think I just come across as a Blue Peter presenter, and actually there are funnier, more authentic, lovely people shining through on the series that we had to coerce a little bit more into being involved.
I think that, again, it all comes back to the thing I said earlier about building trust. Our producers had a really good instinct for that. I think they managed really skillfully to get under the skin of the organisation, and by relinquishing control a bit and letting them do what they do really well and trusting their judgment, they ended up putting some of our people and scenarios and stories on TV that I definitely wouldn’t have storyboarded, I don’t think.
Kelly Molson: I guess we talked about editing and control and stuff and relinquishing that a little bit earlier, but the series is out now, we’ll give everyone the dates and we’ll tell them where they can find it in a little while, but did you get the opportunity to watch it before it’s been out live for people?
Abbigail Ollive: It was a really small team of us who had a low res proof and we were allowed to, within the contract, check all of the facts and also have an opinion and push back on anything we thought might be reputationally damaging. And actually we changed a few facts and corrected people on some stuff. But I think we’ve been really pleased, actually, with the way in which it was edited and we haven’t pushed back all that much.
I think being able to watch it and absorb it a couple of times before giving the sign off, has been a really helpful layer. There were no massive surprises then when it’s aired to a million people on TV, because there’s already been a layer of fact checking. For me, that’s about making sure people’s job titles are correct or they’re referred to in the right way. I don’t want someone to have put a lot of time and effort into a filming sequence and then be called the wrong thing or credited in the wrong way, so I had that layer of editorial input. But ultimately what ends up in and what ends up not in is totally up to them.
I think that’s just one of the learnings, really. It’s about managing people’s expectations. The dog festival we do every year is a good example. We spent a whole weekend, and actually the weeks leading up to it, covering that as a story and lots of filming, lots of people being asked to do bits on camera and the various suppliers and providers we had at that big event, and it didn’t make the cut at all. It’s just because if they’re here for the whole year, they decide, probably because of the peacock, actually, but they decide what flows in terms of their narrative, and we have to just manage people’s expectations in that. Helpful for me to see it, so I can also do that, because I don’t want everyone sat at home on a Saturday night watching for their bit and me knowing it’s not in there.
Kelly Molson: God, can you imagine? So you imagine that your paint history guy ready for his big moment, and then the peacock takes over. Yeah, that’s an awful.
Abbigail Ollive: I think internal communication, and I’m sort spending a lot of time, or have spent a lot of time, persuading people to be involved in filming, and then I have to do the bit of time explaining to people that, thanks for going above and beyond to organise that thing so we could film it, actually it’s now not in the show.
But I think one of the other things that it’s maybe, I don’t know if it’s a surprise or not, but Castle Howard and a year in the life here is a microcosm for what’s happening in the real world. And one of the other things we discussed quite a bit off camera as a senior team was how much we sugarcoat our narrative and want to look amazing and brilliant and positive, and in the end we decided it’s better to be really transparent. You see our senior management team then in meetings with the cameras in the room, talking about how visitor numbers haven’t been what we forecasted over the summer and cost of living crisis and the things that are happening in the real world.
Because I think the risk was that people would maybe watch this and think, “Well, they’ve got no grip on reality and what the challenges are that people are facing.” So I think we had to just be very authentic and real.
Abbigail Ollive: And we did debate that quite a lot, actually, because it’s perhaps a slightly more exposing or brave thing to go, “Well, yeah, come into the senior management meeting, we’re going to discuss the figures, we’re going to discuss the reforecast. This is why we think numbers have perhaps dropped off. This is what we’re going to do about it.” And I think, hopefully, that gives viewers the sense of what goes into the running of the business.
You see our, amazingly, they agreed to be filmed, you see our Ukrainian refugee family arriving in an estate cottage next week on the autumn episode, and it reflects what’s happening on the estate here is what’s happening in the rest of the world. And unbelievably as well, some of it’s, like you said, some of it’s luck and you couldn’t plan exactly where the cameras were going to be at what point, but they were filming a senior management meeting at the moment where the announcement came through of the Queen’s death, so they film the reaction to that as it’s happening. And that could have happened at 10:00 at night when nobody was even in the building.
Some of it is luck and a lot is planned, but it really is a reflection, I think, on the mood of the nation and what else is happening in the wider sector and political landscape and everything else. So I think, again, how I approached it was, we’ve got all these great stories to tell and this is who I want in it and what I want to feature, but actually as life happens and as the year progressed, you couldn’t have planned half the things that have ended up in the show.
Kelly Molson: No, not at all. But it does give it that authenticity about this is real, this is actually happening and this is our lives. It’s not just a TV show.
One thing that struck me, actually, was, when I was watching, there was a moment where one of the senior management teams said, “Look, I think we rule out the fact that overseas visitors are not coming. That’s it.” And it really made me think back about the last time you came on the podcast, which was in 2019, and when you came on then it was talking about the love affair that Castle Howard has with China and the amount of visitors that were driving through from a famous wedding that you’d had at the castle. And I just thought that is a complete and utter contrast, isn’t it, to the things that we are now talking about now and that process and that experience that you’ve been through to get to this point.
Abbigail Ollive: Because some of those foundations that we’ve really relied upon in terms of generating income, like our Chinese market, when that rug’s pulled from under you, I think it’s made us be maybe a bit more brave and risk taking in grasping opportunities that maybe we wouldn’t have done in 2019.
And I’d say this filming project is one of those, I absolutely put that in the category. We’re in a position where we know some of those income streams aren’t coming back, so putting ourselves in front of a huge audience and grasping that PR opportunity this year, I think is a direct result of how the world’s changed in the last couple of years.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, for sure. So, reflecting on the experience that you’ve been through, and it has literally just finished, you said that that they’re now hastily editing the Christmas episode to go out soon, or winter episode, what advice would you give to other attractions that are thinking maybe we’ll do it, maybe we’ll start to have those conversations?
Abbigail Ollive: Hopefully got a few nuggets. And also really happy to talk to anybody who is in the process of going into this, having now had some lived experience of it. But I think if you’re open to filming in the first place, having clear contact details on the website. For location filming, and obviously this kind of thing as well, we produced a filming brochure, which is a PDF and a physical brochure, to kind of sell Castle Howard. Whilst this observational documentary obviously came to us as an opportunity, we’re actively trying to sell ourselves as a filming location.
I think reaching out to… If you’ve watched a program and you’ve really loved it, there’s always credits at the end and you can kind of say, “Well, that’s a really good example of something I’d love to replicate in my own workplace,” and tracking down those people and setting up meetings and chats.
Obviously we’re part of the treasure houses group, there’s 10 treasure houses that are privately owned stately homes in the country and we do a lot as a collective. We’re attending a filming exhibition in London together called Focus in a couple of weeks time, and, as a group, making sure we’re in those places, meeting the location managers, meeting the people in the industry, starting to form those relationships.
The Christmas series this year that Channel 4 are doing, again, it features of the treasure houses and different ones to last year, so we’re a repeat, I guess, in that it’s winter for us, it’s not necessarily just about Christmas. But then you’ll see [inaudible 00:41:26] and Holkham as well. And Holkham were kind of going at it second time round, and Harewood for the first time.
Abbigail Ollive: We’ve shared a lot of knowledge and talked a lot really about how we’ve approached it. And I’ve been a real advocate for it. I’ve encouraged those other houses, sorry, they might hate me for it now, to go for it, because we’d had such a positive experience last year with the team filming. I can vouch for the fact that they want to work with us and we’re all pulling in the same direction.
I think for us as well, my other bits of advice are, maximising the opportunity once it’s happened. So making sure SEOs all working really hard for you. Making sure as soon as… We had to basically open all those doors to our website, because when a million people are watching you on Channel 4 on a Saturday night, we didn’t want the website crashing. We wanted really clear calls to action about booking for Christmas and booking the cottages and campsite. Anything we can sell. When there’s that opportunity of that many people Googling you, we wanted to make sure we were ready for it.
We were also really aware that a lot of the people watching the TV show wouldn’t necessarily be in the area or region and could just buy an admission ticket. We hope when the Christmas show goes out on the 3rd of December it will sell any final tickets remaining. It certainly did last year, but we’ve decided this year to do a virtual experience that people can buy, so we’ll probably have that on sale to coordinate with the Christmas TV show going out. So for those people who are overseas or who can’t get to Castle Howard this Christmas, there’ll be a virtual tour, obviously inspired by places like London Transport Museum, who do their Hidden London tours, and plenty of theatre events do similar and do it really well.
And then for us, maximising the press and PR opportunities that come out of the exposure. And then my other advice is the boring stuff, really. Making sure everything is covered from insurance and how we protect our assets. Having really clear guidelines for when the film crew’s in the house, what they are and aren’t permitted to do. Having all those access arrangements and risk assessments all agreed up front.
Abbigail Ollive: So there’s a leak on the roof, of course the film crew are going to want to be up on the roof at the moment when that happens, and you haven’t got time to go through the whole process of doing a risk assessment and talking about insurance at that point. So it’s kind of trying to think about all the scenarios up front and making sure all of that paperwork was done. So that’s the boring stuff.
And then communication, just communication, communication, you can’t over communicate it. I found people get really grumpy if you turn up with a TV crew whilst they’re busy in the middle of something highly important or some kind of high risk job, and I’m like, “Could we film you?” It generally doesn’t go down brilliantly, so I’ve been an absolute stuck record in every meeting I’ve been in this year where I’ve been asking, “Can Channel 4 film it? Can Channel 4 film it?”
And then making sure people are wearing something appropriate if I know people are going in to film them, like properly branded uniforms, and just giving people a heads up so they know that it’s likely they’re doing a thing as part of their day and I’m going to be along with a TV crew.
But actually what’s happened then is as the year has progressed, people have come forward more and more with opportunities. So people start letting me know, “We’re doing a acorn picking,” was one thing. I would never have known there was an acorn picking initiative going on in the forestry department. So people have been coming forward to me, and I’ve now got this brilliant content army of people letting me know what’s going on in their week ahead, and they’re actively thinking all the time, “This might make a great story for the TV.” So I think you can’t over communicate stuff.
And then the final thing, which has been my mantra, it’s absolutely obvious, but if you don’t say it on camera, they can’t put it on TV.
Kelly Molson: Such simple advice.
Abbigail Ollive: Simple advice.
Kelly Molson: Abbi, this is going to be one of my favourite podcast episodes ever. You are always so generous with the advice that you give and the support that you give to the sector. So thank you for saying that you will help people and you’re happy to talk to them. I think that’s really amazing. We will put all of your details in the show notes so people can find out about you. But if you’re not watching it already, how do we find out about the show? Where can we watch it?
Abbigail Ollive: Yes, it’s called Castle Howard: Through the Seasons. It’s a Channel 4 production, so it’s going out on Saturday nights, but more likely you’ll be able to catch it with it on all four watch on demand. I’m sure it’s something that will get repeated variously across the years, because that’s great. They’re busy repeating, I think, Chatsworth’s documentary at the moment as well, and there’s one happening at Highclere, and I think these things just kind of have quite a long shelf life actually, so hopefully you’ll be able to watch it on demand way into the future, embarrassingly.
Kelly Molson: For sure. Without a doubt. Abbi, we always ask our guests to share a book with us before they leave, something that they love or something that they’ve just enjoyed as part of their career or personal. What would you like to share with us?
Abbigail Ollive: In my life outside of Castle Howard, I do a lot of baking and cooking. We have a little family business and cafe, so I’m a crazy baking lady some nights for that. But actually, it was difficult to choose, because I’ve got a whole amazing shelf of cookbooks that I use very regularly, but Sabrina Ghayour, who has recently released Persiana Everyday. I absolutely love Middle Eastern cooking, and I’m not really sure where this passion came from, but I think that particular book I’ve been using a lot recently, because it’s good, quick recipes, they’re really reliable, and they’re brilliant midweek, not overly complex when you’ve got your store cupboard of ingredients sorted.
But I actually chose this because it’s something that… Our Channel 4 producer who’s been with us for a year, Hannah, and I massively bonded over food, both being foodies, and I actually invited Sabrina to our press launch at Castle Howard because she’s recently moved to the area, and funnily enough, I got a tweet, I got a DM tweet from Sabrina Ghayour saying, “You work at Castle Howard? I love Castle Howard.” And I was like, “Oh my god, I mean, I love you. I’ve got your book and use it all the time. I can’t believe you’re trying to befriend me.” So I invited her along to the press launch and she came, and Hannah, Channel 4 Hannah, and I had a proper fangirl moment of just basically going, “We really love your recipes.” So it felt like a good, relevant, irrelevant one, although there were plenty I could have chosen.
Kelly Molson: Oh my god, I am so with you on this. I have all of her bits except this one. Maybe I’ll enter myself.
Abbigail Ollive: Good Christmas present. Good Christmas-
Kelly Molson: Yeah, there you go. They are the books I go to if we’re having people over for dinner, or every New Year’s Eve we cook a feast for the two of us, it would be three of us now, but we cook an absolute feast, and it’s always lamb and it’s always something incredibly delicious from one of her books. I think would’ve fangirled a little bit too.
Abbigail Ollive: I know. And she uses our farm shop a lot, obviously, because we have estate tenant farmers, and I think it’s really brilliant to champion that field to fork message. And if you’re going to eat meat, it’s brilliant that it’s local. It’s such a treat for me to be able to have a farm shop at work where I can and get that from. So yeah.
Kelly Molson: Amazing. All right, well, look, listeners, as ever, if you want to be in with a chance of winning that book, if you go over to our Twitter account and you retweet this episode announcement with, “I want Abbi’s books, book even”, you will be in with a chance of winning it.
This is the second cookbook that we’ve had on the podcast recently as well. There’s a little trend here. I’m getting a little message [inaudible 00:49:33].
Abbigail Ollive: The other one that I was close, is when I was on holiday recently, I read, I’m sure somebody must have recommended it, the Bob Iger book, The Ride of a Lifetime, because he was the CEO of Disney for 15 years, and this week’s just been announced that he’s back at Disney after retirement. Not to go on as a prize, but for anybody working visitor attractions I found it a really inspiring read. The last paragraph of, well, sorry, the last chapter, really, is his bullet points of the kind of things he lived by whilst running Disney. I’m going to do the old school thing where I print it out and stick it on my wall. So that’s just a top tip for the sector. I’m sure most people have read it and I’m, as usual, three years behind the trend.
Kelly Molson: No, it not been recommended, though. It definitely has not come up on our… No, I will check our library list, but I am positive that that hasn’t come up yet. But you can’t win that one, it has to be Sabrina, because you will fully appreciate the cookbook. Trust me.
Abbi, thanks so much for coming on. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Abbigail Ollive: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a delight, as always, to talk to you, and I do feel so honoured to be second time round.
Kelly Molson: My absolute pleasure. You’re always such a treat when you come on, and I genuinely am so grateful for all the support and advice that you give to people. So thank you.
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