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Our barn was Lovejoy's antique emporium... they even filmed his sidekick in our bed

Douglas and Lesley Thompson rented their house to the BBC, and watched Ian McShane use their chairs as junk

The Mail On Sunday 29th July 2007

Christine Webb

For the past 16 years, Old House Farm has been known to locals as Lovejoy's house. And even though owners Douglas and Lesley Thompson are now selling up, the name of one of television's best-loved characters will surely linger on.

Back in 1991, the rambling Grade II-listed, 17th Century farmhouse in the pretty village of Little Sampford, near Saffron Walden in Essex, was taken over by scores of BBC film crew who turned their barn into the workshop and home of the cheeky antiques dealer, played by actor Ian McShane.

But the fun - and mayhem - of having up to 200 people filming at their five-bedroom house and setting up camp in their five-acre garden was not something the Thompsons were around to witness. The pair, who are journalists, were working in California, and although they had let their home through Strutt & Parker, they installed Lesley's late father, Victor Brown, as caretaker.

'It was the ultimate bad dream,' says Lesley. Td become Lovejoy's long-distance landlady. And the bacon rolls from the team's wonderful catering truck turned my father's dog, Chloe, into a dumpling.'

The couple did get to enjoy the drama series on television and watch Lovejoy mending furniture in their barn, eating sausages in the gardens, and stringing up chairs in his showroom. He even shot a hole through their kitchen ceiling (though McShane claimed that was accidental).

'A sign immediately went up on our lovely old Essex barn saying "Lovejoy Antiques", and the next time we returned on vacation, the house was full of props,' says Lesley, who bought the house with her hus­band in 1982.

'Inside the barn, which had become an antiques emporium, some things looked oddly familiar. Our lovely old kitchen chairs were hung from the ceiling doing a turn as Lovejoy's junk. And our pine table had a price on it.

'Parts of the house had been made to look like the home of wide-boy Freddy the Fixer, who'd fled to Spain. And when I peeked into our bedroom, they were filming bleary-eyed Eric Catch-pole (Chris Jury) waking with a hang­over in our bed, where the white linen had been replaced with black satin.'

Initially, the Thompsons, who are in their 50s, struck a seven-month deal which enabled the BBC and a produc­tion company to use the house both for filming and for their headquarters. But so popular was the location that the lease was renewed for a further year.

The most disconcerting aspect of giving over their horn according to Lesley, home in the evening t dreds of crew cong dozens of vehicles a them back to their tod But the star of the si he first brought the character to life in 1986 and played him for 73 episodes until the series ended in 1994 - would be whisked away from Old Farm House in a chauffeur-driven silver Jaguar.

It wasn't just the Thompsons who were involved with Lovejoy. Hosting the film crew became a cottage indus­try locally, with the pubs doing B&B during the week.

And when on site, the crew were very much looked after by Victor. 'Dad got in the habit of making a pot of tea for 30. And he'd get on the phone and say, "The toilet's overflowed again, but dont worry, the stains aren't too bad." We discovered the septic tank had to be emptied once a week.

'My father became very fond of Dudley Sutton, who played Tinker Dill - he thought he was a lovely chap,' says Lesley.

'Another time Dad recounted how the props crew had fired a gun through the kitchen ceiling, up through the floor of our bedroom, into the ceiling above. 'It was for a scene in which Lovejoy holds a gun and it goes off acciden­tally. The producer didn't think we'd be able to tell where the holes had been repaired, but I'm afraid we could, and they had to get the paint pots out again. The next time they wanted to do more shooting with guns we said, "Not here, thanks," so they rented another place just to film the shooting scenes.

'We have a moat that at the time was stocked with carp, and in their breaks between filming the crew would sit there fishing. Fortunately, they'd return most of the carp they caught.'

Lesley adds: 'They also played golf during breaks, and took bets on games. My father would make crazy-golf obstacle courses for them.

'The crew wanted to keep in favour with all the local farmers, so they'd invite them here for a meal from their fabulous mobile canteen,' says Lesley.

'It could help; for example, some­times they had to ask them to turn off farm machinery while they were shooting.

'We became quite friendly with the team and when there was an emergency when my father had to be rushed to hospital, everyone was so' kind, visiting him. Ian McShane later wrote to me in America and told me not to worry.

"All's well down on the farm," he said. "Your father is in fine shape again, so we're getting our cuppas regularly.'"

Finally, in September 1992, the Thompsons decided to return to the UK with their daughter, Dandy, now 22. But the crew, it seems, were using the house right up to the last minute.

When we drove up, they were taking everything out of the house, including our garden furniture and entire vases of flowers and rugs.

'We were running down the road after them saying, "Oi, that's ours!" Our lovely pine kitchen table disappeared. But they were very good, we agreed a sum of money for what we were missing.'

Although the Thompsons have kept in touch with McShane, life at the farm has calmed down.

'We got into horses and dogs, and our daughter became interested in polo. But now Dandy is working for an estate agent in Kensington in Lon­don, we're selling up and moving back to America. We've got our eye on a lovely house near Santa Barbara in California, and will find ourselves a four-bedroom English base, too.'

Ian McShane - The Antiques Rogue Show

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