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Dressing up for work on film sets during one of the hottest summers on record was interesting... and we mourn the loss of HM The Queen - September 2022

A driving life often involves extremities.  So, I found myself, during the heatwave this summer, with a yak hair wig glued to my head, wearing rather thick men’s ballerina tights, woollen pantaloons, a heavy waistcoat, gilt lined tailcoat and neck stock.  Not to mention the too-big shoes and tricorn hat pinned to the wig. 

NDAs and a desire not to lose my new part-time job prevent any revelations about the film production I was called to work on, nor the location or what was involved, that is until the period drama has been aired and much more can be revealed, probably in 2023.  Then, you might get a fleeting glimpse of my back, elbow, wrist or foot, for I was sitting high up on a Dress Coach of sorts, tooling a team, waiting for the call ‘Action!’, while quite a lot was going on in the background.

What started as one of those, ‘What are you doing this week?’ phone calls from an old friend (who can be rather persuasive) to finding myself firstly in a private clinic in Wimpole Street having a quickie Covid test, to dashing up to a warehouse in North London to be fitted out in costume, ended up being an incredible adventure.  Evidently in this ‘blended’ age, women can be coachmen – I was only called ‘Sir’ once by a Sicilian dresser, whose error was hastily pointed out, to his blushes.

On the first day, I parked up in a field, the new girl at school, rather bewildered but excited, and signed in at the enormous marquee which was already buzzing with action.  I’ve never had a wig applied before and I don’t mind if it doesn’t happen again, especially during a hot spell, as they aren’t very comfortable and the glue down the cheeks is akin to a quickie facelift.   But over the course of a few weeks, I met some delightful ‘Wiggies’, costume fitters, make-up artists and continuity people.  Not to mention the small army who are there to service the horses (one groom per two horses), the resident vet, the ‘Master of the Horse’ and a wide selection of liveried grooms who were my companions for the day, but in real life had jobs like being a Filipino Martial Arts champion or training show jumpers or sheep farmer.  There’s quite a lot of time to chat to people between the takes and one learns a lot.

On day one, I shakily clambered up onto the box and took up the team reins.  The nerves were jangling, but I tried not to dwell on the responsibility of it all, or the costs involved in such a vast production, or what could go wrong.  Driving a team is driving a team, surely?  Except that I usually drive sharp little 11.2 hh Welsh mares and these chaps were 17 hh Hungarian work horses. They felt a quite different in the hand.

Keen to do it properly, I tried to make sure the leaders were mainly out of draft and that the wheelers were doing the work as the going was quite flat.  However, these old stagers had other ideas.  They are accustomed to being driven by lots of different people and know the job they have to do, and do it as they’d like to, much like the Ostler’s teams of old.  My opening scene was to canter them to some steps and ‘hit the mark’ which was a tiny stone.  Second time round it worked and thankfully, not too many takes were required.

On day two, much to the bemusement of my new colleagues, I arrived and adjusted the traces and couplings, determined that the horses were going to work as I wanted them to.  As if.  On day three, I acknowledged that things like traces going up or down a hole, a slight change in the reins and how far down the bit bar the reins are buckled doesn’t make much difference.  These fantastic horses know their job inside out, and some busy body fiddling and trying to ‘improve’ them is futile. 

It was a humbling experience working with not only the professional people, but the professional horses.  They don’t flinch at anything, and there is a lot going on around them that would set the majority of equines off across the horizon.  For starters, there are SO MANY people on a film set, and I spent most of my time sitting way above them all on the carriage, quietly observing and trying to work out what they all do.  There is a clear chain of command and jobs are thoroughly delineated – a wiggie doesn’t do costume, and the costume team don’t do make-up, and make-up artists don’t do props etc etc.  The director spends a lot of time marching round purposefully, thumbs and forefingers held aloft as a square, then s/he disappears under a shroud to watch the takes before inevitably shouting ‘Once more!’ and the scuttling starts again.  I kept thinking of a maximalised anthill.

And the horses simply stand, the odd twitch if a fly lands, an occasional snipe to their mate, and switch off when not needed.  That is, until someone carrying at least three walkie talkies and two mobile phones, also wearing a headset, calls ‘Stand-by’ and the horses wake up, and after ‘Action’, go and do their job.  How different a driving experience it is, working with these remarkable animals, who have had years of practice, who have appeared in more films than Meryl Streep, and who put up with any number of things, booms, lights, people and props around them, and who are so kind and gentle with it.  They epitomize the working horse, as it would have once operated on the streets and in the trades, with their steady, honest way of going born of routine and repetition.  It has been an honour to ‘drive’ them.

At the time of writing, HM The Queen lies in state and our world has changed forever.  How fortunate so many of us were in the driving world to meet her, witness her in both her working and leisure time, and benefit from her generosity in allowing our activities to take place on her estates.  Her personal involvement in driving was not only through her equally remarkable husband, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, but she was known to drive herself and together they passed their passion for all areas of equestrianism and the countryside to their family.  Theirs is a legacy which will not be equalled or surpassed.

As a family, we were lucky to spend time on the Balmoral estate with our horses and ponies.  One of my earliest driving memories is being asked about Freddie by Her Majesty as I stood at his head, aged about seven, trying to stop him putting his head down to eat the grass.  We were part of a line up after a BDS drive and Mum was in the Governess Car with my sister.  The only memento of that moment is a faded Polaroid picture, but it remains crystal clear in my mind, as encounters with HM The Queen do for countless people all over the world.  To have watched her progress down Royal Deeside, my childhood stomping ground, was deeply affecting, as were the line-ups of tractors then horses and riders, all so near our farm.

There has, rightly so, been an outpouring of grief and celebration for this remarkable lady.  The driving world will have more than its fair share of memories, from a stream of images taken during the final parade at the BDS Show at Smith’s Lawn, where each year, when she was able, she would meet the champions in front of the Guard’s Polo Clubhouse having watched the Concours drivers parade past.  We would see her at Royal Windsor, either supporting her own stock in the showring, presenting prizes or watching one of the evening festivities, put together in her name.  We also would spot her while on coaching marathons round Home Park, or while competing at Sandringham or at the many competitions she hosted at Windsor.  Only recently, she came out to meet the coaches at the Coaching Club’s 298th Meet and she mingled with guests at a Race Night charity evening in the riding school at the Windsor Mews.

To the end, duty was her priority, family her mainstay.  To spend her final days at her beloved Balmoral is a fitting ending to a long, unique and unparalleled life.  There were rainbows over Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Royal County of Berkshire when the news was announced, and the flags were lowered.  The clocks stopped.

Ma’am, we thank and salute you.