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Flashback to 2006: When Shropshire fountain found fame in Atonement

By Toby Neal | Features | Published:

2006. With a star-studded cast including Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Brenda Blethyn, and a young Saoirse Ronan, the movie Atonement was both a critical and commercial success.

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley at the Stokesay Court fountain

But there was another star – the fountain of a grand Shropshire country mansion.

The "fountain scene" is one of the pivotal scenes in the whole movie, which garnered six Oscar nominations, and won an Oscar for the best original score.

The production team descended on south Shropshire in mid-June 2006 and were to spend nearly six weeks filming on location, with Stokesay Court at Onibury taking centre stage.

Another principal location was Redcar, Yorkshire, which was transformed into wartime Dunkirk.

The film crew at Stokesay Court

There was a year-long search by the movie-makers to find somewhere to represent "Tallis House" in their screen adaption of Ian McEwan's novel.

They thought they had the place in the shape of Tyntesfield, a National Trust property near Bristol, but after that was ruled out Sarah Greenwood, the production designer, came across Stokesay Court while flicking through a back issue of Country Life magazine.

But for Salopians who were recruited as extras to appear in scenes at Stokesay Court, which for movie purposes was a luxury hotel, things were to end in disappointment.

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Casting agency Mad Dog held an open audition at Onibury in the summer of 2005 to find people to play gardeners, nurses, maids and general hotel guests.

The chosen few spent three days on set, but the film’s ending was changed at the last minute and all the footage featuring the Shropshire extras was left on the cutting room floor.

Their last hope of seeing themselves on screen lay with the release of the movie on DVD, but the alternative ending was also missing from the deleted scenes section.

The DVD included behind-the-scenes glimpses of other filming at Stokesay Court and interviews with the stars on location.

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Atonement was a critical and commercial success

In one interview Knightley revealed how much fun the crew had during the Shropshire shoot, describing it as a wonderful place – but she admitted finding the house rather “creepy”.

During the filming the 21-year-old Hollywood A-lister stayed in the county.

Understandably the location was not disclosed, although according to one account the stars and the director, Joe Wright, all ended up staying in a rented farmhouse nearby.

Crew and other cast members were staying at local hotels, including The Crown Inn at Hopton Wafers, near Cleobury Mortimer.

Atonement was the latest movie from Working Title Films, which also produced Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Keira Knightley at the fountain – one of the movie's iconic scenes

It was an adaptation of McEwan’s bestselling novel, set in 1935, which tells the story of a young girl’s false accusation which has far-reaching repercussions for those involved.

The film went on to gross 131 million dollars worldwide and win two Golden Globes, an Oscar and two Baftas.

And at the Sony Ericsson Empire Awards it was named best British film, and there were best actress and actor prizes for Knightley and McAvoy.

Apart from all its other awards, the £36 million movie was crowned by Shropshire Star readers the best film to hit the county’s cinema screens in 2007.

It topped a poll of our movie page readers, taking nearly 20 per cent of the votes.

Visitors gather in the lobby as Stokesay Court opens for a tour in February 2008.

Stokesay Court is a Grade Two star listed late Victorian mansion and the making of Atonement there not only led to a very welcome financial windfall towards restoration costs, but also encouraged Caroline Magnus, who had inherited the property, to open it up for tours and events.

Since the film was released in the UK in September 2007, tours have been offered of the house, giving visitors a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the film's location, although of course the coronavirus pandemic is currently putting such tours on hold.

The mansion and its grounds are also available to future film-makers and television productions (coronavirus permitting).

During the making of the movie the crew went to some lengths not to cause any damage, including attaching tennis balls to the bottom of camera tripod legs to avoid marking the wooden floors.

For the purposes of the movie the fountain had a statue, which despite its realistic appearance was apparently made out of polystyrene, and is now displayed in the house.

And with the property being larger than needed, the moviemakers simply airbrushed one wing out.

Quite apart from the making of Atonement, Stokesay Court has an interesting history which has given it various claims to fame.

For instance, during the war it was home to the real-life Dad's Army, as it was taken over as a major regional training centre for the Home Guard.

And it was one of the first homes in England that had integral electric light, installed in 1891, and also under-floor heating.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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