Most visitors to London make a beeline for Buckingham Palace, but down a non-descript road seven miles to the east, there lies another famous royal palace cleverly disguised within a handful of old warehouses squatting upon a gray asphalt lot. One can only conjecture about what intrigues take place at Queen Elizabeth’s gilded residences, but the treachery and sexual exploits that occur within these walls are laid bare every week for television audiences. I’m referring, of course, to the E! hit series “The Royals,” starring Elizabeth Hurley, which returns with its third season on December 4.
Show creator Mark Schwahn, clad in a gray T-shirt and slacks, brown suede jacket and lace-up boots, is leading a bevy of reporters on a behind-the-scenes tour of the set, which encompasses four sound stages. “We try to use as much of the lot as possible,” he explains, bounding down an alleyway that has featured in a paparazzi chase scene and as the exterior of both a pet clinic and London’s Natural History Museum.
Schwahn pauses at the entrance to the infamous tunnel, a long brick corridor that was originally used as storage. “All the estates we visited (while researching the series) have these secret doors and wine cellars,” he says. “So I wanted us to have a tunnel, too—a place where people can go and be nefarious and out of reach of everyone in the palace.”
Around the corner, he points out the communications room, where palace bodyguard Jasper, played by Tom Austen, discovered damning footage of the late King Cyrus’ assassination.
“So, find any murderers today?” I ask a crew member bent over a bag of tools. “No,” he laughs. “It’s a bit quiet.”
The same can hardly be said of the rest of the sound stages, where a small army are busy putting the finishing touches on additions for Season Three. Chief among them is Queen Helena’s spankin’ new bedroom, which is being expanded to accommodate what promises to be a cadre of fresh conquests. Painted in a pale powder blue, the room will feature two working fireplaces, elaborate murals, a big four poster bed, and lots of columns, “so people will have places to hide and conspire,” Schwahn says.
It’s grand enough to compete with even the bodacious boudoir of the insatiable King Cyrus, played with a devilish twinkle by Jake Maskall. We’re allowed to take a poke around the new king’s digs, checking out the crystal chandelier and the painting of Cyrus above the fireplace, surrounded by nubile men and women.
Then there’s Cyrus’ infamous velvet-draped bed, which certainly looks sturdy enough to handle all the action it gets.
Were it not for the lighting rigs overhead and a laminated sign on a red silk-covered settee warning “Please do not sit on the furniture,” I could easily imagine that I was in a real palace.
The bedroom of Princess Eleanor, played by Alexandra Park, is strewn with the detritus viewers have come to expect of this royal wild child.
Empty bottles of vodka, liqueurs and fine wine occupy a sizable surface area, and on her dressing table, cozied up next to a wine glass, glitters a tiara, as if carelessly tossed aside.
The bedroom doors are still scribbled with red graffiti, which Eleanor sprayed herself in a fit of fury in Season One, but that may not last for much longer. “She’s moving towards a better place, and she’s going to want a fresh space,” Schwahn says cryptically.
It seems those fans wondering what will happen between Eleanor and her very personal bodyguard, Jasper, will just have to wait for the story to unfold—although Schwahn does confirm one key plotline. Prince Robert, who was thought to have been killed in the pilot, is indeed alive. “Whether or not he finds his way back to the palace is up for grabs,” Schwahn grins.
Whisking past an enormous, corridor-length photo of the London skyline, often glimpsed from the palace windows, we conclude in the Great Hall, with its vast red and gold carpet, velvet-upholstered sofas, and gilded (or at least gold painted) pediments.
Like the rest of the sets, it’s incredibly detailed, from the portrait of the late, saintly King Simon on the wall to a silver-framed photo of the royal family in happier times on an end table. “The Royal Palace” stationery is even displayed on a marble-topped desk.
After all, the idea is to create an air of regal luxury, as credible in its excess as the plots are unbelievable in their twists and turns. “Americans are fascinated by the royal family,” Schwahn continues, “because we don’t have one—and usually, we have at least one of everything, maybe two. In an age where we have so much access behind gates, we don’t have access to (their private lives), and that is rare.”
By producing this fictional royal family—which Schwahn firmly maintains has nothing to do with the real royals—he has given us a glimpse of what life in a gilded cage might be like.
“There’s a line in the pilot where Princess Eleanor says, ‘I’m just a bitch with power and money, but I do make it look good,’” recalls Schwahn, who writes many of the episodes himself. “I remember shooting that scene and telling her, ‘That’s the foundation of the show!’”