David Heathcote visits Casa Del Rio, an Art Deco fantasy house in rural Devon, and plays with some of the many Deco gadgets there, including a Bakelite radio.
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You're your own Pope.
It has an aura of mystery.
In the 1930s, the world fell in love with Hollywood's boldly Hispanic take on Art Deco.
Glamorous, exotic, high tech and not afraid to show off.
I'm going to get a taste of the Hollywood Art Deco lifestyle in none other than...Devon.
Oh, yes, very nice.
I'm slowly picking my way down
a very, very narrow road in Devon, with terrible speed bumps
so I'm not going to be racing down there, looking for a house.
And we're passing lots of houses...
..which are all very beautiful, but not really the thing we're after.
Trying to find a small piece of Hollywood
transplanted to a Devon riverside,
but we may not make it.
Oh, I did that one better.
There's like all these secret places.
Lots of woods. Lots of boats.
Lovely blue water.
Very lush, indeed.
Oh, my... Hold on. I've got to go in reverse.
That's it - Casa Del Rio.
I was told this was an Hispanic Hollywood-style mansion.
And you know, I didn't really believe it,
but when you see it, it is. It's everything it says it is.
Ha! Including an impossibly steep drive.
That really is a very, very American house.
I think I've got the wrong car.
I need something posher.
I've got to have a look round.
It's very Spanish. Well, very Hollywood Spanish...
..but it's in Devon.
This big veranda here.
And these sort of Romeo, Romeo balconies.
It's a real fantasy dream home.
And this great thing, this is really one of the big Spanish things
which is having a patio with these shallow stairs coming down.
Your, kind of, courtyard
with these lovely flowers.
And all this cream reflecting the light.
And tiled roofs.
It's a sort of Hollywood Cordoban imagery.
There should be women out on these balconies, really, welcoming me.
But, eh. Haven't got the budget.
Oh, marble. Fantastic.
It's always nice to be welcomed into a house by a film star -
Mary Pickford. Oh!
Within seconds, I'm in a place
that clearly used Art Deco to say, Hollywood.
It's a fantastic stairwell.
And it's got this very interesting feature, here.
Which is a sort of iron grill over an open window.
And the idea of this style, when it was done in Hollywood,
was that somehow this was a castle that had become a palace.
And so the remains of the entrance to the dungeon lies in the turret.
And then, of course, you have this fantastic
black and white staircase and going up it, it's nothing.
But the thing about this is you can make a fantastic entrance.
I mean, not a bloke, obviously.
But if you swan down here,
you're the king or queen of this castle and people...
Well, you got framed by this really very deco black and white floor,
the black and white stairs, you'd be wearing black and white,
you'd be like a little Fred Astaire traipsing down the stairs.
And equally, there's this lovely balcony again up here
and the other thing you've got is this great feature here, balcony.
You're your own Pope.
And the thing about this staircase - it's the centre of the house.
Anyone coming up or down has to go through it.
And the whole thing is geared to be looked up at.
You've got all this strapwork on the ceiling.
Someone's thrown a card up there, that must have been a shot.
And then down, you've got this wonderful pattern.
The whole thing, the whole drama of being in this house
is animating the people in it.
Every room has a purpose to make you look good.
I'm staying for a night.
The owner, Andrew Pearson, is there to welcome me.
He's dedicated to preserving the mansion sense of deco drama.
So this was the entrance to the house, here.
Here? This side?
-This was the front door.
-So how did you get into the property?
Carriages and the early cars arrived at the bottom there by the river.
And their carriages, or cars early on, would park there.
And they walked with their robes for dinner,
along the rose garden, up through the steps, through the rosary,
onto this terrace and through to the house.
So that makes sense of this huge facade, here.
Because the real presence of the house would be announced from below
and you come up to this turret.
And the main dining room was through there.
And then there was two sitting rooms
which could be used for a concert or other entertainment.
And then you would move into the house.
So people came in off the terrace,
having had a rest from the climb from the road and the river and then took
a view of this marble staircase and the black and white flooring.
-Yeah, this is fantastic, isn't it?
This is all the original marble
and the extensions on the ground floor
have all copied this Italian marble.
Casa Del Rio was built in 1935 by Walter Price,
a baker who sold bread throughout the West Country.
Clearly, he was an entrepreneur
cos he'd gone to the States to research the bread industry
and discovered, for himself anyway,
the value of potentially introducing sliced bread here.
-So he introduced sliced bread to Britain?
-That's what the story goes.
And he was the best thing since sliced bread.
I think history may decide otherwise on that
because the records around him are somewhat scant,
but what he did do was to meet with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford
as part of his review of the Californian bread industry.
And it was really that, that he fell in love with the style,
the Spanish style of house, cos theirs was one of
the first Beverley Hills' houses on this sort of location.
They had chosen an area at the top of the end of a long drive
and built that house, Pickfair, in 1919.
But what I think is really amazing is that he went to America
and apart from bringing back sliced bread,
he also decided to build a Spanish house in Devon.
There are no Spanish houses around here or anything like it.
And I mean, if he'd been a normal English entrepreneur,
he might have built an Arts and Crafts house
or something like that. But no, a Hollywood house.
It was the style of the house and undoubtedly some of the people he met
at the dinner parties and their sort of friends,
he obviously had a very social time with Mary Pickford.
Mary Pickford and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, were the most
famous Hollywood couple of the time.
And they built Pickfair, a fancy Hollywood home which
inspired Walter Price to build his Hispanic take on it.
He took the concept of a Spanish house, set on a hillside,
and scoured the Devon river valleys for a site
and he found this site just a mile and a half down from
the Yealm Hotel which was the only property there then.
And he wanted 17, 20 acres on the side of the Yealm,
facing south west, in a secluded valley,
where he could have a backdrop of a very secluded walled garden.
Well, he certainly picked a fantastic site.
Casa Del Rio is Hollywood upstairs...
..and Hollywood downstairs.
So, this is the cinema.
That's absolutely marvellous.
And this is created on the principle
that Pickfair was actually a place of real activity and escape.
And what they did there was, over a number of years,
had not only riding and swimming and tennis and golf,
but they then put in a bar and, if they could have had, a cinema.
What we've done is to recreate what we think Mary would have done,
but she didn't like looking at her old films.
So really, you're developing the theme of the house,
the desire of the house, to be a Hollywood house.
-So are these cinema seats?
These come from an old building in Wales
and they were found by my team when we were creating this games area
and there were some 300 of them and we've picked the best 30.
You know what this really needs?
A cocktail and a Fred Astaire film.
But that wouldn't be a rerun of Pickfair cos Douglas Fairbanks was a
teetotaller and the guests for dinner at Pickfair were not served wine.
But her last present to him,
the Christmas before they separated, was actually
a Texan bar put into the basement cos it was she who liked to drink.
-It was a present for her, really.
For Walter Price, the house was a monument to his success.
From the veranda, I notice a lost part of his tribute to Hollywood.
Course the elephant in the room, in this garden,
is that this lawn shouldn't be here at all.
Really, there's a swimming pool here.
So he'd be stood up there watching lovely people swim up and down.
And actually, when you're down here you can see, just here,
the edge of the pool.
The ground sinks down a bit and it's a bit bleached out.
But it must have been great cos as a lawn, it means nothing.
But as a great patch of blue, surrounded by this lovely garden,
it says glamour.
Now for something Art Deco exotic.
It's cocktail hour.
The great thing about doing a programme about Art Deco
is an excuse to make a cocktail.
And there's a lovely book here, The Savoy Cocktail Book, 1930,
right in the period. Lovely orange and black details,
very, very Art Deco colours.
And it's written in a kind of jolly style.
And it's got lovely illustrations.
And it's got hundreds and hundreds of cocktails in here.
This was written against the background in America of prohibition
though this was published in England.
And cocktails as far as I can tell,
in the main, are to disguise bad booze.
I'm going to make a Whizz Bang which is slightly scarily -
absinthe, grenadine, orange bitters, vermouth and whisky.
"Shake well and strain into a glass." So...
Take the lid off.
First ingredient, always seems to be...
a good amount of ice.
I wonder what the... Absinthe, absinthe, absinthe...
Well, I have no idea what a dash is so we'll have to improvise the dash.
Looks like paraffin.
It looks very dangerous.
French vermouth. That's a third, whatever a third is.
Now comes the hardest judge of all, two thirds whisky.
I like whisky.
Lightning flashes between your wrists as you shake the cocktail.
I think you're supposed to do it until you can't feel your hands.
Now, let's give that a go. The other thing I know about cocktails
is you're not supposed to sip them, you're supposed to drink them.
Oh, it doesn't look good.
Right. Think it's glasses off for this.
Oh, yes. Very nice.
Can't taste a thing.
Oh. I'll have another.
That's like paint.
Time for the final treat of the day.
The thing about these Hollywood films
is they gave everyone in the world access to the same popular culture
and nothing spread Art Deco culture more than Hollywood.
It may have begun in France,
with the rich and with luxury, but by the mid-'30s, it was American.
It represented a life that most people in Europe just couldn't imagine.
They'd had peace, they'd had plenty and even in the Depression,
they had glamour.
And films like this offered you a view into another world
which you could only dream about living in.
# The Atlantic but the Atlantic isn't romantic
# And the Pacific isn't what it's cracked up to be... #
And the thing about Fred is he's a polished, shiny gent
and you're just waiting for Ginger Rogers
and lots of nightclubs and lots of cocktails and lots of shininess.
And that's really what you're here to see.
And the thing is anywhere, even here in the heart of Devon,
a film was never more than a bus ride away
so everyone could see them.
It was really the first global popular culture
and Art Deco was the background.
# But we never see the admiral... #
And actually, sitting in this nice private cinema,
guzzling cocktails and watching Fred Astaire. Well,
it's a lovely way to end the day.
# And what did we see?
# We saw the sea. #
In the '30s, they discovered sunglasses
which is just as well cos those cocktails are shocking.
Everything's a little bright,
so I just need everything toning down a bit.
And these rooms are lovely cos you can see everything.
Every room has a view and every room has a view of the estate.
And this is the best view.
And the rooms are also great because they have washing facilities.
So you need never come out until you're fit to see the world.
The bathrooms are fantastic.
This one's a bit pink, but the best bathroom's down here.
This corridor's lovely.
The arches of the doors are matched by the arches through the corridor.
And just these little arches transform what is really just
an access corridor into a little bit of Spanishness.
And the plastered ceiling, as well.
So, these details really make the place.
But look at this. This is fantastic.
This is a proper '30s bathroom.
And if you're tall, the best bit, the absolute best bit...
Look at that.
Anyone... You'd have to be a giant not to fit in this bath.
I imagine if you're short, it's a bit of a problem.
But more importantly, the black bath,
it's important that it's fashionable.
The taps are all moulded.
These octagonal forms, these are really, really deco.
The bright chrome instead of soft nickel is an important finish.
And the contrast with the green. So you've got black, gold, green.
The green becomes deeper as you reach the floor.
And the round sink.
Everything plays together.
And then over here, you've got this lovely,
lovely sort of shelf and a mirror.
And if I used hairdryers, I'd use this hairdryer.
So really, you could come out of your room and just,
as I should really, prepare yourself for the world.
Time for a spot of breakfast.
Going to demonstrate a toaster now.
This is a modern loaf and of course, it doesn't fit the toaster.
So I'll have to adjust the bread to fit.
Let's try again. Oh, yes.
The great thing about this toaster is it's a self-turning toaster.
In about an hour and a half, that should be nicely done.
The thing about the '30s is
you had a kind of birth of modern food convenience.
You can cobble something together fast.
And, I don't know, it's kind of urban food.
People have forgotten that, but if you live in a city,
you need packets of butter. And the toaster...
And sauces, these proprietary sauces, they began to be advertised
with winning by-lines. They became more than the sauce in the bottle.
They became a product that everyone wanted to have.
How is a bottle modern?
Well, you give it an Art Deco shape.
This lovely octagonal shape, kind of communicates todayness about sauce.
Are we there?
Yeah, we are. Great.
And that's the thing about Art Deco.
It is not so much a coherent design aesthetic,
it's a mood, but it's a mood that people who marketed stuff
were only happy to apply to every product under the sun.
Do I want that much sauce?
The answer is yes.
Let's hope it doesn't spill.
Oh, yeah. That is great.
Electric power changed the lives of the middle classes in the 1930s.
Ian Peterson, curator of the Museum of Electricity and a collector of devices.
Hi, Ian. I'm glad you could come cos this is an early electric house,
but I don't know anything about supply in the '30s.
-Was it easy to get?
-Well, in the 19...late '30s,
there'd been this massive expansion in the grid.
Most new buildings were sold to the middle classes
and they wanted everything to be very new.
They were exposed to American influences through film.
Particularly in a house like this.
And they wanted to have the latest
pieces of equipment in gadgetry, just like we are now.
Look at this. This is fantastic.
Yeah. That's a 1935 Belling.
Like all manufacturers, they were very of the period.
They seemed to be influenced by the streamline shapes.
They're like go faster stripes, aren't they?
-I was looking down here and you've got this kind of wheel with
speed coming off it and with the orange of the elements together,
the orange and green would be very, very jazzy.
Yeah, and it's a contrast to the browns of the Bakelites,
of the majority of the Bakelite of the period,
so we've got this lovely green pottery,
to give you a different flavour, if you like.
-Bakelite. I have got a radio. Come with me.
What do you know about this radio?
It's an Ecko.
Beautiful Bakelite casing.
Bakelite was pioneered by the Germans,
but Ecko built a massive factory producing Bakelite radios.
For the period, they were state of the art.
They were wonderful pieces of kit.
I think there's a crackle. I'll go round the back here
and see if we can get it to pick something up.
FRENCH RADIO CRACKLES
It's the French.
It's really clear.
This is an American toaster.
You put a slice of toast in each one.
This is obviously for a family of four.
-So this is American, not English.
Yeah. They seem to... They seem to be a bit further ahead than us
on the design of a lot of these appliances.
See. you put the bread in, you do one side
and when you're ready to do the other side, you just do that.
Four slices in one go.
And then when it's ready, you go to your mid-position.
-Four people can take a slice out.
So, what is this?
This is a rather lovely electric kettle.
It's American. And I just like the way that
they've even managed to get all this lovely Art Deco feel
to something which is basically a piece of household equipment
that you use every morning to, I suppose in America,
to make your coffee.
And I think the thing that I like about it is the colour of it.
It's bright and it's not like a utility.
-You'd be proud to have that on your table.
So the last thing I want to ask you about is this thing over here,
a German hairdryer,
I didn't even know they had hairdryers in the 1930s.
This is quite a nice one cos this one's a German hairdryer,
beautiful chrome body, Bakelite handle.
But of course, all this demand for stuff, it ended with the war.
So in a brief phase, from sort of mid-'20s to 1939, you get this
-blossoming of all these new products for us.
-And new design.
-And it all just comes to a halt.
So they were just getting used to this new wonderful life
-and then it's all over.
-That's a shame.
It is, isn't it?
Staying at Casa Del Rio leaves me
unexpectedly seduced by this Hollywood Hispanic folly.
Bright, loud, showy and even a bit silly,
it's very Hollywood and undeniably deco.
As my stay in Casa Del Rio comes to an end,
I decide to get a final view of this marvellous building.
Down to the bottom of the garden, to see it from the river.
It's just like wearing a cardigan or something. OK?
Oh, yeah. Lovely.
So, Phil, if you could take us
downriver a bit so I get a good view of the house
because I think it's the only place we're going to see the whole thing.
From the water, you can see the house is built
on a little promontary in the river.
And that the house itself,
the verandas are angled like that
to look out over particular views.
And although there's been all this building since, from the house,
you can't really see any of that. But the actual house itself,
stands high above everything around it
and it's obviously just much, much bigger.
And all these little bungalows,
but you know that's a mansion.
And as you come round, you get glimpses of bits of the house.
And I thought you'd see the whole thing,
but you don't, it's really private.
From anywhere on the river you can't see very much at all.
Looking back, you never get more
than a glimpse of a rather lovely window.
These gorgeous coral shutters.
And of all the houses in the village, the biggest one
has completely disappeared behind the screen of trees.
But where we are now, the whole house is slowly becoming obscured.
So nobody's going to look at you.
I think you've got about three goes
at waving at the butler to get the drinks ready.
The one thing you can see from here is this huge roofline
which does suggest a really big house.
Now we get this fantastic view of the stair turret
and it's straight out of Hollywood.
And it's just so high compared to everything around it.
And also, just not of Devon.
You know, it's like plonked here, like some spaceship...
Well, it's just disappearing behind the trees now.
And you never really get more than a glimpse.
And it's a discreet place, you know.
You could be a secret man in there.
And I think people were.
Nobody knows much about it.
And it makes you speculate.
You wonder what's going on there?
It has an aura of mystery.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
David Heathcote goes to spend the weekend at Casa Del Rio - a remarkable Art Deco fantasy house hidden away in rural Devon. He uncovers the story of Walter Price, a baker from Devon who went to visit California in the 1930s and who was so impressed by Pickfair - the glamorous residence of Hollywood stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford - that he decided to create his own Deco mansion back in the Devon countryside, complete with marble staircase built to look like a piano keyboard.
Heathcote explores the house that was the perfect glamorous weekend retreat for Price and his friends and plays with some of the many Deco gadgets that brought glamour into so many people's lives in the 1930s - a perfect toaster, a Bakelite radio and even a cocktail shaker.
The original Pickfair mansion in California was demolished, so Casa Del Rio remains as a rare British example of a Deco fantasy house, built at time when Britain was in love with Hollywood, Art Deco and its glamour.