For families dreaming of fleeing the UK in search of sunshine during lockdown, theirs was the ultimate success story.
Having spent £280,000 on a dilapidated 45-room chateau in France, replete with moat but devoid of electricity and water, Dick Strawbridge and his wife Angel begin the gargantuan task of making it habitable.
A television crew charted every triumph and disaster as Chateau de la Motte Husson was painstakingly brought back to life.
The resultant documentary — Channel 4’s Escape To The Chateau (ETTC) — which first aired in 2016 and enraptured the nation in 32 episodes, over seven seasons, has become one of the station’s most popular shows.
Dick Strawbridge, 61, an engineer, and his wife Angel, 43, a designer, spent £280,00 making their 45-room chateau in France habitable
It has propelled Dick, 61, an engineer, and wife Angel, 43, a designer, to stardom.
Their fame has not only allowed them to run a flourishing wedding business from the castle, now worth an estimated £2 million, but led to a merchandising empire.
There have been spin-off ranges of flowers, home fragrance and soft furnishings, all capitalising on the couple’s skill and affable demeanour.
Recently, however, this hugely watchable pair have been appalled that their wholesome image has come under threat.
Last month, it was reported that sources close to Spark Media, the independent production company that filmed the first four series of ETTC, had accused Dick and Angel of bullying.
Dick was accused of pushing one crew member around a room, and threatening to throw another ‘out the f*****g window’ while brandishing a hammer. Both were also said to have sworn at TV staff.
Meanwhile, the show apparently haemorrhaged producer directors (PDs) during the first four series: three out of six left prematurely following rows — an exodus ‘unheard of’ in television, it’s claimed.
Dick and Angel — deeply dismayed by the accusations — have wasted no time in categorically denying them. In detailed testimony via their representative, the couple have emphasised not only the warm atmosphere among the team that currently makes their show, but also their long-held, high professional standards, which they say has helped bring their chateau fantasy to successful fruition.
And no one can deny that theirs is the original entrepreneurial dream come true, powered largely by the determined Dick, who has decades of experience in television.
With such high standards, the Strawbridges say, of course, comes high pressure — yet, still, their representative stressed that production members associated with the couple over many years found ‘working with our clients at the chateau is a lovely experience.’
They also made accusations of their own of outrageous behaviour among the Spark’s production team.
The couple spent £280,000 on the dilapidated 45-room chateau in France and tried to bring it back to life
Meanwhile, Channel 4 has denied all knowledge of the row, saying in a statement: ‘Channel 4 does not tolerate bullying or abusive behaviour in any of its productions.
Channel 4 was not aware of any of the alleged behaviour by Dick and Angel as described in these claims, which we understand relate to a period well before the current producers started making the series.’
So what has been happening behind those 3 ft thick stone walls?
Amid claim and counter-claim, the only certainty seems to be that, with both sides accusing each other of bullying and incompetency, life at the chateau wasn’t as idyllic as viewers loved to believe.
None of the PDs who left the show would talk about their experience. Nor did any of the multiple sources the Mail spoke to want to be named.
‘Everyone wants to carry on working in television,’ explains one, who says this is the first time they have complained about colleagues after decades in the industry. ‘But these two, they deserve exposure. I’ve never worked with talent that’s so difficult.’
Then again, renovating a 12-acre, 19th century estate in Martigne-sur-Mayenne would have been difficult enough for even the most patient, without a reality television crew documenting your every move.
Throw in the fact the couple were simultaneously raising children — the Strawbridges have a son, Arthur, now seven, and daughter, Dorothy, six — and little wonder tensions escalated.
Indeed, deciphering who — if anyone — is at fault in this vicious tit-for-tat is as difficult as renovating a moat.
One source close to Spark Media, says: ‘It felt like an island, surrounded by a moat, so it feels very territorial as you go up the drive, not knowing what mood could be greeting you. Dick and Angel never contemplated anyone’s feelings.’
The couple’s fame has allowed them to run a flourishing wedding business from the castle, now worth an estimated £2 million
‘They’re both driven and they’ve both got talent,’ concedes another, but they also say that they’re ‘greedy, thankless and rude — absolutely nothing like they come across on television.’
That suggestion alone, for many devoted viewers, will burst a bubble on this feel-good show.
The series was coined in 2014 after an executive at Spark Media heard that Angel and Dick, a former army officer who has appeared as an engineering expert on TV shows such as Channel 4’s Scrapheap Challenge, were leaving their two- bedroom flat in Southend, Essex, for a new life in France.
From the start, sources claim, the couple — reportedly paid thousands per episode — wanted control.
Dick, they say, believed his previous forays in television convinced him he could do better than the crew. ‘He’d say, ‘Put your camera there, or follow that.’ They’d say how f*****g useless we were,’ says a source.
The source claimed the couple would deliberately sabotage events planned by the crew or refuse to take part in them, ‘and then say we were incompetent. They’d say, ‘I wonder who we can get fired today.’ ‘
Dick and Angel, however, have their own take on this, insisting it is simply ‘not true’ that crew were undermined.
A representative points out that Dick ‘has been a full-time TV presenter for nearly 20 years’ and that unless ‘a production team specialises in DIY, engineering or, in Angel’s case, crafts and design, they seldom know what is happening and why. Dick has to tell them in advance or it will not get captured.’
In turn, they accuse Spark Media of trying to turn ETTC into a ‘trashy reality programme’, telling the Mail: ‘Spark’s working title for the programme was ‘Chateau Essex’ — which rather proves my client’s point.’
(Spark Media sources refute this, insisting they ‘told [their story] honestly, and treated them with the greatest respect, on and off screen.)
So what of the allegations of physical threats? A former employee from Spark Media told the Mail he had seen the unaired footage of Dick Strawbridge, hammer in hand, threatening to throw a colleague out of the chateau window, while filming series one of Escape To The Chateau.
‘My colleague said, ‘For a change, rather than switching the camera off when Dick is ranting, I’m going to leave it rolling,’ ‘ he claims. ‘They decided we have got to keep some of this offensive behaviour on camera.’
Dick had been putting floorboards down, with hammer and nails, at the time, when the producer asked him to do something again because it had been missed in filming.
‘At this point, Dick looks up and he’s on his hands and knees. He says something like, ‘If you ask me to do something again I will throw you through the f*****g window,’ ‘ says the former employee. ‘To me, it was not said in jest. It was threatening. It was quite intimidating when Dick got angry.’
Strawbridge’s representatives refute the claim, saying: ‘Dick has no recollection of any such incident,’ while the producer in question declined to speak to the Mail.
However, the employee said to have been pushed around the room by Dick did give us his account.
The alleged incident happened in 2017 during filming of Spark Media’s spin-off show, ETTC DIY, when the employee and Angel were filming with two gay chateau owners whose property had previously been a children’s hospital, with a cage in one room.
The employee apparently asked Angel to question the chateau owner about the cage, something she was reluctant to do.
‘I said, ‘I’m sure that’s not a problem. Let’s speak to the executive, my job is to push you,’ ‘ he recalls.
‘That’s the point Dick came in and said, ‘Angel is a bit upset about some of the questions you’re asking her.’
‘I said, ‘It’s my job to push you.’ He said, ‘You like being pushed do you? You like to be pushed.’ It was like school kids. It was a couple of pushes in the chest.’
When asked about the incident, Dick’s representative says: ‘When Mr Strawbridge found his wife upset, he confronted the individual and suggested he tried bullying him rather than his wife.’
The employee insists he didn’t see himself as a victim of bullying, but a new recruit to the ‘bad incident with Dick club’ adding: ‘Everyone knew they were a nightmare. I wore it as a badge of honour.’
What does bother him, however, is being accused of homophobia. Dick and Angel’s spokesperson alleged recently that he’d tried to bully Angel into making fun of the fact that the couple on the programme were gay, something he calls ‘preposterous’.
‘I work in TV and half of us are gay,’ he says.
Getting to the bottom of all this becomes even more complicated when you consider the testimony sent to the Mail from two members of their filming crew who were happy at the chateau.
One of them, producer-director Sean Lewis, said a member of the Spark Media production crew ‘screamed’ at him for ‘ten minutes straight’ after he expressed concern at the way Spark treated the filming team, and Dick and Angel, prompting him to leave the series until Spark’s involvement ceased.
Then there’s the glowing testimony from four members of Chateau staff who describe the Strawbridges as delightful employers: ‘They are the most amazing and beautiful family,’ says one. Another goes so far as to say, ‘I’ve been having a ball every day!’
The members of the current production team have also leapt to their defence: ‘In three years of working with Dick and Angel, I have never felt they were unreasonable, aggressive or abusive,’ says one.
Another notes that ‘being in front of the camera is a highly stressful job’ and that ‘presenters are under extreme pressure’.
Nevertheless, he says he found the Strawbridges ‘professional, hard-working and generous’.
One thing that is clear is that at the end of series one, which aired in June 2016, the relationship between the Strawbridges and the original Spark Media production crew had become dire.
The couple reportedly said they would only allow Spark Media to carry on making the series if the show’s director was no longer involved.
As the Spark source depicts it: ‘When Channel 4 gave in to Angel’s request to get rid of him it was like they had the power to continue this approach to anyone they didn’t like . . . Channel 4 let them get away with anything.’
To which Dick and Angel’s representatives retort: ‘My clients made it clear from the outset that only those who were competent and respected the sanctity of our family should work in their home; as they were fully entitled to do.’
Nevertheless, by the end of filming series four, in 2017, Spark Media set up a separate production company, Kindling, through which they produced ETTC, with none of the original team.
For the last three series, all seems to have been equable and the couple are currently filming again.
Another issue, however, has arisen: Dick and Angel have become quasi-celebrities in the French village.
Naturally, then, fans of the show love to visit and take pictures of the iconic Chateau facade. Anyone could understand this getting a little . . . tiresome.
Some might sympathise, therefore, with Dick when an employee, who worked at the chateau for 18 months, describes how he’d witnessed him calling fans who drove up the chateau’s driveway, uninvited, to marvel at the property ‘nosy b*****ds’.
‘They just wanted to look at the chateau. She had to make sure Dick was never outside because he’d tell them to ‘f**k off’.’
The Strawbridge’s response to this was: ‘My clients sought to be courteous when asking people to respect their privacy, though had to sometimes be robust, especially if there was a wedding on, or if strangers entered the house uninvited.’
Series Director Tom Thompson, one of the television crew to speak in support of the Strawbridges, says once a family ‘were caught going through rooms’ after being told to leave ‘politely’ adding, ‘If people were polite and respected boundaries no one was ever verbally abused.’
Sacha Lorenz, a current member of Chateau staff whose testimonial was also provided to the Mail, believes ‘the issues have come from different values and work ethics and people not fitting in.’
On that, perhaps, all sides can agree.
Additional reporting: Stephanie Condron