Star Wars crowns a stellar year for the West’s film production sector

By Western Daily Press

The West Country is at the heart of a host of film locations, from Hollywood blockbusters to UK terrestrial TV series. And, as Richard Bache reports, the business they bring in is set to continue throughout the coming year and beyond

“And the Oscar for the best location in the country to film movies in 2015 goes to… the West Country”.

It is no exaggeration to say that 2015 was a stellar year for the West Country’s burgeoning film and television industry.

Tens of millions of people at cinemas across the globe have – whether they are aware of it or not – seen the spectacular scenery of Puzzlewood in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire while watching box office sensation Star Wars – The Force Awakens.

And it has sparked a tourism bonanza for the ancient forest that could last for years.

It has already seen fans of the franchise flock to the area to see the locations used for the latest film.

Some fans are even dressing up as stormtroopers to walk in Puzzlewood.

During late December visitor numbers were said to be double the average for that time of year, with some hotels and B&Bs claiming they were struggling to meet demand.

The creators of the blockbuster have praised the moss-covered woodland which many say provided JRR Tolkien with the inspiration for the forests of Middle Earth.

Wye Valley and Forest of Dean Tourism have released a guide for those looking for the Luke Skywalker experience.

The organisation believes the film will bring £50 million to the local economy, which has also benefited from being a filming location for Doctor Who, Merlin and Atlantis, over the next five years.

Consultancy Olsberg estimates that “screen tourism” was worth as much as £140 million to the UK last year. Figures just released by Creative England, the body funded by the British Film Institute to help companies find locations, show that in 2015 it supported more than 1,100 film and television projects, a record for the third successive year.

“The number of inquiries this year is up by 40 per cent,” said Caroline Norbury, chief executive of Creative England, which calculates that this year production companies spent almost £100million in local economies outside London.

“Our main issue has been trying to absorb it all.”

Britain is becoming an increasingly favourite location for film crews.

While many of the films were shot by the big US studios, interest has started to come from further afield, including Bollywood.

Now television drama looks set to be the biggest winner as Netflix and HBO try to cut the minimum £1 million an hour production costs they face stateside.

“We’ve seen an influx of people looking to shoot in the UK,” Ms Norbury said.

“They’re coming because we’ve got brilliant locations and the tax credits, but also because we’ve got a great skills base. It’s a place where people want to come; they enjoy filming here and they think they get a really good deal.”

Antony House in Cornwall saw summer visitor numbers increase from 25,000 to almost 100,000 after the success of Alice in Wonderland in 2010. Chavenage House in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, saw a surge after being used to film Poldark and the Cotswolds hamlet of Bampton attracted some £2.7 million from day trippers keen to see the real-life setting of Julian Fellowes’ epic saga Downton Abbey.

Dorset’s West Bay has benefited from its location for child murder drama Broadchurch. Other countries such as Canada are also keen to lure productions and there are fears producers will look elsewhere.

But Ms Norbury said: “Harry Potter sustained us for ten years and that has given people plenty of time to develop the next new franchise.

“And, besides, we’ve got lots more Star Wars to come.”

One of the least likely names to feature on the credits for the latest Star Wars film was Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.

But the tax breaks given to film studios has been credited with a resurgence in Britain being used a filming location.

Tourism is, though, far from the only beneficiary when Hollywood comes to town.

There is an increasing demand for a myriad technical production skills needed to create any film or television show.

The Bottle Yard Studios in South Bristol have played host to dozens of major productions in the past five years and the demand for its production spaces has helped attract more than a dozen ancillary filming businesses to its site.

It is based at the former Harvey’s Cream sherry plant at Whitchurch, on a site that was owned by the South West Regional Development Agency.

Businesses ranging from a BBC post-production subsidiary, to a chauffeur firm specialising in film and TV production via prop building firms, camera and sound equipment specialists to security companies are tenants at the Bottle Yard.

Among the stars seen at the studios last year was pop princess Kylie Minogue.

The diminutive singer filmed a cameo appearance in the American show Galavant, which also filmed on The Matthew at the Harbourside.

Galavant, a Disney production, is currently filming its second series in Bristol.

The studios have also been heavily involved in the production of recent hits Wolf Hall and Poldark.

The Living and the Dead – a six-part drama set in Somerset in the 1800s – has been filming at the former wine warehouse in South Bristol and should hit our screens this year.

The supernatural drama is the latest in a string of high-profile BBC dramas to be filmed at the largest production space in the South West.

Other TV shows filmed at the studios in the last two years include Sherlock and one-off dramas such as The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies.

And with a strong line-up of talent behind the project there are high hopes for the programme.

The series has been created by local screen-writer Ashley Pharoah – one of the writers behind the hugely successful Life on Mars and its sequel Ashes to Ashes.

The production uses 20,000 square feet of space for set building of the period interiors as well as production offices, prop stores and making all the costumes on-site.

Filming will take place at locations across Bristol – supported by Bristol Film Office – and the rest of the region.

Speaking late last year Fiona Francombe, who is in charge of The Bottle Yard said: “It’s fantastic to welcome The Living and the Dead to The Bottle Yard. We have shown that we can accommodate the complex demands of major dramas in the period genre very successfully, so it’s marvellous to add another highly anticipated, high-profile title like this to our credits.

“It’s also great to welcome back to the studios some familiar faces from previous productions that have filmed with us – producer Eliza Mellor, who made the incredibly successful Poldark with us last year, as well as director Alice Troughton and line producer Kate Dudley, who filmed Frankie here back in 2012.”

The studios, which were conceived in 2010 after Bristol’s television business took a huge hit with the loss of Casualty to Cardiff, have been credited with bringing millions of pounds to the city’s economy.

Such is the demand for filming locations in the Cotswolds that a new business was born in 2015.

An entrepreneur from Stroud launched a business offering full production and location management support to film and television companies on location in the Cotswolds.

Through the Cotswold Film and Location Office, Emma James aims to attract crews from across the globe to the region, by offering her local knowledge and industry expertise.

Emma has lived in Stroud for nearly 20 years. During that time, her career has taken her all over the world and she has also worked on some of the UK’s most successful series, such as Lewis, Casualty, Cider With Rosie and The Casual Vacancy.

To launch her business, Emma secured a £4,000 loan from the government-backed Start Up Loans Scheme, delivered by SWIG Finance.

Emma said: “I initially looked for bank funding, but I was seen as high-risk because my work has always been intermittent, due to the nature of the industry. Securing the funding through SWIG Finance was a great experience.”

Sarah Osborn, fund manager SWIG Finance and Emma James on location in Miserden, Gloucestershire, where Emma supported the filming of Cider with Rosie. She has launched the Cotswold Film and Location Office

Meanwhile cinemagoers in 2016 should be afforded more than a glimpse of stunning Somerset when Hollywood’s dark take on Grimm’s fairytales airs.

The Huntsman, starring Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth, had numerous scenes filmed in Wells.

The Huntsman tells the tale of what happens when the eponymous hero played by Mr Hemsworth upsets the evil Queen Ravenna – Charlize Theron – as he embarks on a quest for a magic mirror.

The film includes a galaxy of critically acclaimed actors including Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Sam Claflin, Nick Frost, Sheridan Smith, Rob Bryden and Alexandra Roach. Emily, star of last year’s acclaimed fantasy musical Into The Woods, is reportedly playing a villainous role.

Television viewers have long been familiar with the beautiful Wiltshire Cotswolds.

In September last year two major series were being filmed within just a few miles of each other. At Lacock, filming for Doctor Thorne, the Anthony Trollope period drama, which has been adapted for ITV by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, took place.

The series features a galaxy of British acting stars, including Ian McShane, Tom Hollander and Prince Harry’s on-off girlfriend Cressida Bonas, in Trollope’s 19th century series about a doctor and his daughter living in a small country town.

Lord Fellowes, from Dorset, backed Ms Bonas to succeed playing the role of Dr Thorne’s daughter’s best friend Patience. “She’s perfect for the part,” he said in September.

“The trouble is, when you become famous for going out with someone there’s a tendency to assume that everything that follows afterwards is only because of that.

“But, in fact, she is a good actress and I think she will find her place in the industry.”

Meanwhile, just 15 miles away, Sky TV took over the tiny village of Easton Grey, near Malmesbury.

It was there to film its modern day murder mystery satire Agatha Raisin, which stars Ashley Jansen and Gavin & Stacey star Mathew Horne.

Spectre was the most lucrative film yet in the James Bond franchise.

Naomie Harris made her second appearance as Moneypenny in the film.

In an interesting quirk she is the third consecutive actress to play the role who trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, after Samantha Bond (who starred opposite Pierce Brosnan) and Caroline Bliss (the Timothy Dalton era).

The theatre, which has trained multiple Oscar winners, has yet to produce a 007, but it is marking some truly significant numbers in 2016.

It marks its 250th anniversary this year and has a substantial programme of events to celebrate the incredible milestone.

The company is also continuing to redevelop its King Street theatre.

The next phase is about to start; a new entrance foyer, studio theatre, bar and restaurant and the return of Grade I-listed Coopers’ Hall to its original 18th century use as an events space.

The theatre has grown its turnover by 30 per cent in recent years. Including its £1.2 million Arts Council grant and £288,640 from Bristol City Council, Bristol Old Vic brings in £3.7 million a year, about £1.5 million of which is box office revenue.

It could make more from higher ticket prices but aims to keep theatre affordable, with top tickets for the big shows costing around £40.

All told, the stage is set for the West Country to once again enjoy a dramatic – and profitable – year in the world of film, television and theatre.

Read more:

Comments are closed.