The UK is firmly established as one of the world’s leading production hubs — and the latest figures from the British Film Institute confirm it. In 2019 overall production hit £3.6bn, an increase of 16% and the highest total on record. So what is it doing right, asks ANDY FRY?
Locations chosen for Bond movie No Time to Die include England and Scotland – and of course the 007 sound stage at Pinewood Studios
OVER the last decade, the UK has hosted more than its fair share of prestigious movies and TV series. Particularly satisfying is that the country is managing to grow its film production revenues — up 7% year on year to £1.96bn — while also picking up large volumes of high-end TV (up 29% to
£1.66bn). Feature films that have visited the UK recently include Sam Mendes’ 1917 (1919), Cary Joji Fukunaga’s James Bond movie No Time to Die (2020), Cate Shortland’s Black Widow (2020), Robert Zemeckis’ The Witches (2020), Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020) and Chloé Zhao’s The Eternals (2021). High-end international TV productions that
have been fueling the UK boom include Outlander (2014-), The Crown (2016-), His Dark Materials (2019-), Brave New World (2020), and more recently Black Narcissus and The Serpent.
It isn’t just Anglo-US content that is boosting the sector. The British Film Institute’s (BFI) inward-investment data reveals that 29 Indian productions were made in the UK during 2019 with a collective spend of £112m. All this comes in addition to the European co-productions that are an increasing feature of the high-end TV market.
“Clearly, the UK is a beneficiary of the global content boom that is being driven by the streaming platforms,” says Adrian Wootton, CEO of the British Film Commission (BFC) and Film London. “But I think our ability to take advantage of that is down to our stable fiscal regime. The UK’s attractive 25% incentive gives our international partners the consistency they crave and has encouraged our own industry to keep investing in infrastructure. The studios, the crews, the acting talent and the post-production facilities are all important.”
On top of that, Wootton adds, is the UK’s array of natural and built locations: “There’s a distinctiveness about UK locations that producers like, but parts of the country also have the ability to double for places like New York.”
“I don't think any of us imagines we'd get to the point where growth in the film TV business helped keep the UK out of recession last year." Adrian Wootton
The UK’s offer is not limited to Greater London and its network of world-class studios. Indeed, the biggest beneficiaries of the high-end TV boom are the UK’s nations and regions — Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, North West England, Yorkshire and the fast-growing film hub of Bristol in the South West. “We saw the potential for high-end production around the UK when HBO’s Game of Thrones moved into Belfast’s Titanic Studios 10 years ago,” Wootton says. “But I don't think any of us imagined we’d get to the point where growth in the film and TV business helped keep the UK out of recession last year.”
The Windermere Children, based on a true story about the child survivors of concentration camps
Game of Thrones (2011-19) has added some £250m to Northern Ireland’s economy over the last decade. HBO has now given up its lease at Titanic Studios, but the reality is that Northern Ireland has seized the opportunity to build an infrastructure that is not dependent on a single show. At the start of 2020, for example, Belfast Harbour Studios, home to productions including Syfy’s Krypton (2018-19), unveiled plans for a £45m expansion. If approved, this would add an extra six stages, making it the largest studio complex outside of South East England.
Richard Williams, chief executive of Northern Ireland Screen, says the announcement comes at a perfect time for the local screen industry: “With Disney and Apple joining Netflix and Amazon in the launch of on-demand streaming services, there’s no end in sight to the demand for high-end, high-cost content. That has led to unprecedented demand for studio space globally.”
Proof of Northern Ireland’s post-Game of Thrones appeal can be seen in the range of series that located there in 2019, including Line of Duty, Derry Girls, The Deceived, Dublin Murders and Marcella. Coming
into 2020, filming started on Bloodlands, a new crime drama for BBC One starring James Nesbitt and produced with funding from Northern Ireland Screen.
While cityscapes, studio space and set-construction capabilities have all been a massive draw for international producers, so has Northern Ireland’s rugged landscape, utilised so effectively in Game of Thrones. In 2019, Northern Ireland doubled as England’s Lake District for the filming of The Windermere Children (2020), a BBC/ZDF co-production based on a true story about the child survivors of concentration camps.
One key location used by producer Wall To Wall was Glenarm Castle, a stately home in County Antrim. “We filmed in woods, and on and underwater in the lakes,” says director Michael Samuels. “And we had big set pieces, such as a football match. There were also challenges specific to this film. Most of the young actors were restricted in the number of hours they could work each day. Also, we often had literally hundreds of extras to contend with. The wardrobe and make-up departments were heroic.”
Wales is another hub that has benefited hugely from the expansion of the global production business. Like Northern Ireland, it boasts a mix of spectacular coastlines, lush greenery, historical and modern architecture, state-of-the-art studios and great crews — not to mention financial support from Welsh agencies. Productions lured by this offer include Universal Content Productions/Amblin Television’s adaptation of Brave New World, backed by a grant from Screen Wales. Based in Dragon Studios, the series is set to be “the largest production ever filmed here”, according to the Welsh Government’s deputy minister for culture, sport and tourism, Dafydd Elis-Thomas. He adds: “The importance of our investment in this production to the development of our film and TV industry cannot be overstated.”
A scene from Sam Mendes’ 1917 shot at Glasgow’s historic Govan Graving Docks
Brave New World follows where BBC fantasy series His Dark Materials (2919-) has already led. Based on the books by Philip Pullman, the new serieswasprimarilyshotbyindieproducerBadWolfatitsownstudio complex, Wolf Studios, near Cardiff. Many spectacular sequences were filmed at the studios, underlining the quality of Wales’ set construction and VFX capabilities. Speaking about his role as Lord Asriel, actor James McAvoy says: “I have a lot of scenes in the frozen wastes of the north. You always go: ‘Are we going to go somewhere really freezing?’
They go: ‘No, we've got a bunch of kids running about and we can't take them all to Finnish Lapland so we’ll do it in studio.’ You go: ‘All right, it’s going to be rubbish.’ Then you walk on the set and it's stunning.”
The film and TV industry in Scotland also continues to do brisk business. Among the numerous films to have visited in 2019 are Fast and Furious 9, No Time to Die and the Oscar-winning 1917. TV series that have gone north include Channel 4’s Deadwater Fell (2020), BBC One’s Call the Midwife (2012) and Starz’s Outlander. The latter, which has shot several seasons in Scotland, is based at Wardpark Film and Television Studios in Cumbernauld, which has 200,000 sq ft of studio space.
Scotland’s exquisite lochs and mountains are, of course, a big draw and have played host to No Time to Die, Falling for Figaro and Perfect Strangers in the past 18 months. But just as important is the twin attraction of Glasgow and Edinburgh. “The two cities are both close to beautiful countryside,” says Glasgow Film Office film commissioner Jennifer Reynolds. “And they have complementary looks. We have a lot of historical Victorian architecture, while Edinburgh offers Georgian. And it’s only about an hour by motorway between the two, so it’s easy for crews to travel between them.”
Glasgow’s recent high-profile clients include Sam Mendes with 1917, who shot a spectacular bridge-crossing scene at the city’s historic Govan Graving Docks. “The crew was here setting up and shooting for around two months across the spring and summer,” Reynolds says.
Reynolds is limited as to what she can share because of confidentiality agreements, but local media has also been keeping a close eye on the new Batman film, starring Robert Pattinson, which has shot at various locations around Glasgow. In one scene, Batman is seen riding a motorbike around the Necropolis cemetery near the city’s cathedral.
“We can be in London or New York. One of the things production people tell us is that Glasgow’s grid system helps when trying to create the illusion that we’re n America” - Jennifer Reynolds
According to Reynolds, Glasgow also has some great contemporary looks in its financial district and has been used very effectively to double for other locations. “We can be London or New York,” she says. “In Sky Atlantic’s Patrick Melrose , our Barras market was transformed into Manhattan’s Meatpacking District in the 1980s. One of the things production people always tell us is that Glasgow’s grid system helps when trying to create the illusion that we’re in America.”
Within England, the production boom has created opportunities for location work across the country. The dynamic north-western city of Liverpool, for example, is just coming off the back of a record-breaking 18 months during which it serviced 324 different film and TV projects. With 1,750 production days in total, the Liverpool Film Office reported “an increasing trend in the number of high-end TV dramas coming to the city”. Productions including Sky Atlantic’s Tin Star (2017-), Netflix’s The Crown and the BBC’s World on Fire (2919-) helped bring £17.6m into the local economy.
Tin Star sees the central characters relocate from Canada to the UK to face their troubled past. “Liverpool City Region provided us with a wealth of cinematic locations, and the support we received from Liverpool Film Office and the people of this city has been instrumental in creating our third series,” says executive producer Alison Jackson.
The English Game, Netflix
Other productions filmed in the region in 2019 included Amazon Prime’s The Feed, Sky One’s Cobra and Netflix’s The Irregulars. The last, produced by Drama Republic, is set in Victorian London and follows a gang of delinquent teens who are manipulated into solving crimes for a sinister figure named Doctor Watson. In 2019, Liverpool also doubled as New York in Das Boot(2018-), Madrid in Years and Years (2019) and Wales in The Snow Spider (2020-). Liverpool Film Office manager Lynn Saunders says: “We are attracting an increasing number of high- end dramas, which spend more time filming here. This is not only an invaluable economic boost, but also benefits us reputationally.”
In terms of building sustainability into its offer, Liverpool has launched its own regional production fund and is soon to have its own film studio. The Littlewoods Film Studio will offer two 20,000 sq ft sound stages and is scheduled to launch in 2021. The fund, which is open to qualifying local, national and international companies, will typically invest up to 20% of a production’s budget, with a cap of £500,000 per project. It can also be combined with UK tax reliefs.
The English county of Yorkshire seized the opportunity presented by the global production boom when it launched the Yorkshire Content Fund in 2012. Since then, it has invested in more than 40 projects,
including Peaky Blinders (2013-), Dad’s Army (2016), Ackley Bridge (2017), Official Secrets (2019) and Gentleman Jack (2019-). The county went a stage further in November 2018 when it launched a film office — a move that has further boosted Yorkshire’s production prospects.
Across 2019, Yorkshire hosted 27 high-end TV productions and 14 feature films — the equivalent of 1,500 days of work. Feature films supported by Screen Yorkshire’s Film Office included Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019), Downton Abbey (2019) and Military Wives (2019). Among the most substantial TV shoots in 2019 was The English Game (2020-), a Netflix series written by Julian Fellowes that explores the emergence of professional football in the 1870s. Locations included the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Saltaire and Keighley’s historical railway station. Also featured in the production was Bradford City Hall and the city’s Little Germany merchant district.
ITV’s Victoria (2016-) is another production that has been embedded in Yorkshire for several seasons, utilising both historical locations and Church Fenton Yorkshire Studios, where Buckingham Palace scenes have been meticulously recreated. Also of note is All Creatures Great and Small, a recent adaptation of James Herriot’s famous novels, produced by Playground for Channel 5, PBS Masterpiece and All3Media International. Commenting on the input from Screen Yorkshire, Noëlette Buckley, Playground’s head of production, says: “Local knowledge and experience was vital when we were making decisions about where to base ourselves and who we might consider for the team.”
Caroline Cooper Charles, head of strategic programmes at Screen Yorkshire, says All Creatures Great and Small shot towards the end of 2019 in the Yorkshire Dales. “It perfectly showcases the countryside that Yorkshire is so famous for,” she says. “But it’s only one of many looks the region offers. We also have rural, industrial, sleek modern architecture, spectacular coastline...”
Chris Hordley, a former location manager who is now part of Screen Yorkshire’s production liaison and development team, adds: “A big attraction for producers is the sheer number of stately homes here, which are great for period dramas. And the city of Hull is perfect as a double for London — most recently in The Personal History of David Copperfield .”
Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet on the set of period
Among the big stories coming out of Yorkshire right now are the planned relocation of broadcaster Channel 4 from London to Leeds and the imminent launch of Leeds Studio. Backed by All Studios, Prime Studios and Leeds City Council, the new complex will provide five world-class production stages for TV, feature-film and commercials clients.
Ben Hepworth, managing director of Prime Studios, says the new facility will offer more than 130,000 sq ft of production space, including 68,000 sq ft of premium sound stages. “It’s exactly the kind of facility we need to be able to host all aspects of high-end scripted productions in the region,” he adds. “Instead of being based in London and coming up to Yorkshire for its locations, the new studio will provide the likes of Netflix and Amazon with everything they need. We’ve already seen a significant number of enquiries from producers who recognise that it will act as a gateway to Yorkshire’s locations.’’
While Leeds Studios looks set to be a game-changer, one factor that can often stall a region’s expansion plans is access to crew. But Screen Yorkshire’s Cooper Charles and Hordley say their county is also addressing this point through the development of a regional crew and facilities service. “We’ve launched a survey so we can establish the scale of the existing crew base in Yorkshire and Humber,” Hordley says. “This will enable us to create a comprehensive crew and facilities database. That way, we’ll be able to show incoming productions exactly what Yorkshire can offer in terms of experienced crew members.”
Liverpool and Yorkshire have been key players in the development of a compelling production offer from the north of England. Not to be overlooked in this context is Manchester, which has a superb tradition of production, mainly in TV. “Manchester has always had a lot of great crews, studios and locations,” says Bobby Cochrane, development manager at Screen Manchester. “Two years ago we launched a dedicated film office to try to promote a unified front to filmmakers. That has really paid off, with a significant rise in the level of film and high-end TV we are now servicing.”
2019’s figures underline Cochrane’s point: “The film office processed 454 production enquiries, with over 300 productions shot over a total of 684 filming days. This has generated an on-location spend of more than £7m. Clients that have been filming in and around the city include Netflix, Amazon, Sky, Sony Pictures and the BBC.”
A recent project that showcased Manchester’s credentials was Netflix’s The Crown, which used the city’s Northern Quarter to double for 1980s New York. “We worked with The Crown production team for a number of months to secure the necessary permissions and permits to film in the city centre,” Cochrane says.
Spider-Man spin-off Morbius (2021) also used the Northern
Quarter to cheat contemporary New York, complete with yellow taxis, blue US Mail postboxes and a Ford Mustang. And Sky’s Das Boot also picked the same section of Manchester to recreate 1940s New York. “It all goes to show the city’s growing appeal to producers seeking to double,” Cochrane adds. “And we also have locations that can double for London, such as Manchester Town Hall, which played the Houses Of Parliament in BBC One’s A Very English Scandal .”
Other productions that landed during 2019 included the BBC’s Peaky Blinders and Netflix’s The Stranger (2020), based on the novel by Harlan Coben. “The Stranger was made by Red Productions, which is based in Manchester,” Cochrane adds. “It was a good advert for the varied looks across the city and the film-friendly nature of the community. It used locations including Ancoats, St Peter’s Square and Whalley Range, but it wasn’t intended to be Manchester. The producers wanted a neutral, contemporary look that could be almost anywhere.”
Like its northern neighbours, Manchester is keen to extend its appeal to producers by offering studio space to support its location story. This ambition is aided by Space Studios, which opened in 2017. “Space is part of the city’s long-term strategy in this sector,” Cochrane says. “It’s a purpose-built film and television facility with six stages. Projects it has hosted recently include political drama Cobra [2020-21] for Sky One.”
Another UK hotspot that has combined studio, location and crew strengths to build its profile is Bristol. In 2019, the city, which is home to the Bottle Yard Studios, hosted several prestige productions, including The Pale Horse (2020/Mammoth Screen for BBC One), The Spanish Princess (1919/Starz) and The Trial of Christine Keeler (2019-20/Ecosse Films for BBC One).
For The Pale Horse, a Chelsea-apartment set was built at the Bottle Yard, while the six-week shoot also used locations to double for London’s Soho and East End in the 1960s. The Keeler project, meanwhile, filmed for 17 weeks at the Bottle Yard, with sets including interiors of London’s Wimpole Mews and Marylebone Police Station. Cast members filmed at more than 10 locations around Bristol to recreate 1960s London, including offices above St Nicholas Market, which were used to double for the War Office and MI5.
Executive producer Douglas Rae says what Bristol has created “is very special”. He adds: “To be able to produce a major drama with