On location: California, Cannes... and now Cardiff

As the BBC launches its fantasy drama 'Merlin', the Welsh capital is fast becoming the film and TV producer's location of choice
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The Independent Culture

Cardiff is not the first name that springs to mind when discussing glamorous film-making locations, but the Welsh capital is, increasingly, becoming the movie and television producer's venue of choice.

For many years the city was best known for its Arms Park, declining post-industrial image and Saturday-night scuffles. Now it is shrugging off that bleak heritage and striving for new status as a sort of "Valleywood". To underline that, on Saturday the BBC launches the fantasy drama Merlin, starring Richard Wilson and Anthony Head. Much of it was shot in Wales.

On the back of the recent success of Dr Who and Torchwood, film crews are increasingly forgoing the hustle and bureaucracy of London and other locations for Cardiff and its environs because of the area's willingness to co-operate, lower location fees and range of scenery.

This month, Tim Roth and Kelly MacDonald began shooting the feature film Skellig in and around Cardiff. South Wales became the preferred location for filming, even though David Almond's best-selling novel is set in his home city of Newcastle.

Other films recently shot in and around the city include Abraham's Point, starring Mackenzie Crook, and the horror film Flick, with Faye Dunaway. The Wesley Snipes action-thriller The Contractor was also filmed in the city.

The nearby town of Barry also continues to provide a cheaper alternative to London for the BBC's award-winning series Gavin and Stacey, currently filming a Christmas special.

Nicky James, location manager for Torchwood, said: "Cardiff is now a fresh, new city – the Opera House and the Civic Centre had just been finished before Dr Who was filmed there. [They are] very striking and have given Cardiff a new, sleek skyline. Coupled with the backdrop against water, it's really very striking and futuristic."

David Ball, a film producer who spent 26 years at the legendary Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, moved to Cardiff because the Welsh capital became a much more desirable option to film in than London on account of its range of locations – all within easy reach of the city. After producing a succession of films in Wales, he decided to make Cardiff his home.

"You've also got forests, lakes, beaches, castles and so much diverse architecture in the city," Mr Ball said. "All the locations you might need are 20 minutes away from Cardiff, but a day location and overnight stay if you're doing it from London, which is much more costly.

"We shot New York here for The Last Seduction II. With some clever camera angles and some yellow taxis, some steam coming through the pavements, we were able to create New York City in Cardiff... You can film both old and new here. When you film in London there's so much bureaucracy, with the different councils and film offices. In Cardiff you get it to a much lesser degree. It's a very user-friendly city when it comes to filming."

Wales has been a location for film and TV in the past, but that was mostly in the north. The 1960s science fiction series The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan, made Portmeirion a popular tourist destination. Much of Merlin was also shot in north Wales.

And not just film producers are benefiting from the city. Dr Who and Torchwood are attracting tourists in droves. More than a million people have gone through the doors of the Doctor Who Up-Close exhibition in Cardiff Bay's Red Dragon Centre since it opened in 2005. Replete with daleks and cybermen, props, costumes and monsters, it is now part of the tourist campaign for Wales.

Visitors keen to see places featured on the shows can also pick up maps of locations used across the city – a concept not a million miles away from the guided film-location tours offered in Hollywood.

Ed Townsend, head of public relations for Visit Cardiff, said: "A number of hotels are now offering Dr Who breaks and packages, which are proving to be very popular. Quite a lot of production companies are also basing themselves here in Cardiff, which is having an affect on people's awareness of it as a place where filming is done. Cardiff is a gateway to any kind of environment you want."

"When you see Cardiff on film, it looks like LA – it looks amazing," says John Barrowman, who plays Torchwood's Captain Jack. "I think a lot of people are going to want to come here, not just because of Torchwood but because it's such a great place."