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Walkout by 'Harry Potter' film crew averted

A walkout on the sets of two of this year's biggest films was narrowly averted yesterday.

More than 400 backstage specialists working on the third Harry Potter movie and Troy, in which Brad Pitt plays Achilles, had threatened to halt production over a contract dispute. But a last-minute deal between Warner Bros and Bectu, the union representing film, theatre and broadcast staff, ensured filming would continue.

Workers including carpenters, plasterers and stage hands had served notice to end their contracts today. The agreement includes the reduction of a 50-hour week to 45 hours. Bectu said the salaries of backstage specialists had not risen in three years and that the dispute had been building for that length of time.

Film producers including Warner Bros and Paramount have agreed to take part in annual discussions on pay and conditions with Bectu, starting in September. Talks between employees working on Universal Film's version of the cult puppet show Thunderbirds are also under way.

The walkout would have delayed the release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, starring Daniel Radcliffe as Harry and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, which is being filmed at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire. It would also have held up Troy, being made at Shepperton Studios, London.

The Film Council of Britain welcomed the outcome of the dispute, while Martin Spence, Bectu's assistant general secretary, said: "It is a good deal for our members who have been treated shabbily in the past ...If films which are being made in the UK suddenly run into problems, questions will be raised if such films can be finished."

The union will continue to push for more secure conditions for backstage employees, many of whom are on contracts of three to six months.