There's a whole lot of South Africa on our television screens right now, although you might not know it. Trevor Eve filmed his recent ITV thriller Kidnap and Ransom in Cape Town, including the scenes purportedly of London, while BBC2's Alan Bleasdale epic, The Sinking of the Laconia, was also shot there, as was BBC1's big new sci-fi series Outcasts, which began last night (see review, page 22). Catch tonight's second episode and you may recognise South Africa and neighbouring Namibia standing in for the planet Carpathia, while Sky1's upcoming Martina Cole adaptation The Runaway mocked up the streets of Soho there, some 6,000 miles from the original dingy thoroughfares.
They may not exactly be about to film EastEnders on a Durban backlot, but it is a trend that has been gathering pace, especially for "epic" productions like ITV1's remake of The Prisoner, as well as two Gulf War dramas – Sky1's gung-ho adaptation of Chris Ryan's Strike Back and HBO's rather more thoughtful Generation Kill. But the production raising the most eyebrows since Channel 4 opted to produce its English Civil War drama The Devil's Whore in South Africa in 2008, is BBC4's upcoming D H Lawrence adaptation, Women in Love. Why on earth would you attempt to re-create the Midlands of the 1910s under an African sun?
The short answer is money. South Africa offers tax breaks on top of an already cheaper labour force. Then there is the country's mixed topography, from deserts to mountains, as well as rolling meadows and country lanes that could pass for dear old home. Simply add cow parsley. "We did import things like cow parsley, you can't have a scene in the hedgerow that doesn't have cow parsley," Miranda Bowen, director of Women in Love, told me recently. "I was dubious at first how I was going to make South Africa look like the muddy Midlands, however it's amazing what you can do."
Indeed it is. Peter Flannery, who wrote the English Civil War saga The Devil's Whore, found more positives than negatives. "When they said they were going to recce for locations in South Africa, I was horrified," he says. "But I was completely won over: entire oak valleys of the kind you wouldn't find in England any more. And no electricity pylons or planes flying overhead."
More of a problem is capturing the right light – Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam war movie Full Metal Jacket, which the travel-phobic Kubrick chose to shoot in London's Docklands, infamously made downtown Saigon look like an overcast afternoon on the Isle of Dogs.
That wasn't a problem with The Sinking of Laconia, which was set in and around West Africa, or for Outcasts, which is set on the planet Carpathia (take the sun block), but we shall have to wait and see whether Women in Love has caught the subdued light of Nottinghamshire.
Cost-effective foreign locations are nothing new, of course. It used to be Eastern Europe and Ireland. Back in the Sixties, it was Spain. But South Africa's attractions could prove more durable, especially with its attractive exchange rate, plentiful sunshine and diverse landscapes. It's already become something of a mini-Hollywood, or what Rory Kinnear, who is starring in Women in Love, described to me the as "the BBC state of South Africa".
"It was funny being there," he says. "We thought, 'oh well, it's just going to be the people we're doing the film with', but actually Outcasts was filming out there, and some Martina Cole thing for Sky [Runaway], so you're constantly bumping into Alan Cumming or other friends – there was always someone to go out for drinks with."
But what of the home-grown expertise withering as more and more television production is exported? Trevor Eve, star and producer of whose Kidnap and Ransom, knows what he'd do. "It's a sad situation, but there's a government to answer for that. You have to encourage industry within your own country and you have to give tax breaks."