“You could step outside this door and nobody would have any idea what’s happening inside,” says Bede Blake, with all the melodrama of a line from a Walt Disney production, as he walks out into the windswept car park of an industrial estate in Cheshire.
Behind him, disguised by the anonymous facade of Unit 31, is a film set of remarkable artistry funded by the world’s most famous children’s entertainment brand. Mickey Mouse has come to Warrington.
Inside the warehouse is the replication of the grand hallway of an English stately home, where suits of armour preside at the foot of a wooden staircase dressed with a red carpet. Beyond the hallway is a warren of other sets; an ancient fireplace, a 20ft-high spooky moorland ruin, the meticulously decorated bedroom of a teenage girl.
This is Evermoor Manor, the setting for Evermoor, the Walt Disney Company’s first British production for the Disney Channel in America. The fantasy drama, about an urban American girl who finds herself living with British relatives in a grand English country home, will be shown in 160 countries around the world when it launches in the autumn. The four-part series, written by Blake, which is being made by Liverpool-based Lime Pictures, is of major importance for the creative sector in the north of England and the local economy in the corner of Cheshire where filming is taking place.
As general manager of Arley Hall, the 15th-century stately pile that has provided the exterior shots for Evermoor Manor, Steve Hamilton is rubbing his palms in excitement at a potential Downton Abbey effect. “We battle to bring coach operators here but at Highclere [Castle, where it’s filmed] they actually turn them away,” he says in reference to the transatlantic interest in ITV’s hit period drama.
Although Arley Hall has previously featured as a backdrop in television adaptations of Cluedo and The Forsyte Saga, Evermoor offers unprecedented international exposure. In the two months since news broke of the Evermoor project, the Disney pixie dust has already caused a surge in wedding bookings. Hamilton has told staff at Viscount Ashbrook’s family seat that for the first time in 50 years they must be prepared to work beyond October, to allow Disney Channel viewers to see the house. “For this opportunity we are having to rethink our entire way of operating.”
Rachel Wilkinson, who runs a family ice-cream business in the nearby hamlet of Great Budworth – also featured in Evermoor – says she will be “happy to serve” a cornet to any American tourists who arrive in the Domesday Book-listed settlement. “We feel honoured that Disney chose this beautiful village.”
Claire Poyser, joint MD for Lime Pictures, which also makes Hollyoaks and The Only Way is Essex, said the production is employing up to 100 people, including specialist scenic artists, joiners and embroiderers recruited locally. “The North is massively busy at the moment in terms of programme production,” she says. David Levine, Disney’s head of programming in Europe, said the UK was “in active development on multiple projects and looking for more” in the UK, because of the quality of talent.
Evermoor’s cast is overwhelmingly British and includes Belinda Stewart-Wilson (Will’s mum in The Inbetweeners) and Dan Fredenburgh, who appeared in the feature films Love Actually and The Bourne Ultimatum. There are no Americans in the cast and the leading female part of uprooted American teenager Tara Crossley is played by Naomi Sequeira, 19, a successful television host on the Disney Channel in Australia. Tara falls in love with local delivery boy Cameron, played by Manchester actor Finney Cassidy, 18.
The idea for Evermoor has its roots in the Hereford Mappa Mundi, the 13th-century drawing that hung on the wall of Hereford Cathedral where Tim Compton, co-creator of the drama with Diane Whitley, attended the local school. “I grew up with the Mappa Mundi. It was full of mad stuff like men with no heads or eyes in their shoulders,” he says as he stands on the set in front of the giant tapestry that is Evermoor’s central theme.
“The Mappa Mundi is a primitive culture’s projection of what the world might be like. Our Evermoor tapestry is of a community looking inwards.” The tapestry, mostly painted by scenic artists but with some professional embroidery, is reminiscent of the type of cartography relished by fans of Lord of the Rings. It contains a gold thread, which Tara discovers has magic powers.
Compton is sufficiently confident of Evermoor’s success that he is already scanning the set to identify new plot lines. He waves his hand at the kitchen and says: “There’s a disused well under there – I know it’s there if I need it.”
He hopes that Tara, who enjoys books and wants to “create her own destiny” will be a “positive role model” for Evermoor’s audience, especially his own two daughters.
Chris Cottam, the show’s director, has three weeks to complete the filming and turn a Warrington warehouse and a Cheshire stately home into the eerie world of Evermoor. “I’m always thinking cinematically,” he says. “I’m trying to make these kids look iconic.”
Disney has a track record of turning child actors – such as Zac Efron and Selena Gomez – into stars and Sequeira says: “I would love to be a movie star. I’d love to be a superhero or an action character like Lara Croft.”
It’s the new route to Hollywood – head for Warrington.