We can do lochs too

Wales scarcely figured on Hollywood's map, but 'First Knight' gave the Welsh ideas. Could Wales be the new Scotland? They invited some US film executives to take a look
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First There was Ireland and the Troubles, then there was Scotland and its painted warriors, now there's Wales and ... ? The Welsh Film Commission, the newest cinema body in Britain, has taken a long, hard look at the "Irish Experience" and decided to offer its own stock of heroes, legends and unspoilt landscapes to the money men behind America's silver screen. After all, if they fell for Michael Collins and grew misty-eyed over Rob Roy, why shouldn't they succumb to the charms of Aneurin Bevan? Signs are encouraging - the newly found American taste for pasty-faced, pigeon- chested Brits with regional accents has boosted the coffers of studios such as Fox, and Celts, in particular, are on the crest of a new wave in film-making. Hollywood's financiers are finally taking the "Brit pic" seriously.

SO, AT 11.05 on a cold, dank Thursday last month, a band of Hollywood players climbed into a gleaming new Land Rover Discovery (provided by a friendly Welsh car showroom) to undertake the Welsh leg of a "Familiarisation Trip for US Production Executives". Assuming they liked the place, cockney wife-beaters and Sheffield strippers will in time be succeeded on the big screen by daffs, druids and Dylan Thomas.

Before the revival of interest in all things Celtic, Wales had little more than Carry on up the Khyber, The Dambusters and On the Black Hills gracing its film cv. But then First Knight, starring Richard Gere and Sean Connery, came to Trawsfynned. The First Knight shoot is still the talk of the valleys. The film brought around pounds 2 m revenue with it, and, with unemployment at 10 per cent and only seasonal jobs provided by tourism, the Commission now wants to kickstart a Welsh film industry. "For First Knight, they paid extras pounds 60 per day, plus food," the WFC's publicist, David Lepla-Lewis, explained. "And I can tell you, they used a lot of extras." A Hollywood-funded biopic of Bevan is in the pipeline, "and we've got plenty more where he came from. Who knows, maybe Dick Deryn will be next."

The aim of the familiarisation trip, Lepla-Lewis said, was to convince LaLaland that Wales was the next Ireland. And who might be able to put Wales on Hollywood's map? Vice-President of Summit Entertainment Andrew Martin (who recently co-financed Antonia Bird's Face) was one mover willing to be persuaded of the country's cinematic potential. When he wasn't admiring sheep-filled valleys - there are more sheep than people in Wales - and quaint market towns, Martin (who claimed a resemblance to Daniel Day-Lewis) was mugging up on a biography of Caitlin Thomas. Summit's next project? A script based on Dylan and Caitlin's life: "It'll be a Welsh Sid and Nancy," he confided. Casting is in progress, and filming is scheduled for next year.

Also on the trip was the President of Jodie Foster's Egg Pictures, Stuart Kleinman. He was researching a project on the 18th-century bandit Jonathan Wild - "the screenplay's by Don (The Avengers) MacPherson". More reticent than Martin, Kleinman preferred to hide his enjoyment of the Discovery tour behind shades and the peak of his baseball cap, but he did admit that as shooting can be difficult in a modern metropolis like London, perhaps an unspoilt town like Ruthin might more suitably play Wild's London. Ned Rosen, Creative Executive from 20th Century Fox, George Woods Baker (Chief Exec of Intrepidus) and Brad Wilson from Greystone Films were just along for the ride.

And some ride it turned out to be. The itinerary, devised by the WFC, should have carried a health warning. Day one of the heavily sponsored programme saw the precious cargo taking a trip on the Berwyn Belle Steam Train in Llangollen (courtesy of the Welsh Tourist Board), then driving 50 miles to Chirk Castle for tea and a National Trust presentation. Another two hours in the bus and the visitors reached the climax of the day: a Medieval Banquet at Ruthin Castle Hotel and Conference Centre (hosted by Lee Lighting and "TAC").

By now exhausted, "and it's only the first day", the execs were treated to dinner in a banqueting hall furnished with stags' heads, coats of arms and long trestle tables. Mead - "a typically Welsh drink, which brings certain qualities to married people" - was served in pewter tankards. Inevitably, wenches in medieval garb came on singing "There'll be a welcome in the valleys". Their final song, "The stars will be singing all through the night", rounded off the Medieval Experience.

As an extra taste of local colour, the former leader of Plaid Cymru, Lord Daffyd Elis-Thomas, had been roped in by the WFC, for the obvious reason that "if you can wheel out a title you're halfway there". Lord Elis-Thomas presided over the banquet with all the gusto of one of his medieval forebears, commanding his guests to sing along with the wenches. One eventually took the hint, and to everyone's amazement, in a quavering, impassioned and very loud bass, Robert A Delafield, billed as "Barritone [sic] Singer, Speaker/ Actor", took the floor with several verses of "God Bless America". Huddled together in a corner, the Hollywood execs cringed behind their tankards. With his purple jerkin unlaced to reveal a chest heaving with curly white hair and thick, black beard revealing two ovals of flesh on either side of his chin, Robert A Delafield was an extraordinary sight. His performance lasted a good five minutes, by the end of which not a single executive was left in sight. They'd skinked off to bed - "They're tired," admitted a WFC rep.

Mr Delafield still had his story to tell, and it was worth hearing. Twenty-one generations of Welsh baritones behind him ("that accounts for the voice, you see"), he had returned to his homeland to make a documentary called The Greatest Cause: A Story of the Martyrs - and, mysteriously, "all those who passed on". A film of ambitious scope, it would also retell the King James version of the Bible. And which martyrs was he featuring? "Everyone from Ridley, to Latimer to Cranmer to William Tyndale and Robert Ferrar - a Welsh martyr". Naturally, he was starring in it, hence the beard: "It's period. I'm the 'man of the ploughs' telling the story. I have to look as common as possible, but I'm also playing King James, who had a similar beard."

Lord Elis-Thomas then explained, using the latest marketing terminology, why he wants to bring the movies to Wales. As Chairman of Sgrin (Screen) - the media agency for Wales - "Our aim is to build up the international profile of the Welsh product, marketing the services of Welsh producers and industry folk. What we've got is very accessible; scenery can be turned around into visual packages easily, and you've got the obvious things - castles, estuaries, seascapes, mountains, industrial sites. The important thing for film-makers is to get as many sites as possible turned into their product, and having them close together makes it easier." Lord Elis- Thomas and his colleagues were going for the hard sell, and, for them, their product's strong point was its size, unspoilt landscapes, cheap labour, and lack of parking meters. "There isn't a single parking meter in the whole of Wales," Yvonne Cheal, the Cardiff WFC rep, triumphantly announced.

THIS WAS the first time in Wales for the US executives, and Cheal was "overwhelmed by how positive they are". "We're doing north Wales first, then down to central Wales, and by lunchtime tomorrow we'll be in Cardiff." The North WFC, the Mid-WFC and the South WFC would hand over the relay baton at pre-arranged stages. The next day, Mike Wallwork (Mid-Wales) took over, and we drove to Portmeirion, the Italianate village in Gwynedd, home to the cult TV series The Prisoner.

Although Wales really does have a heritage landmark behind every hilltop, and miles of deep valleys swathed in bluey-green mist (the country was putting on a great show for the Discoverers), the driver was more concerned to point out the lake "where Richard Gere filmed scenes from First Knight. And don't forget we're having tea at the hotel he stayed at." He clearly meant business.

The WFC wanted to push Portmeirion hard - though the village can surely only play its famous self. Andrew Martin and Brad Wilson were dutifully entranced - but with only five minutes between disembarkation and lunch, there wasn't much time to look around. Sian Jones, Marketing Manager of Gwynedd County Council, had come to give a talk extolling the beauties of the Welsh landscape. She did so in the kind of local-government jargon that robs its subject of any romance. Vales and woodland became "Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs)", reed banks and river valleys, "Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs)", and miles of glorious shingle beaches "designated coastline". With Jones anxiously keeping an eye on her watch, lunch was not leisurely. After just a couple of mouthfuls of bread-and-butter pudding, it was "Can you finish your puddings now, please, and come through for coffee where Mrs Menai Williams would like to give an introductory talk on the history of Portmeirion." We were herded away from still-groaning tables.

Andrew Martin, the "foreign-protocol expert", according to Ned Rosen, asked the obligatory questions: "How many hours of sunlight do you have a day?"; "Where can I buy a pennyfarthing?"; and "Do people actually live here?" Here, Mrs Williams was on sure ground: "No, but we have 17 self-catering cottages and parking spaces for up to 40 cars. If you ever want to come and stay for research purposes, we could, of course, arrange complimentary accommodation." There were appreciative murmurs: "Great ... sure

But no time for fond regrets: we were due to visit the Portmeirion pottery shop. That done, Andrew confided that he and his compatriots were suffering from local-dignitary fatigue: "I've done shoots that are more relaxed than this. From six in the morning to 12 at night, we're in the van, or visiting castles, or listening to talks. Sure we appreciate it, but it's hard having to be entertained all the time. We need some downtime, too."

Walking round Portmeirion was a logistical nightmare for the Commissioners, as Andrew, Stuart and Brad, like naughty schoolboys, were determined to give them the slip. But Commissioners outnumbered executives and they split up in order to hunt down their charges. A few minutes later we were back in the Range Rover and off on a 55-mile drive to Dyfed to see the 18th-century Dyfi Furnace and nearby waterfall.

Although the itinerary stated that, weather permitting, we would visit Artists' Valley, we only stayed for five minutes. Brad, though, concluded it was worth it: "I've been all over the world looking for a waterfall this accessible. Trucks can park in the road, the crew can set up in the river - see how shallow it is - all kinds of angles are possible." Next up was afternoon tea, another 50-odd miles away, at Ynyshir Hall, where Richard Gere so famously stayed while filming First Knight.

IS WALES the land of the next Rob Roy? According to Yvonne Cheal, it is: "Wales has a lot to offer that hasn't been exploited yet. Plenty of locations that haven't been burnt out. There's lots of fresh stuff coming through (Twin Town, House of America), it's not just How Green Was My Valley. I think Wales is going to be the next flavour of the month. Let's face it, Scotland's too far away, and it's too expensive to transport crews and equipment. Anyway, we can do lochs here."

And, of course, Wales has lots of martyrs, too: Prince Llywelyn, the last Welsh ruler, and the first man in England to be hung, drawn and quartered, "was the Welsh Braveheart, if you like, and 100 years prior to William Wallace".

I left the executives resigned to another two days of frantic sightseeing and location pitching. They'd learnt a lot, though, and Brad Wilson enthused: "Wales is the most beautiful country I've ever seen. And I've been everywhere."

But with news of Miramax's recent appointment of David Aukin, formerly head of film at Channel 4, who will be setting up a film production, acquisition and distribution business in Britain, do we need Brad's enthusiasm? The new Miramax studio will have a rolling budget of pounds 31m, which indicates that the current boom in British films is not likely to fizzle out. And, with the Chancellor's first budget offering pounds 30m tax breaks for film-makers shooting in the UK, the domestic industry has the greatest financial autonomy it's had for years.

Perhaps the WFC should consider a familiarisation trip for Mr Aukin.

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