Britain's star-struck councils When a film crew arrives the local community can benefit. Liza Donaldson tours Tinseltown UK
Wednesday 04 January 1995
Sydney Samuelson of the British Film Commission, which has a network of 15 offices around the country that are largely funded by local councils, says: "If you attract a production into your area it creates job opportunities, it uses local suppliers and it produces benefits in the long term by creating interest in the area."
He cites Stamford, Lincolnshire, location of Middlemarch, which has experienced an influx of tourists, who can enjoy Middlemarch tours arranged through South Kesteven Council, and Middlemarch fudge, marmalade, biscuits skirts and scarves organised by private enterprise.
Sites featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral, such as the scene of the funeral at St Clement's Church, Thurrock, Essex, or the spot where Rowan Atkinson's vicar made his "Holy goat" gaffe in Greenwich's Royal Naval College chapel, are other likely candidates for the tourist treatment.
Visitors from all over the world spend millions in Portmeirion in North Wales, where The Prisoner was filmed more than 30 years ago. Nearby, filming of the Arthurian legend First Knight, starring Richard Gere and Sean Connery, has recently brought more than £1.5m into the local economy.
Gwynedd County Council's film office pitched for the location and won after nearly two years of preparatory work. Local co-operation and a superb location, including a causeway across Trawsfynydd Lake in the foothills of Snowdonia, proved exactly what the film-makers wanted. They constructed the front of Camelot Castle on the shores of the lake, hiring thousands of pounds worth of scaffolding and employing around 80 chippies and construction workers, and took on 800 extras for the crowd scenes.
More than £3m a year comes into the local economy from film productions, but this production alone justified Gwynedd County's decision to invest £50,000 a year in the film office.
At Screen Wales, the national film commission office, Robin Hughes says councils can help to attract films because they know the by-laws, run the police, control the roads, and are themselves significant land- and property-owners who are tuned in to local sensitivities.
"A film officer provides producers with a single point of entry, a person with whom they can have a rapport who knows the machinery and the bureaucracy," he says.
In London - nightmare on film street, according to some experts - there is no film commission, a gaping hole that the BFC is seeking to fill in discussion with the boroughs. However Greenwich Council has a film office that aims to be a "one-stop shop",s
a ys Harvey Edgington, film officer.
The office charges for location filming and says it brings in £65,000 a year from street filming. Film-makers are attracted by a video that gives them a taste of the locations available, including the Thames waterfront, a double for Whitehall buildings -used for a bombing scene in Patriot Games - a council chamber that looks like the Old Bailey, and the council's "robing room", which featured as a South American dictator's office in television's Drop the Dead Donkey.
The office aims to cut the hassle and keep the peace between producers and residents, dealing with parking problems, for instance. The office writes to residents to prepare them for the filming of programmes such as London's Burning, and even issues black-out curtains when there is late-night filming.
Mr Edgington says: "I try not to be in the censorship business, but sometimes I will ask for the script. I turned down one street scene for TV where they had actors dressed as Nazis." There is an active British National Party in the area and local feelings run high.
Liverpool City Council's film commission, launched in 1989, has set itself the goal of making the city the film capital of Europe. Helen Bingham, the office's director, says the city offers loans to attract film-makers, and is preparing a production guide "bible" for producers, a film trail and possibly a film trail weekend.
The city she says, makes a fine London with fabulous Georgian streets, and has featured as Nazi Germany and Cairo. Ainsdale beach, when the tide is so far out that the sea becomes invisible, can be the Utah salt plains, as it was in the Vauxhall car adverts.
In return, the film office says, nearly 150 full-time jobs have been created; £7m went into the local economy from productions last year; and the publicity enhanced the city's reputation.
It is records such as this which persuaded the Government to renew BFC's funding, albeit at a begrudging £800,000 for 1995. But despite a boom in film productions in Britain, with net overseas earnings from films in 1993 of £208m, film-makers bemoan the lack of tax breaks such as those in Ireland, which have reaped enormous dividends for the economy. If the BFC, film offices and councils are doing their bit for Britain, perhaps it is time that the Government weighed in with serious tax breaks too.
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