Lights, camera, action and, er, Tower Hamlets

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The Independent Online

York Hall sports centre in Bethnal Green, east London, is not a glamorous place. Its gym, with its sweaty, discarded boxing gloves, is miles from London's glossy private health clubs. The old Bethnal Green Town Hall, a few yards away, is a sad, empty relic of glorious civic dreams.

York Hall sports centre in Bethnal Green, east London, is not a glamorous place. Its gym, with its sweaty, discarded boxing gloves, is miles from London's glossy private health clubs. The old Bethnal Green Town Hall, a few yards away, is a sad, empty relic of glorious civic dreams.

Yet these two unlikely venues have helped turn Britain's poorest borough, Tower Hamlets, where some 70 per cent live on less than £7,000 per year, into the hottest venue for new movies, pulling stars and films away from Hollywood.

Shiner, a boxing film starring Michael Caine, finished filming its fight scenes in York Hall yesterday. The Brad Pitt vehicle Snatch, Guy Ritchie's follow-up to Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, is also partly set in the borough. Lock, Stock was almost entirely shot there, as was the forthcoming Dave Stewart bank-robber film Honest, starring the All Saints, and Born Romantic, featuring Jane Horrocks.

Not bad for a borough that, until last year, did not even have a cinema. In fact, it now rivals Westminster, Camden and Ealing as the prime London shooting location.

So deluged with filming requests has the council been, it has set up a films office. "We had 70 filming days in 1995, when we set up. By 1999 that figure was 390; at one point we had 13 productions filming on the same day," said the films officer, Sarah Wren. "It got to the point last year where we couldn't take any more shoots."

It all stems, she says, from the empty town hall, which was awaiting development by a private firm. "I persuaded the developer he should use it for filming, took three people round, and all signed up to film there straight away," Ms Wren said. It has since been used for at least 10 feature films.

"It's such a small industry - there are only around 150 location managers - that word gets around," she said. "The transport networks are good, it's central, and we don't have planes flying overhead."

And there is the popularity of the London "gangster" genre, with directors hoping to soak up a bit of gritty atmosphere. For this reason Jane Soans, the location manager for Shiner, chose York Hall over the more exotic Alexandra Palace. "I saw loads of other locations, but none had the atmosphere of York Hall," she said. Nor the sweaty authenticity; the production also used local "faces", such as the former East End boxer Charlie Magri.

But it is not just about gangsters. Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies was filmed partly inBethnal Greenand the recent television drama Longtitude used the Georgian houses of Spitalfields. The latest James Bond epic, The World Is Not Enough, used a completely different resource in its opening scene - the futuristic backdrop of the Docklands.

But Tower Hamlets' popularity is also due to the recently established London Film Commission. For years London was largely shunned by film makers, due to the complexity of its regulations, but it has cut through this and pushed London's image abroad. "Australia, Canada and the UK are pulling production away from LA," said a spokeswoman for the commission. The four highest-budget films based in the UK last year were all brought in from abroad.

"To try and encourage this, we've suggested boroughs have a dedicated films officer - that's worked in Tower Hamlets," the spokeswoman said. "Film-makers are also realising that they can get a whole range of services, facilities and locations there ... there isn't the trepidation to travel east anymore."

There may be benefits for local residents, too. "There's huge potential for us to see film as a regenerative force and we're trying to tap into that," Ms Wren said. "Instead of productions bringing their own crews, we're putting them in touch with local firms."

Backed by the British Film Institute, the borough will in September host the first East End and Bangladeshi film festivals. And, with the advent of Genesis, the borough's first cinema in years, residents finally have somewhere to view them.

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