Liverpool gets new role as Hollywood of the north

Scouse cameras in action - city's architecture and moods, from grandeur to squalor, make it a prime location for film-makers
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The Independent Online

The docks are idle, the factories are silent, and the film-makers are moving in. Liverpool is reinventing itself as a major player in the British film industry.

The docks are idle, the factories are silent, and the film-makers are moving in. Liverpool is reinventing itself as a major player in the British film industry.

Drawn by the sheer variety of locations on offer, from urban squalor to Georgian grandeur, more than a dozen directors have chosen to film in Liverpool in the past three years. Now, more than 30 years after Gumshoe, the classic Albert Finney thriller, gave it its first big screen claim to fame, the city is set to get its first major studio.

Merseyside is already attracting some of the most glamorous names in Hollywood, defying the endless jokes about shell suits and bubble perms. The city's docklands were used earlier this year as part of the backdrop to 51st State, a big budget thriller featuring Pulp Fiction actor Samuel Jackson and Robert Carlyle.

Although set in Manchester, The Parole Officer, a new comic thriller starring comedian Steve Coogan, was largely filmed in Liverpool.

Period locations around the port including Abercromby Square, George's Dock and the Walker Art Gallery stood in for five different European cities in Hilary and Jackie, the Oscar-nominated biopic of cellist Jacqueline Du Pré.

A science fiction epic based on a Jacobean tragedy and a Billy Elliot-style coming-of-age drama are just two of the numerous projects in varying stages of production in and around the city.

The forthcoming films include My Kingdom, a contemporary version of King Lear set in the Liverpool underworld, Al's Lads, a 1920s thriller about cruise ship workers who are hired by Al Capone, and Mermaid and Money Trouble, a social drama expected to star Dame Judi Dench.

Liverpool is the only city outside London to have its own dedicated local authority film office. Film-makers say they are drawn to the city not only by its wide variety of settings, but also their growing frustration with the logistical problems of filming in London. Unlike the capital, Liverpool does not suffer from severe traffic congestion, and many of its most dramatic and photogenic locations are within a short distance of each other.

Producers are also lured by the bedrock of local technical expertise, and the presence of accomplished television hands such as Cracker writer Jimmy McGovern and director Chris Bernard, whose 1986 film A Letter to Brezhnev was one of the first to be shot in the city.

The latest feature to finish filming is Revengers Tragedy, a £1.7m film directed by Cox, which transposes Thomas Middleton's 17th-century play to post-apocalyptic Merseyside. The film, which received £500,000 from the Film Council's new cinema fund, boasts an eclectic cast, including actors Christopher Eccleston and Derek Jacobi, comedians Eddie Izzard and Margi Clarke and supermodel Sophie Dahl.

Among the more unlikely locations used in the film, which wrapped on Friday, is Aintree racecourse and a field filled with futuristic dwellings resembling upturned submarines.

Cox was drawn back to Liverpool by what he describes as the city's "epic" qualities – and the rather more mundane fact that its relatively low living costs enabled him to stretch his tight food and accommodation budget.

The director, whose earlier films included cult classics Repo Man and Sid and Nancy, said: "All the sets are very weird and epic, but then the city itself is epic in many ways too."

Eccleston, whose previous films include Jude, saw the project as a chance to illustrate the cinematic qualities of northern cities such as Liverpool, while escaping from the "Hollywood-obsessed" approach of London. The actor, who plays the lead character, vengeful peasant Vindici, said: "There's a different attitude up here to filming. There seems to be more camaraderie and less looking after number one, which means there's a great deal more humour on set too."

Cox recently teamed-up with television producer Colin McKeown, one of the creators of Brookside, to form the Liverpool Film Consortium. The initiative, which aims to pave the way for the city's first fully equipped film studio, currently has 19 projects in development, including a submarine drama called The Foetus and The Cameo Conspiracy, based on a real-life rough justice case.

McKeown, who operates out of a disused school, believes that Liverpool could one day have studio facilities to rival those at Pinewood and Ealing. "What's going to happen here over the next four or five years is that it's just going to get bigger and bigger. I feel confident that we will soon see the big American films coming over for post-production."

London film commissioner Sue Hayes said she was delighted that Liverpool was attracting more inward investment from producers, but added: "You can go to Liverpool to shoot docklands and cobbled streets, but there's an awful lot you can't do there, which is why so many people come to London."

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