Camelot comes to Wales: Hollywood has decided the principality is the perfect location

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The Independent Online
THE SPIRIT of Hollywood has descended on North Wales. The principality's stunning landscape of lakes and mountains has long provided film- makers with impressive locations, but now the country has developed a fully-fledged cinema industry of its own.

When the Secretary of State for Wales, John Redwood, escapes from his ministerial desk tomorrow to pay a visit to the set of Camelot, constructed in the heart of Snowdonia, it will demonstrate that politicians have realised how vital a role movie-making is now playing in the North Wales economy. The boom has already brought Hollywood stars such as Sir Anthony Hopkins, Sean Connery and Richard Gere to the hillsides this year.

The legendary court has been constructed by Columbia Pictures on the banks of Lake Trawsfynydd in Gwynedd (hitherto best known for its nuclear power station) for the filming of First Knight, an Arthurian tale starring Connery, Gere and Julia Ormond, and directed by Jerry Zucker.

It is the second major movie to be made in North Wales in recent months. Throughout the summer, Sir Anthony Hopkins was filming on the Llyn peninsula, making his directorial debut as well as starring in August, an adaptation by Julian Mitchell of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. Also in the cast are Kate Burton, daughter of another Welsh actor, the late Richard Burton, and Leslie Phillips.

Both projects vindicate a decision made two years ago by Gwynedd County Council to appoint a media development officer. In that role, local boy Hugh Edwin, has been responsible for encouraging the makers of films, television features and commercials to use the county for locations.

One of his first tasks was to create a computerised database of such sites. If you should want a medieval castle, he has five; if a pre-historic burial chamber, or a nuclear power station, he can oblige. Within minutes, a prospective client can be provided with details.

In bygone years, North Wales has substituted for India in Elephant Boy, for Scotland in Roman Polanski's Macbeth, and for Scandinavia in Prince Valiant, and appeared as itself in The Last Days of Dolwyn. John Box, production designer for First Knight, has previously disguised it as China in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, and as the Carpathian mountains in The Keep, which was shown last week on television.

More than 20 independent film and television production groups of varying sizes are currently operating there. These are mostly centred on the historic town of Caernarfon and owe their existence to the setting up more than a 10 years ago of S4C, the fourth television channel in Wales.

In all, the media industry employs about 1,300 professionals - a much-needed boost to the economy of a county where the jobless rate of more than 10 per cent is above the average for Wales. A plan to bring in 15 outside carpenters to assist in the construction of Camelot was dropped when sufficient local craftsmen were found to do the work.

The growth of film and television work means that this predominantly Welsh-speaking area can keep many of the talented young people who traditionally would have joined the exodus to England.

A guidebook produced for media executives by the local authority contains a comprehensive list of local talent, ranging from cameramen to composers. When the First Knight production team advertised for 1,000 extras recently, more than 3,500 hopefuls turned up for the auditions.

Mr Edwin estimates that, in his first year, expenditure in Gwynedd by companies using his service was less than pounds 2m, and the following year just over pounds 2m; for this year he expects it to rise to more than pounds 5m.

The contribution of two major feature films to North Wales's economy will go well beyond the employment of skilled technicians. The spin-off for the county in terms of tourism could well last for years. As Mr Edwin points out, Salzburg operates Sound of Music tours almost 30 years after that film's release. And when Richard Harris starred in Ireland in The Field, a memorabilia shop was opened on the site.

Welshmen such as Mr Edwin look enviously across the Irish Sea to a thriving film industry stimulated by a liberal tax regime. 'A film-friendly Treasury here would attract overseas companies with big budgets,' he reckons.

Unlike many local-authority officials whose job is to attract outside industries to a rural area of great natural beauty, Mr Edwin meets no opposition from any environmental lobbies.

'I haven't heard a single word against either of these two productions,' he said.

The future promises Gwynedd a continuing starring role in film-making. Rumours persist of a remake of The Prisoner, the cult Sixties television series, and its star, Patrick McGoohan, is adamant that it should be located, as before, in the quaint Italianate village of Portmeirion.

More than 50 years ago, when How Green Was My Valley, one of the most famous films about the principality was made, it featured Welsh characters played by actors with names such as O'Hara, McDowall and Fitzgerald . . . and was filmed in California.

If Mr Edwin and his Gwynedd team have their way, such a travesty would never occur again.

(Photograph omitted)