Lights, camera... Isle of Man

It's always been a popular destination for holiday makers but now, as Adrian Turpin reports, film-makers are flocking to the Isle of Man too

Apparently the Isle of Man is the British Isles' answer to Hollywood, though anyone who has been to the capital, Douglas, may find this hard to believe. Where Los Angeles has Beverly Hills, Douglas has Crellins Hill, home to the local museum and its collection of Viking burial items. LA has the beautiful people; Douglas has more shell suits than a convention of crabs. But the one thing the two towns share is the occasional bona fide star.

Apparently the Isle of Man is the British Isles' answer to Hollywood, though anyone who has been to the capital, Douglas, may find this hard to believe. Where Los Angeles has Beverly Hills, Douglas has Crellins Hill, home to the local museum and its collection of Viking burial items. LA has the beautiful people; Douglas has more shell suits than a convention of crabs. But the one thing the two towns share is the occasional bona fide star.

This month Johnny Depp arrived on the isle to film The Libertine, a historical drama about the randy Restoration poet, the Earl of Rochester. The call has gone out for locals with "interesting-looking faces" to appear as extras. "Nudity, partial nudity and other material of a sexual nature are all included," the brief says. Whether this will attract the legion of retired islanders who supplement their pensions by appearing as Irish peasants and Victorian gentlefolk is yet to be seen.

Since 1995, more than 50 films and television dramas have been shot on Man. Depp may be the biggest star yet, but the day after I arrived, the front page of the Manx Independent reported that the Manx film commission was in talks with Miramax to make a Napoleon biopic starring Al Pacino.

If it comes to fruition and Pacino wants advice about what to do on location, he might do worse than ask John Malkovich - who has just finished shooting Colour Me Kubrick, the tale of a man who falsely assumed Stanley Kubrick's identity. When Malkovich was not on set, he could be seen pacing the promenade and going for rides in his comedian-co-star Jim Davidson's Rolls-Royce. (Surely one of showbusiness's more unlikely friendships?) I even spoke to one Douglas resident who reported bumping into Malkovich in Marks & Spencer. "Are you one of us?" the actor asked cryptically. "I'm having problems finding the stairs."

The driving forces behind the movie boom are its proactive film commission and hefty tax breaks. It was after Gordon Brown closed fiscal loopholes for film-makers on the British mainland this spring that the production of The Libertine moved to Man. Yet the island's celluloid success is due to far more than offshore accounting.

It's said to be possible to see England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales from the top of Snaefell, the highest peak. I'll have to take that on trust, since a haze descended over the sea the moment I landed at Ronaldsway airport. But views to the mainland hardly matter when Man contains a series of "micro-landscapes" to rival the best each home nation can offer. You're in a Highland mountain pass; turn a bend and it becomes a country lane in Galway. Drive to Point of Ayre, the northernmost tip of the island, and land slopes away into Suffolk-style shingle. Around Snaefell, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in the Lake District or the lochs of Antrim.

To find this variety in an area just 33 miles long and 13 miles wide is convenient for film-makers. For other visitors, it's the Isle of Man's raison d'etre, but in order to see it, you first have to get out of Douglas.

By car, this shouldn't be difficult. Many would argue that the isle is a driver's paradise. Perhaps because the population is inured to speed by the summer TT motorbike races, which take place on the public roads, there is no speed limit outside urban areas. This makes Man a favourite place for car-makers to launch new models, and may also explain why Jeremy Clarkson has a holiday home here.

As a particularly nervous driver, the idea of venturing onto some kind of wacky-races circuit rather fazed me. "Anything else different about driving on the island?" I asked the man in the car-hire firm. "Well," he replied, glancing nervously from me to my vehicle's bodywork, "there is the Quarter Bridge". Disturbingly, Linda from the tourist board had offered similar advice. "Mmm," she mused, as I detailed my autophobia. "You don't want to go near the Quarter Bridge." She pronounced the name as if auditioning for American Werewolf on the Isle of Man, not describing two roundabouts that make a figure eight. "Even the locals don't know the rules," she added, worryingly.

What neither the car man nor the tourist woman told me was that the Manx are tremendously happy-go-lucky about signposts. After driving round Douglas's harbour twice unintentionally, I headed in what I thought was a safe direction, realising my mistake only as I approached the Bermuda triangle of junctions. If I spent more time than planned exploring the coast, it was from fear of ending up back where I'd begun.

Sticking by the shore turned out to be a good decision. The Isle of Man's history has been defined by the sea. Just 17 miles from the coast of Galloway in Scotland and 30 miles from Ireland, it was strategically important to both Irish and Norse kings. The first Viking raid took place in 798, but the Norse conquest was not complete until the 11th century, when Godred Crovan, son of Harald the Black of Iceland, overcame resistance, establishing the kingdom of Mann and the Isles.

The word "conquest" tells only part of the story. Contrary to their reputation, the Vikings were never just rapists and pillagers, but soon settled down to farm and breed with the natives. Within a generation, their children were speaking Manx.Politically the Norwegians won, but culturally the Celts triumphed.

The Vikings first landed in the west, at what is now the port of Peel. There are still plenty of reasons for liking this small town: the sleepy pubs; the waterside smokehouse selling kippers by post; the cheesy House of Manannan museum, whose animatronic waxwork dummies contrast sharply with its enthusiastic and informed staff.

In the spring sunshine, Peel's waterfront looked almost unreal, something from a model village or an architect's plan - the Platonic ideal of a harbour. Even the faded Victorian hotels above the bay, most now converted into flats, conjure up a pre-package-tour world when the Isle of Man was one of Britain's top tourist destinations. (In the summer of 1913, 14 steamers working flat out brought 1.1m visitors from the mainland.) It is the town's medieval fortress that dominates, however. The producers of I Capture the Castle saw its potential, and turned a Viking citadel into an East Anglian fort.

A short drive south brings you to the hamlet of Craigneish. One of the last intact traditional Manx villages - with whitewashed walls and thatched roofs - it has been discreetly turned into a heritage museum. For the film Waking Ned, however, it became the quintessential west-of-Ireland village.

The team behind Granada's mini-series Island at War used the old capital, Castletown, as a stand-in for the Channel Islands. A party of Jewish tourists was not amused to find the market square overrun by "Nazis" carrying out executions.

Johnny Depp should be spared such misunderstandings; most of The Libertine will be shot in the island's impressive studio complex near Ramsey. I suspect the isle's tourist chiefs would be delighted for him to be seen propping up the bar at Douglas's swish Admiral House Hotel or photographed coming out of the Paparazzi restaurant (as Dougray Scott and Billie Piper were, much to their chagrin, last year).

But the truth is that, for all the hoopla about Hollywood-on-sea, the Isle of Man's best bits remain happily indifferent to celebrity endorsement. Follow part of the 95-mile coastal path over the vertiginous cliffs of Spanish Head. Watch oyster-catchers on the shore near Port St Mary. Walk the length of Glen Helen, the most perfect miniature glen outside of Perthshire. Just one word of warning: try to avoid the Quarter Bridge.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

You can fly to Ronaldsway airport on a range of airlines: Flykeen (0800 083 7783, www.flykeen.com) from Blackpool (£78 return) and Belfast for £138; Euromanx (0870 787 7879, www.euro-manx.com) from Edinburgh, Glasgow and Liverpool from £59; British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com) from Gatwick, Luton, Birmingham and Glasgow from £59; FlyBe (0871 700 0123, www.flybe.com) from London City, £72; Eastern Airways (01652 680 600, www.easternairways.com) from Leeds/Bradford, Bristol, Newcastle and Nottingham from £99 return.

By sea, the Isle of Man Steam Packet company (08705 523 523, www.steam-packet.com) sails from Heysham, Liverpool and Belfast. The price range for a car with two passengers is between £139 and £219 return.

MORE INFORMATION

Isle of Man Tourist Board: 01624 686 801, www.gov.im/tourism.

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