Top filming locations in Somerset

Persuasion in Bath Street

Persuasion in Bath Street - Credit: Archant

HANNAH STUART-LEACH looks at the period dramas and TV shows increasingly drawn to film in our English idyll

filming Mariah Mundi in Bath

filming Mariah Mundi in Bath - Credit: Archant

Just as Jane Austen, one of Bath’s most beloved former residents, was inspired to set her books in the elegant city, so too have film crews found it the perfect backdrop for some of TV and film’s most celebrated dramas. But these days, it’s not just Bath.

Lured by green, green countryside, quintessential English villages and historic architecture, recent productions in the region have included an episode of cult-favourite Dr Who at Wookey Hole Caves as well as Wolf Hall at Wells Cathedral, starring Damien Lewis as Henry VIII.

Filming in the UK as a whole has reached record levels, says Creative England, with much of that increasingly focused outside London and in other parts of the country including Somerset. In the last 12 months the Bristol-based company, which works to support creative industries outside the capital, calculated an average of just over £2 million has been spent by productions filming in Somerset. This includes money spent on local amenities such as hotels, restaurants, facility companies and other local services a production needs when they bring their crew here - which is excellent news for the region’s economy.

And the benefits of blockbusters don’t end when the cameras stop rolling. In 2014 more than 45 million international tourists chose a destination primarily because they saw a movie or TV show filmed in that country, according to the International Business Times. Or, to use the current term for it, they became ‘set-jetters’.

log It! being filmed inside the Grand Pier

log It! being filmed inside the Grand Pier - Credit: Archant

Viewers are no longer just content to watch a television programme or film on screen, reports Creative England. They want to see and explore the places they were filmed at first hand to fully immerse themselves in that world. And that applies to homegrown fans as much as international ones - we just have the luxury of less distance to travel.

The appeal of Bath as a filming location is obvious. “The city’s Georgian architecture, Roman Baths and breath-taking views of surrounding countryside make Bath a city to remember,” says Caroline Hook PR & Communications Manager at Bath Tourism Plus. “Walking the streets of Bath is like stepping back in time and walking on a film set. There is so much history and jaw-dropping beauty that you can’t help but be transported to a bygone era.”

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Production companies have long been drawn to that romance, with period dramas being shot in the city since the 1930s. Bath continues to lead the way in the region, with its own dedicated film office – one of few in the entire country - to help companies with the logistics of filming in the area and direct them to suitable locations in and around the World Heritage Site. Anywhere from the city’s iconic Royal Crescent or Assembly Rooms to out-of-town options such as atmospheric former mining town Midsomer Norton or the tranquil lakes of the Chew Valley.

For instance Bath & North East Somerset Council’s Film Office helped scout out several locations in the area for Poldark, which delighted audiences earlier this year with the tale of Captain Ross Poldark - played by smouldering Irish actor Aidan Turner - who returned from the American Civil War to his native Cornwall to discover his world turned upside down. Prior Park College was one of the places featured, in prime location on a hill overlooking the city. James Murphy-O’Connor, Headmaster at Prior Park College, says the independent school’s Mansion Hall was transformed into a sumptuous set appropriate to the late 18th century in which Poldark is set.

Theo Paphitis being filmed on the Grand Pier on the first day of the opening of the new Pier in Oct

Theo Paphitis being filmed on the Grand Pier on the first day of the opening of the new Pier in October 2010 - Credit: Archant

For residents, filming offers an element of intrigue, bringing with it the opportunity to spot stars at work such as Keira Knightley who filmed the 2007 BAFTA and Oscar winning film The Duchess in the city centre. Vanity Fair is also particularly well remembered locally as the production team closed Great Pulteney Street for several days. “It looked spectacular!” says Caroline.

One of her personal favourites, however, was Les Miserables on the iconic Pulteney Bridge – one of only four Palladian bridges left in the world. Russell Crowe’s character in the Hollywood musical, Inspector Javert - played by a stunt double -threw himself off the bridge into the River Avon.

Well done Wells

Over in Wells, the outlook is just as thrilling. “In the last 12-18 months we’ve seen a real interest in Wells from production companies,” reports Lindsay Mann, Marketing and Communications Officer at Wells Cathedral. “I think because it’s a little snapshot of medieval England.”

As well as the BBC drama Wolf Hall last year, which filmed in locations including the cathedral’s Chapter House and Our Lady Chapel, there’s been The Hollow Crown – a forthcoming period drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch as King Richard III – and major Hollywood blockbuster The Huntsman.

“The Hollow Crown crew were amazing actually, in how they transformed the external part of the cathedral,” says Lindsay. “They turned a road that runs parallel to the cathedral into an outdoor medieval market with live animals. It really brought history to life.”

The filming means no two days are the same for staff: “I remember being in a meeting with the Chief Executive and looking out behind his head through the back window and a woman was going up in flames in Vicar’s Close!”

Lindsay and the team have also discovered some added perks, “When we had Wolf Hall here, Damien Lewis came into the office and spoke to all the ladies - he was absolutely delightful. In fact Benedict Cumberbatch did as well, but I managed to walk straight past him without realising who he was – I’m completely rubbish at all that sort of stuff.”

Staging huge productions can sometimes prove disruptive, but Lindsay feels it’s always worth it in the end. “There are huge benefits, one of which is that it’s a really interesting process for Cathedral staff and the community - certainly when Charlize Theron was out in the Market Place with half a dozen black stallions, people were really fascinated by that. And it’s wonderful to see people visiting the city and investing time and money here.” Also, for The Hunstman in particular, locals were able to get involved by becoming extras in the production itself.

The more high profile films set in Wells haven’t aired yet, but it’s hoped the benefits will be seen for many years to come as their success lures set-jetters, as they do in Bath, and indeed as they do in Wells following the 2007 cult hit of Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz. “It’s not just about the cathedral”, Lindsay emphasises, “it’s about the community, and we‘d like Wells as a community to benefit from it - now and further down the line.”

Modern day

It’s not just period dramas that have been choosing to film in Somerset. In Weston-super-Mare, the newly renovated Grand Pier has played host to TV shows including the BBCs popular antique series Flog It!, as well as filming with Dragons’ Den star Theo Paphitis. Then in Taunton, The Castle Hotel has enjoyed recent visits from celebrities including Alan Titchmarsh, who – as to be expected - filmed in their garden, and Michael Portillo - there for his Great British Railway Journeys. It seems out and about in Somerset these days, you never know who you might bump into.

The Official Bath App helps visitors navigate locations of over 20 blockbuster films, period dramas and TV series and is available for iPhone, iPad and Android phones and tablets and can be downloaded for free from App Stores by searching for ‘Bath’.