Multi-million pound investment in Yorkshire’s fast growing ‘showbiz economy’

A scene from Dad's Army filmed in North Yorkshire

A scene from Dad's Army filmed in North Yorkshire - Credit: Archant

Yorkshire Studios hopes to bring big Hollywood productions to the county Tony Greenway reports

BBC's Peaky Blinders starring Cillian Murphy, filmed in Leeds

BBC's Peaky Blinders starring Cillian Murphy, filmed in Leeds - Credit: Archant

When it was announced that a new Dad’s Army movie was in production in Yorkshire you were — admit it — in two minds about the whole thing. On the plus side, this is a big, starry production with a cast including Toby Jones as Captain Mainwaring, Bill Nighy as Sergeant Wilson, Tom Courtenay as Corporal Jones, and Michael Gambon as Private Godfrey. It even features Hollywood royalty in the shape of Catherine Zeta Jones, so landing the movie was big a coup for Yorkshire. And it brings cash into the county, of course.

On the minus side, although it has a ‘Made in Yorkshire’ sticker on it, do you have a nasty suspicion that it might not do that well? You have to be brave to remake Dad’s Army. I haven’t seen it yet, and it might be brilliant, but let’s just say that Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier and Clive Dunn are a very hard act to follow.

Still, whatever happens to Dad’s Army at the box office, big productions like this could be coming to Yorkshire more often — and not just for location work either. That’s because Screen Yorkshire, the regional screen agency, has now secured the rights to develop a large studio space that it hopes will boost film and TV production here. Based in an old 100,000 sq ft aircraft hangar at a former RAF site in Church Fenton, between York and Leeds, it’s been christened The Yorkshire Studios and — although it isn’t up and running yet — is already attracting attention from film and TV production crews.

‘I’ve shown three around the space already,’ says Richard Knight, head of production at Screen Yorkshire. ‘The south east of the UK is red hot with filming right now because of the tax breaks available to production companies, so lots of American productions are filling all the big stages at Pinewood and there has been a general trickle towards the regions. But productions were being shuffled out of Yorkshire because they couldn’t get what they wanted as the current largest available studio space here is about 15,000 sq ft.’

It’s hoped, then, that the much bigger Yorkshire Studios will be more suitable and entice in some major players. ‘The productions that are more location-based will come anyway,’ says Knight. ‘But we need to see where the Yorkshire Studios leads. The Holy Grail for the space is to have one long-running show in there, like an Atlantis, a Merlin or a Sherlock. The Yorkshire Studios will never get a massive James Bond-sized production but if we can get one decent-sized one for a couple of series, which would be great.’ He pauses. ‘Obviously, the minute that happens, and the space is in use, we have to go out and look for more...’ It would be a nice problem to have, mind you.

Yorkshire already has a solid reputation as a film and TV location, thanks to its varied landscapes and ancient architecture (great for period dramas) not to mention the draw of the Yorkshire Content Fund, a public-private investment fund launched in 2012 which is open to producers either based in Yorkshire or wishing to film or establish a base in the region. Screen Yorkshire says that ‘more than £21million has been injected into the region’s economy, primarily through location-based dramas backed by the Fund’.

Recent productions made in the county include the BBC’s Peaky Blinders starring Cillian Murphy, filmed in Leeds; Jamaica Inn filmed partly in Keighley and Barnsley; Death Comes to Pemberley with Anna Maxwell Martin, in York; Black Work starring Sheridan Smith in Leeds; the recent movie version of Testament of Youth starring Emily Watson and Dominic West, filmed in various locations on the North York Moors; A Royal Night Out with Rupert Everett and Emily Watson (she can’t keep away) filmed in Hull; Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, starring Eddie Marsan filmed in various locations including Newburgh Priory near Coxwold, North Yorkshire and the comedy drama X+Y, which filmed last year in Sheffield, starring Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins.

Productions yet to be released include The Hunter’s Prayer, a US-backed movie thriller starring Avatar’s Sam Worthington which finished filming last year in Leeds, Harrogate, Helmsley, Scarborough and Saltaire and, says Knight, is ‘the biggest thing Screen Yorkshire have ever been involved in’ and Bill, a feature film starring the BAFTA-winning cast of BBC TV’s Horrible Histories, using locations including York Minster, Dark Angel, a two-part drama for ITV starring Downton’s Joanne Froggatt, starts filming on location in Yorkshire this month.

Testament of Youth filmed on various locations on the North York Moors

Testament of Youth filmed on various locations on the North York Moors - Credit: Archant

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‘There is a misconception that Yorkshire is just stone walls and sheep,’ says Knight. ‘But when producers see the range of landscapes on offer here, it blows them away. Hull, for example, doubled for London in A Royal Night Out and, for Hunter’s Prayer, Harrogate doubled for Switzerland — and really successfully, too. We’ve also got great crews here and a range of decent hotels that are really geared up for visiting film units.’ (As we know from that recent Top Gear incident, it’s important that the talent get a hot meal at the end of the day — otherwise who knows what might happen?)

Yet it’s not just films that are big news for the Yorkshire economy. A report called Wish You Were Here published in June reveals that 611,000 music tourists came to see concerts and festivals in Yorkshire and Humber in 2014, generating a total direct and indirect spend of £203million and helping to sustain 1,597 full-time local jobs. Last year’s Leeds Festival was one of the biggest with Sheffield lads Arctic Monkeys headlining, plus Blink 182 and Queens of the Stone Age. ‘Yorkshire is overflowing with musical talent,’ says Michael Dugher, MP for Barnsley East. ‘People from all walks of life are involved in a thriving music scene. I am a proud patron of the LIVE in Barnsley music festival which gives fledgling artists the opportunity to perform to a live audience. Free music festivals like these, and the interest they help to attract, are so important because they show how much we have to be proud of and how much we contribute to the national music scene – from traditional brass bands to some fantastic up-and-coming singer-songwriters.’

And despite the dire state of funding, Yorkshire’s theatres remain some of the best and most innovative in the country, with the likes of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, Sheffield Theatres, the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough, the Alhambra in Bradford and Barrie Rutter’s Northern Broadsides in Halifax pulling in appreciative audiences from in and out of the county. Big events such as The Tour de Yorkshire and Hull’s forthcoming UK City of Culture status are also credited with putting Yorkshire front and centre on the cultural map. A study from the Warwick Institute for Employment Research estimates that, by 2022, there will be 3,000 extra jobs for dancers, actors, authors and artists in the region, partly as a result of Hull being named UK City of Culture 2017.

So do we have a healthy ‘showbiz economy’ in this part of the country? Knight thinks we do. ‘We should also say that Leeds is well known for being at the cutting edge of games development,’ he says. ‘The creative economy generally in Yorkshire is doing well — and, going forward, there will be more of it.’