Film and TV productions are taking over pubs, airports, theatres and medieval theme parks throughout the UK in the hunt for spaces that can accommodate Covid protocols and social distancing on set in what is turning out to be a very busy three months.
“Because the film, TV and commercials industries are still able to shoot (for now), we’re getting March to Christmas worth of production between September and Christmas. It’s gone crazy,” says Richard Knight, production liaison and education at Screen Yorkshire, which facilitates shoots in one of the regions of northern England that has been one of the hardest hit by Covid.
Places that would normally have a lot of footfall and be hard to film in, such as stately homes, offices and theatres, including the Crucible in Sheffield (home to the World Snooker Championships, which would ordinarily have a packed schedule), are now available and keen to host productions for extra revenue.
“We’ve had an increase of 50% of people registering new locations,” explains Lauren York, managing director of UK Locations, suppliers of shoot-ready sites. “Pubs are even being offered as production offices or co-working spaces.”
Pubs, clubs, bars, theatres, offices and events spaces that have been forced to shut, or not being used, across the country because of Covid are re-opening their doors to production companies including Netflix, Amazon, Sky and ITV drama series, all keen to use multi-purpose locations in which they can base their entire team.
“These locations are looked at not just on creative capabilities, but also how they can service bubbles, zones etc,” says Bobby Cochrane, development manager at Screen Manchester. “The key for productions is being able to distance themselves from the public and get exclusivity.”
Empty office blocks are proving particularly popular and useful, often doubling for police stations and hospitals. An ITV crime drama has been using an office block in Manchester to double as a police station, dressing the front with signs and the inside has been used as CID (Criminal Investigation Department) offices.
“The holy grail is empty schools,” says Screen Yorkshire’s Richard Knight. “They can obviously be used to double for school dramas, but you can also dress the reception area as a police station, then use the corridors and classrooms as a hospital set or apartments, and the gym as a domestic set. Before you know it, you’ve got half your locations in one place.”
He cites the Channel 4 drama Ackley Bridge which is filming at the former St Catherine’s Catholic High School in Halifax.
Large period properties are also proving popular for the same reason. The bigger the better, so productions can maximise what they get out of it. Aside from the usual stately homes such as Hatfield House (Harry Potter, The King’s Speech) and Knole House (Sherlock Holmes, Pirates Of The Caribbean), a variety of new sites have entered the production market.
Just outside Birmingham in the Midlands there is a stunning French chateau. It boasts a grand staircase, large rooms full of period furniture, and huge grounds with outhouses. “We’ve had a lot of interest from production companies because they can completely bubble in it,” says Tim Beasley at UKFilmLocation.com. “There’s even an area of the property with an old building that looks like a 1980s American motel straight from The Rockford Files.”
One couple in Yorkshire have taken the bold step of buying a huge, derelict, Grade One- listed manor house (circa 1700) in Yorkshire. They have moved into a couple of the rooms and are offering the rest for film and TV production, via the UKLocations.co.uk website, to raise money for their projected 15 -year renovation project.
“It was a bit like Sleeping Beauty’s castle when we moved in a few months ago, with ivy growing up the walls, lawns knee high and plants growing through the windows, so we had to strip everything back to reveal the house,” says new owner Naomi Ward, over the phone while trying to contain a screaming toddler in the background.
“Some of the original interior features are incredible, like the staircase and big marble fireplace, which would look great on screen. We’ve had a lot of interest from film and TV productions because it’s a blank canvas. They can pretty much do what they like, within permitted guidelines for a listed property.”
Some productions are even taking over these types of period properties just to film living room scenes in small corners of a big room, so they can accommodate social distancing between cast and crew.
“Previously places like the Victorian Minley Manor in Camberley might be considered too big and grand for some productions, but now it’s a viable option for domestic interiors because by the time you’ve put the camera crew and equipment in, if you’ve got a 40- foot room, you’ve only got about 12 feet of space at the end of it that’s suitable for shooting,” explains James Crawley, director of Ad-Locations.com, which provides a database of sites across the UK for filming.
Some of the more unexpected and unusual sites being converted for filming include places like the old brewery site in Mortlake, south London, offered by Ad Locations, which is awaiting re-development, and hosting production of the second season of Sky series Temple, starring Mark Strong as a surgeon working in an illegal clinic under London’s Temple tube station.
“We have built an enormous set there in the old bottling plant, which is about 15,000 square feet. It’s like a giant hangar, so it’s easy to social distance, vans can come in and out, and we have hand sanitising stations by every exit,” explains Liza Marshall, head of Hera Pictures, producers of Temple. “We had to clean everything out, fix some damage, put power back in, get the doors working again and put up walls to have individual art and production offices, but it’s the perfect base for us.”
Hera Pictures had prior experience of converting derelict sites, having used the former Honey Monster cereal factory in Southall for season one of Temple. “It was like the Mary Celeste,” Marshall recalls. “They’d just walked out leaving stuff behind, including Honey Monster and Quaker Oats pictures everywhere. From that we made our own offices and took out a tasting laboratory to turn it into costume and make-up.”
Another intriguing site offered by Ad-Locations is the Thorpe HQ Surrey, which consists of a triangle of interconnected, contrasting buildings – one Georgian, another Victorian and the third an arts and crafts property. “It’s quite a site, like a block of glass, cement and steel with huge work spaces, parking, land around it, and most importantly entry and exit barriers, so the public can be stopped from coming in and contaminating the set. We’ve got bookings for that until next year, including high-end TV series,” says Crawley.
UKlocations.co.uk is offering a bus station in Preston, which it describes as “a minimalist and brutalist paradise”, and has recently been used by a Netflix drama and a private airport in Manchester just 20 minutes from the city, now being used by Sky One.
Meanwhile UKFilmLocation.com has a derelict fort with bunkers in Rochester on its books. “It is a self-contained environment with big walls around it, tunnels where you can do controlled, pyrotechnic explosions, a large empty water reservoir, and a dry harbour with old boats and cars,” enthuses Beasley.
Perhaps the most bizarre potential filming location is a medieval theme park called Mountfitchet Castle in Stansted which is comprised of a Norman motte and bailey castle and village reconstructed on its original historic ancient site.
Arenas for hire
Many of the UK’s leading events sites are now being offered for filming, while they wait for the return of live concerts and exhibitions. They include the NEC Arenas in Birmingham. “We’ve been exploring ways we can utilise our space to get business into the venues, and film and TV production seemed like the perfect fit,” says Guy Dunstan, managing director of Arenas, within the NEC Group.
The Utilita Arena offers 62,500 square feet of space inside the arena bowl, and then below that - linked via a lift, stairs and a loading area - is a sports hall facility that has 16,000 square feet of space.
“These two significant areas can either be used concurrently for filming, or productions can utilise one space for set builds and workshops, and the other for actual filming,” explains Dunstan.
The arena already offers a suite of dressing rooms, furnished production offices, crew and catering facilities, including a fully-serviced kitchen, staging, as well as an on-site team of rigging and technical experts.
But adapting to Covid protocols is not always straightforward. Some productions have had to move from one location to another due to Covid, and the timings and costs involved in putting protocols in place are rising by about 25%.
“We were supposed to be filming in a rundown mill, warehouse-type place, but I’ve had to do six different designs. When we’ve come close to dressing it or construction work, we’ve lost a location because something’s happened Covid-related,” explains a production designer working on an ITV thriller. “We’ve also had to adapt a lot of the sets for Covid management, including factoring in the way we operate, how to enter locations, number of people on set etc. Normally, we’d have free rein to go in and decorate, now it’s all about cleaning teams, masks, a lot of protocols, and we’re constantly tested.”
Generally, however, the mood is one of optimism throughout the UK film and TV industries. “If we can’t come up with ways to work, what hope is there for anyone else?” suggests Screen Yorkshire’s Richard Knight.
This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Screen’s sister site KFTV.