In which The Author wonders why TV companies make such heavy weather of outdoor filming
If television production is the art of artifice, nowhere is this more obvious than in programmes which are filmed on location.
Until I decided on a change of direction, I worked in Waterstones bookshop in Cardiff, on the corner of The Hayes and Wharton Street. Directly opposite our upstairs counter, the window looked out onto Howell’s department store and the old library; further up the street you could clearly see Cardiff Market and St John’s Church. It’s a fairly distinctive scene, and one of the few areas of the city which hasn’t been homogenised into one identikit plate-glass and neon shopping arcade.
I remember listening to John Peel’s Radio 1 show back in the 1980s, when I’d spent my first first year living in Uxbridge and travelling into London fairly regularly. His car was in for a service, so he’d caught a double-decker bus to get to Broadcasting House. He was rambling on about the way the journey had given him a new perspective on the city.
Sitting upstairs, one sees the details of the original architecture and the real structure of the buildings, instead of the standard window displays which one sees at street level. I often thought the same when we had a double-decker bus to bring us back from Cardiff in the evenings. St Mary Street has some extraordinary buildings, but you never notice them when you’re walking around.
I went to Bath a couple of years ago, for the first time in a decade or more, and was very disappointed by the way the city centre has become just the same as every other city centre. There’s a big and fairly well-stocked Waterstones, of course – and an HMV, a W.H. Smith, Boots, Marks & Spencer, Dorothy Perkins, Top Shop, Peacocks, Next, Debenhams, BHS, McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, J.D. Wetherspoon, Costa Coffee, Starbucks, banks, travel agencies, opticians …
All the shops, in fact, that you’d find in Cardiff. The ranges are the same, the prices are the same, and even the windows and in-store displays are designed by anonymous retail ‘experts’ at Head Office. The independent, interesting, quaint, quirky treasure troves that used to make Cardiff, Bristol, Bath, Swansea and all the cities I used to enjoy visiting when I was in my twenties have been squeezed out by spiralling rents and the advent of a new style of shopping.
Whereas specialist retailers like Spiller’s Records (open since 1894, and only very recently relocated from the site it’s occupied for as long as I can remember) and Chapter and Verse (a small chain of long-vanished bookshops) used to carry the offbeat, left-field and marginal items aimed at a discerning clientele, now the Internet has stolen their thunder. The ‘long tail’ model of economics, popularised by Chris Anderson in his book of the same name, is slowly but surely forcing the likes of Spiller’s to the wall, and forcing their customers to shop on websites where the goods can only be bought unseen.
The large chains are taking over the high streets, and this means that towns and cities are becoming largely interchangeable. The New Economic Foundation did a survey into ‘Clone Towns’ a while ago, and I remember Exeter came top (or bottom, depending on your perspective).¹ It’d be interesting to go back to Bath when the weather improves and redo their survey for my own interest.
Of course, the spin-off effect of this is that TV companies don’t have to do an awful lot of work in order to make one place look like somewhere else entirely. I’m sure all Doctor Who fans know that the series has been made in and around Cardiff since its return to our screens.Torchwood, of course, is explicitly set in Cardiff. Both shows have done wonders for the tourist scene in South Wales.
And yet, for all that, only two Doctor Who stories have taken place in Cardiff – both in the Ninth Doctor era. One was set in Victorian times (‘The Unquiet Dead’) and the other in the present day (‘Boom Town’). There were also a couple of exterior scenes during the Tenth Doctor era (Captain Jack’s return in ‘Utopia’ and his farewell in ‘Last of the Time Lords’) in which Cardiff was allowed to play itself.
Other than those, Cardiff has stood in for just about everywhere else instead. I was working on 24 July 2006 when The Hayes, Wharton Street and St Mary Street were transformed into the West End at Christmas for the filming of ‘The Runaway Bride’. Howell’s (as usual) was turned into Henrick’s, and the neighbouring shops – ourselves included – all dug out their Christmas decorations for the occasion.
The giant Santas and snowmen were clearly visible outside the old library. Fake street signs were fitted over the real City of Cardiff signs, to give the illusion that the scene was actually London. We watched from our upstairs window as the Doctor and Donna ran up and down the street umpteen times, surrounded by background artists in their winter clothes on one of the hottest days of the year.
The cashpoint which the Doctor sonics in one exciting scene was (of course) a false front, erected over our goods-in entrance, and powered by umpteen extension cables running through the shop. It was stocked with fake money – the £10 notes bearing an portrait of David Tennant, and the £20s with that of producer Phil Collinson. Stylesy managed to pinch a handful of the fake notes, and I’ve still got one of the £20s locked away. Sarah even ran out into the street during working time to get a photograph of herself with David Tennant! It was a bit of a mad day, all in all.
In the completed episode, the observant viewer will spot a Cardiff bus driving past the end of Wharton Street at one point. If you freeze-frame the Waterstone’s window display, you’ll see the Summer Reading campaign titles amongst the tinsel. You can never paint out all the giveaway features, it seems.
Over the past five years Cardiff has doubled for Ealing (in The Sarah Jane Adventures), central and south London on numerous occasions, the fictional village of Leadworth (filmed in the suburb of Llandaff), and even Captain Jack’s home planet (bizarrely, shot behind a pub in Cardiff Bay against a painted-in landscape). It’s a far cry from the disused quarry in Kent of the Tom Baker days.
This came to mind today when I was watching a new BBC drama called The Silence. Perhaps uniquely among recent British crime thrillers, it isn’t set in London. Maybe the commissioning editors have become as fed up as I am of moody lingering night-shots across the capital’s skyline, with the Gherkin and St Paul’s Cathedral and Canary Wharf all lit up, and tube trains snaking into the middle distance. It’s actually set in Bristol, a point which is referred to several times in the dialogue.
But it wasn’t filmed in Bristol. Far from it – it was actually shot on location in Ireland. The olde-worlde side streets and solid Georgian terraces of Dublin can pass as a convincing substitute for Bristol at first glance, I suppose.
Bristol, meanwhile, has been the home of the long-running BBC Saturday night drama Casualty practically since its beginning many years ago. Indeed, there was an outcry when plans were announced to relocate the filming to Cardiff. But Bristol doesn’t play itself. Even though everyone can recognise the Clifton Suspension Bridge, St Nicholas Market, and the long views over the city centre in just about every external scene, it is to all intents and purposes the fictional city of Holby.
Finally, one of the funniest films in recent years is the brilliant Waking Ned. Set in a remote Irish village, this comic gem was in fact filmed on the Isle of Man. Maybe, completing the circle, the BBC should film a series set on the Isle of Man and try to convince the viewer that it’s actually meant to be Cardiff. That would be worth watching …