KFTV Report: Alternative studios around the UK

From schools, clubs and offices to chateaus and old breweries, a huge variety of large spaces are being taken over by film and TV productions to accommodate Covid protocols

By Chris Evans 5 Nov 2020

KFTV Report: Alternative studios around the UK
French Chateau in Worcestershire

From old forts, manor houses, schools and airports to medieval theme parks, old breweries and underground theatres, a huge variety of large spaces in the UK are being taken over by film and TV productions to accommodate Covid protocols and social distancing on set.

Lockdown locations

Even 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 Netflix, Amazon, Sky and ITV drama series, keen to use multi-purpose locations they can base their entire team in.

“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 the region 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, like 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,” enthuses Lauren York, managing director of UK Locations, suppliers of shoot-ready sites. “Pubs are even being offered as production offices or co-working spaces.”

"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. 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,” adds Knight, who cites the Channel 4 drama Ackley Bridge, currently filming at the former St Catherine’s Catholic High School in Halifax, as the perfect example of this.

Period properties

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, popular in dramas, like Hatfield House (Harry Potter, The King’s Speech) and Knole House (Sherlock Holmes, Pirates of the Caribbean), there are a variety of other new sites that have entered the production market.

There’s a stunning French chateau in Worcestershire, just outside Birmingham, with 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, who provide a variety of sites for filming. “There’s even an area of the property with an old building that looks like a 1980s American motel straight from The Rockford Files.”

French chateau in Worcestershire. Credit: UKFIlmLocation.com

One couple in Yorkshire have taken the bold step of buying a huge, derelict, Grade One listed manor house (circa 1700) in Yorkshire, where they’ve moved into a couple of the rooms, and are offering the rest for film and TV production, via the UKLocations.co.uk website, so they can afford to do it up as part of a 15 year 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 Naomi Ward, the new owner, 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.” 

The manor house. Credit: UKLocations.co.uk

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.

Unusual sites

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 currently 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.”


The old, Stag Brewery site. Credit: Ad-Locations.com

Fortunately, they 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, 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 in 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.


Thorpe HQ. Credit: Ad-Locations.com

UKlocations.co.uk offers a bus station in Preston described as “a minimalist and brutalist paradise”, that’s been used by a Netflix drama recently and a private airport in Manchester just 20 minutes from the city, currently used by Sky One.

While UKFilmLocation.com offers a derelict fort with bunkers in Rochester, “which 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.

Dry harbour at the derelict fort. Credit: UKFilmLocation.com

Perhaps the most bizarre potential filming location is a medieval theme park, Mountfitchet Castle, in Stansted. It’s a Norman Motte and Bailey Castle and village reconstructed on its original historic ancient site. Ideal for the next Robin Hood film!

No site is immune to Covid though, and the production teams still need to implement strict protocols and guidelines to ensure the safety of cast and crew on set. This includes testing, sanitisation, social distancing, mask wearing, and pods and zone systems to separate departments.

Sky has been filming the second series of its popular show Code 404, starring Stephen Graham (The Irishman) and Daniel Mays (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), under strict Covid protocols at the underground Collins Theatre, hidden beneath Islington Green under a Waterstone’s bookshop. The site was originally constructed as an Elizabethan courtyard style venue beneath the Collins Music Hall, where Charlie Chaplin and Tommy Cooper once entertained audiences.

Among the masked crew is Maja Wlodarczyk, Covid supervisor for the show (and an experienced production co-ordinator), who has been helping to orchestrate proceedings and protocols.

“It’s a working theatre, but never opened, so an ideal space, although we had to install temporary ventilation, ways in and out, signage, sanitisation stations, more toilets and so on. It’s been quite an undertaking,” she says. All the more so considering this was Wlodarczyk’s first assignment as a Covid supervisor. 


Sky's Code 404 filming at Collins Theatre. Credit: Maja Wlodarczyk

One of the most important Covid measures introduced for Code 404  was splitting cast and crew into categories: category 1 for people who could work remotely or didn’t need to be on the floor/set to do their job (such as production office, accounts and post-production); category 2  for those on the floor needed to keep the shoot going (sound, electricians, locations and so on), all of whom had to wear PPE; and category 3 for the cast and those who interacted with them (such as directors, producers, DoPs and make-up). This category needed to be tested for Covid throughout the shoot. 

Events spaces

It’s been a similar story of adjustments at the events space ExCeL London, where the production has also been filming. The vast site with more than one million square feet of space has been made available in the interim between live events.

James Rees, executive director at ExCeL London, says: “We quickly realised we were in the very unusual position of a perfect storm: we have a large amount of space to offer, space that exactly meets the requirements of an industry who are in need and able to get back to work.”

ExCeL senior leadership team. Credit: ExCeL

Indeed, many of the UK’s leading events sites are now being offered for filming, while they await concerts, exhibitions etc starting up again, including 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,” enthuses 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.

An added bonus is that 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 (sound, lighting, video etc). 

NEC Utilita Arena. Credit: NEC Arenas Birmingham

A recent report published prior to the pandemic by property consultancy Lambert Smith Hampton estimated that an additional 1,900,000 square feet of studio space was needed in the UK to satisfy demand. These latest location offerings certainly help reach that target.

Covid complications

But it’s not all plain sailing. 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 currently 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.”

Fortunately, if any industry is going to be creative and adapt it’s the film and TV industry. “If we can’t come up with ways to work, what hope is there for anyone else,” concludes Knight.


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