Exclusive: How major films and high-end TV series are doubling the UK for the US

From The Batman to Morbius, The Flash to The Crown, an increasing number of major films and TV series are turning to the UK

By Nikki Baughan 12 May 2022

Exclusive: How major films and high-end TV series are doubling the UK for the US
Peter Bardsley

From The Batman to Morbius, The Flash to The Crown, an increasing number of large‑scale film and high-end TV productions are using the UK to double as the US. 

High above the gleaming spires of a sprawling city, a caped crusader observes the bustling streets below. A scientist struggles to contain his burgeoning bloodlust amid yellow cabs and hot-dog stands. Desperate citizens run from marauding zombie hordes and across a large stateside square. These iconic moments — in The Batman, Morbius and World War Z respectively — may seem to play out in the familiar all-American cityscapes of Gotham, New York and Philadelphia, but they were filmed in Liver­pool, Manchester and Glasgow.

The UK is one of the world’s most popular filming locations thanks to its competitive financial incentives, facilities, infrastructure and crews, but now productions are discovering another benefit — its chameleonic ability to double for other global locales, including parts of the US.

“It is always a pleasant surprise for productions that they don’t necessarily have to go to the US to shoot the US,” says Samantha Perahia, head of production UK at the British Film Commission (BFC). She notes that locations in the north of England and Scotland have become particularly popular stand-ins for New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

“The nature of these film-friendly cities is also a major attraction,” continues Perahia. “It’s such a controllable environment and they have had demonstrable success. Local councils and film officers can demonstrate both value and efficiency. We always have such confidence in areas like Liver­pool and Manchester. On Morbius, we paid for the location scout up there because we knew they could supply what the production needed.”

Manchester or Manhattan?

In the case of Morbius, the Marvel/­Sony production turned Manchester into contemporary New York. The city also doubled as New York for The Crown season four (Left Bank Pictures for Netflix), Little Birds (Warp Film for Sky) and Das Boot season two (Bavaria Fiction for Sky), with all of the productions needing to recreate different eras. Pre-­pandemic, Cardiff also doubled for New York in Paramount Pictures’ Mark Wahlberg action vehicle Infinite, with a chase sequence shot in and around Mercure Cardiff Holland House Hotel & Spa.


Morbius doubling Manchester for New York, Credit: Paul Wishart/Shutterstock

“At the end of March 2019, we facilitated Morbius transforming the Northern Quarter area of the city into modern day New York,” says Bobby Cochrane, film office manager at Screen Manchester. “The following week, we had the crew on Das Boot dressing the same streets as 1940s New York. Having two major productions back-to-back was a massive logistical challenge regarding permissions, street dressing, business and resident liaison, but we managed to showcase how adaptable and accommodating the city can be.”

Adaptability, accommodation and efficiency are high on the list of requirements for any production looking to turn the UK into the US. Visual similarity with US locations — or the opportunity to implement it — is also crucial, says UK-based location manager Peter Bardsley.

“A number of UK cities, such as Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, have wide streets, elements of grid systems, banking quarters, former docklands and brick warehouses,” notes Bardsley who worked on Net­flix’s The Old Guard and War­ner’s The Batman, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them and the upcoming The Flash, all of which used areas of Scotland, Liverpool, London and the southeast to double for the US.

“We like to leave as little transformation required as possible, apart from set decoration and VFX work,” continues Bardsley of the art of finding exactly the right location. He points to the abundance of US-style municipal buildings, such as St George’s Hall in Liverpool, Manchester Town Hall (currently under renovation) and Buxton Town Hall, along with Hylands House in Essex, which he describes as a “dead ringer” for The White House. “It’s amazing what the right signage, traffic lights, water hydrants and numberplates can do.


The Batman filming at St George's Hall. Credit: Jon Super/Ap/Shutterstock

“It’s also worth noting how location scouting work can inspire set design at the studio,” he adds. “For example, The Batman took inspiration from the foot of the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle for exteriors to the beautiful interior of Manchester Central Library for Wayne Tower.”

Tale of several cities

It is not just individual buildings that can pass for American, but entire cities. Glasgow, for example, attracts a large number of productions looking to recreate the US. These have included Paramount’s World War Z, for which the city doubled as Philadelphia; Warner Bros’ Cloud Atlas, as 1970s San Francisco; Showtime’s small-screen drama Patrick Melrose, which saw it turn into New York; and The Flash, standing in once again for Gotham City.

“We completed a driving sequence in Glasgow for The Flash, controlling a larger footprint than ever seen before,” notes Bardsley. “It was challenging, but thanks to the collaboration between ourselves, Glasgow Film Office and Glasgow City Council, we pulled off something incredible.”


The Flash filming on St Vincent street in Glasgow. Credit: Duncan McGlynn/Shutterstock

For Jennifer Reynolds, film commissioner at Glasgow Film Office, the city has a unique appeal. “The architecture is very similar to a number of eastern US cities, with grand Victorian civic buildings, squares and a modern financial district. But our greatest selling point has to be the grid system in which our streets are laid out. It offers the long, straight runs and regularly placed junctions that have proved very popular for stunts.”

With Glasgow having hosted everything from high-octane car chases to marauding zombies, Rey­nolds says the city is developing a reputation for being adaptable and co-operative. “We have heard from location managers that they are amazed at the footprint they’re able to secure here. We ask productions for their wishlist of locations and what they want to achieve, and from there evolves a set of parameters in which they can work — particularly streets or junctions within a specific set of dates. So far, the city has been able to say yes to virtually all requests.”

“Versatility is key,” agrees Manchester’s Cochrane, who says his city has also been “investing significantly in the infrastructure”, including stages at Space Studios Manchester and digital and creative hub The Sharp Project, as well as developing the local talent base. “Our freelance crew are experienced and are continually developing to meet the evolving demands of broadcasters and streamers.”

This availability of skilled local talent is just as important as the abundance of US-style locations when it comes to convincing productions to stay in the UK, rather than decamp across the Atlantic, says the BFC’s Perahia. “There’s still a perception that if you’re basing a project somewhere outside of London, you will have to bring in your crew. But you can source your crew from the UK’s regions. So, not only can you base your show or feature out of, say, Space Studios in Manchester or The Depot in Liverpool, you only need to go 20 minutes down the road to find a location that can double for New York City.

“That’s a pretty good selling point for any country, especially one as relatively small as the UK.”

This feature appears in the new issue of World of Locations.

Main image: Morbius doubling Manchester for New York, Credit: Paul Wishart/Shutterstock

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