Bolton: The Jewel of the North

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Society is watching TV like never before. To think that merely ten years ago, Netflix was a relative unknown, BBC iPlayer was in its infancy and Amazon Prime Video wasn’t even a thing, the speed at which we digest new TV is at unprecedented levels. The culture of ‘an episode a week’ is all but over, and in its place has come the aptly named ‘binge-watching’. In recent history, you’d go into work the morning after an episode of your favourite series and review it with colleagues; nowadays, that chat is often over an entire series.

Release rates of TV Productions are at an all-time high, which means not only are audiences gratified more frequently, the industry and professionals within it are endlessly at work. This new culture of production is employing thousands of people for long stretches, on job after job. As productions are scrambling to find the right people, they are doing the same with locations and facilities. They are becoming something of a premium to productions, so naturally, this causes the industry to look elsewhere. Over the last decade, within this boom, the English Regions have begun to facilitate a diverse range of TV genres, which has only had positive subsequent impact. Productions will now look high and low for the right thing – a place, with a wide spectrum of locations and facilities, in addition to a film-friendly Local Authority who make their lives as easy as possible. The Local Authority know the area could well benefit from the production at a later stage, in the form of screen tourism.

The North West has done extremely well from this, with its key cities and their dedicated Film Office Services – Liverpool Film Office and Screen Manchester – thriving on filming, due to their multi-faceted locations (you could be in London, you could be in New York!), not to mention the high standard of crew both cities boast. But, there’s a surprising contender for busiest production hub in the North West: Bolton.

The largest town in the country, with a population of little over 250,000, has had one of its busiest years on record in TV Production. How busy exactly? “We’ve had five TV Dramas in so far this year,” informs dedicated Senior Events Officer Chris Chadwick, of Bolton Council. “An upcoming Netflix/RED Production was here for four months, another BBC/Red Production was here for five. The latter built three sets and filmed all over the town centre … not to mention Peaky Blinders a few years ago, and more recently, Years and Years used three locations across the town centre”. Chris is an integral part of the Events team at the Council, and works closely with Creative England’s Production Services team to ensure facilitation goes smoothly for the Dramas that have rolled into town.

Bolton is a 20-minute train ride from Manchester City Centre and a 30-minute drive from both the city and Manchester Airport. Nicola Littlewood, the Council’s Marketing and Communications Manager, has a few thoughts on what brings the productions off the M61 and into the area: “The town centre has beautiful architecture and unique places that catch the eyes of Production Designers when they come to look around”, and the iconic le Mans Crescent crystallises this notion, a popular choice due to its immaculate state and urban period style.

Le Mans Crescent, Bolton

Nicola knows the locations are only half the sell, and that productions need to have access to a flexible and dedicated level of facilitation from the authority: “All involved have a can-do attitude, and will go the extra mile to ensure filming can be facilitated. The Council have become far more efficient with processes, and are further developing means to streamline filming enquiries … we’ve even recently completed an audit of all of the buildings we own in the borough, which includes an exciting and vast range of places that will soon be available for productions to consider”. Nicola added that whilst the Council have a regimented structure of filming fees in place, “there’s always a deal to be done” and the Council are happy to have that conversation where necessary.

Such a challenging and meticulous task clearly conveys how highly regarded TV production is to the local authority, who recognise the positive impact it has on Bolton – “it supports businesses, SME’s (an independent coffee retailer sold 280 coffees in one day during a shoot!) and creates civic pride – people are delighted when they see filming on the streets, and then even more when they see their hometown on their TV screen”.

It’s not only personnel within Marketing, Events and Communications who see the benefits of production – the Leader of Bolton Council, Cllr David Greenhalgh, had the following to add:

“From the grand Victorian architecture of our historic town hall to the beautiful surrounding countryside, Bolton offers many unique filming opportunities.

As a council, we work hard to accommodate requests and we have a deserved reputation in the industry as a film-friendly town.

Filming brings many economic benefits for our local businesses and the town’s appearances on primetime television, Netflix and Sky productions show an international audience everything that Bolton has to offer.”

Such a glowing testimony is matched by Karen Pilkington, of nearby tourist attraction and historical location Turton Tower, who have also recently had large film crews in from the BBC and ITV, including Last Tango in Halifax in the past amongst reputable others.

Karen states the location itself has “everything… the grounds, the woodland, the lawns, different styles of architecture. There’s something for everyone here at Turton Tower”, and that Bolton on the whole has “fantastic countryside, major towns, excellent transport links – why would they go anywhere else?”

Turton Tower, Bolton

Aside from locations, the Council impress the amount of facilities and unit bases that they have at their disposal. Chris at the council informed us that there’s “a fair few places where productions can park all of their trucks and cars”, which was necessary at times during 2019 when up to three TV Dramas were in the town centre at the same time.

University of Bolton – Senate House

Aris F. Mattheou, the Executive Director of External Relations at the University of Bolton, told us about a BBC/RED Prods Drama that made full use of the University’s academic facilities, by using their medical facility for students of medicine, as a real hospital.

The National Centre for Motorsport Engineering

Aris also added that ‘the university has a diverse range of courses which provide options for locations”, including “special effects facilities and the National Centre for Motorsport Engineering” to name a few.

The production used the university as their unit base, and some students even got to take part as supporting artists.

Elisa Woodend, an Executive Assistant to the Vice Chancellor’s Office, stated that this brought a ‘tremendous’ atmosphere to the campus.  Aris has said that the University hopes to be seen as Film-friendly to the industry and remains open to any new ideas, for both academic purposes as well as activities that will promote Bolton in general.

So, plenty of locals are talking up Bolton – but what about the production, at the opposite end of things?

James Muirhead, Location Manager on BBC/Red’s ‘Years and Years’, spoke highly of the town and production’s experience:

Bolton offers the production both period and contemporary locations. Having spent the day in the town we managed to achieve period London to high-end futuristic office. All sorted by the excellent team at the Council. It’s a safe pair of hands, from a Location Manager’s point of view”.

A clean sweep all round; the local authority, location owners, local businesses, academic institutions, production crew and Creative England love filming in Bolton. It’s no surprise that their recent Food and Drink Festival attracted over 400,000 people over a weekend, and that the Bolton International Film Festival has been named in the 2019 CE50, Creative England’s top 50 creative businesses across England.

2019 has been a memorable year for Bolton – long may it continue!

Creative England’s Production Services Team work closely with Bolton Council and Local Authorities across England to provide a facilitation service to the TV and Film Industry. If you wish to learn more, please go to https://www.creativeengland.co.uk/filming-in-england/