What image does Yorkshire conjure up for you? Rolling green hills and desolate moors, or gritty, industrial cities? The eclectic Yorkshire landscape, so full of contrasts, has long been a favourite for filmmakers. From Billy Liar to Calendar Girls, Yorkshire has played host to many famous films.
In a recent poll by the Film Distributors Association on the most atmospheric use of location in British cinema, four of the top ten films were set in Yorkshire, proving that Yorkshire has a rich and recognisable heritage in film. Despite Leeds being the chosen location for the first moving image film by Louis le Prince in 1888, it was perhaps the 1960s New Wave that really put Yorkshire on the cinematic map.
Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958), based on local boy John Braine’s Bradford-set novel, and starring Lawrence Harvey as the ambitious Joe Lampton, used authentic locations as it aimed to show the north of England as it really was. Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) was also shot on location in Bradford. Adapted from Keith Waterhouse’s own novel and starring Tom Courtenay as Billy, this warm, witty film blended northern realism and fantasy. Instantly recognisable, the city of Bradford is such a feature of the film that it can perhaps be seen as much a star as the actors. Both films showed Yorkshire as a place of change and transition, capturing the mood of prosperity and recreating the reality of life in a northern industrial town.
This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963) is seen as the film that brought the British New Wave to a close. From the novel by David Storey, set in the tough and uncompromising world of northern Rugby League and filmed in Wakefield, this was more a film about people than location. Intelligent and intense, with real passion shown in the relationship between the two leads Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts, the harshness and authenticity that would long be associated with the grittiness of life up north was a powerful presence.
Kes (Ken Loach, 1969) also showed the harsh reality of life in a Barnsley mining village. Ken Loach’s seminal film starred David Bradley as Billy Casper, who escapes the grime and grit of life through his relationship with a wild kestrel. Using real people and real locations to add to the authenticity, this moving adaptation of the Barry Hines novel A Kestrel for a Nave provides an unsentimental and very genuine picture of life with no prospects in a northern town.
However, The Railway Children (Lionel Jeffries, 1970) showed a different side to Yorkshire as it captured the beauty of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway and its lush and peaceful surroundings, harking back to the more simple times of the golden Edwardian days. The rural side of Yorkshire life, the green valleys and rolling, magical hills and moors has long been a staple of cosy tea-time viewing, in stark contrast to the industrial landscape familiar to us from the British New Wave.
The mid 1980s saw a continuation of Yorkshire in extremes. Both Malcolm Mowbray’s A Private Function (1984), a comedy of post-war austerity, manners and social aspiration set in a small Yorkshire town in 1947 and scripted by Alan Bennett, and Alan Clarke’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986), which captured the rough side of contemporary working class life on a rundown Bradford estate, were made within the period.
The 1990s saw a continuation of the gritty, issue led cinema whose legacy lay in the new wave of the 1960s. But this time the industrial landscape no longer provided economic hope and prosperity. Films such as Brassed Off (Mark Herman, 1996) filmed in Barnsley, Doncaster and Halifax, and the Sheffield based The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997) blended comedy and politics to show the harsh realities of life in post Thatcher Britain and its effect on the Yorkshire towns and cities that once boomed. Industrial wastelands and broken dreams became synonymous with Yorkshire.
The often bleak and uncompromising reality of these political films can be seen in sharp contrast with the cosy image that has often been projected into living rooms across the country through television programmes such as Last of the Summer Wine and Heartbeat. It was this more saleable picture of Yorkshire, full of harmless whimsy that emerged in the era of New Labour.
Blow Dry (Paddy Breathnach, 2000) and Fanny & Elvis (Kay Mellor, 1999) provided some light hearted northern wit amidst the cobbles and charm of their Yorkshire setting. But it was Calendar Girls (Nigel Cole, 2003) the cheery and heart-warming britcom which tells the tale of the Rylstone and District Women’s Institute who bared all for a charity calendar, that successfully blended the uplifting mass appeal of The Full Monty’s strippers and the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales.
The popularity of Yorkshire-set films such as Calendar Girls shows that the public are keen to enjoy a slice of Yorkshire life. And now there is perhaps more of an opportunity to see something other than industrial grit or chocolate box sentimentality, as the richness and diversity of the region is finally being shown. My Summer of Love, (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2004) brought us a tale of intense teenage love in the picturesque Calder Valley, showcased by a sun-lit, endless summer.
The Yorkshire landscape has never looked more stunning, but this off-beat and intelligent tale, which won the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film at the 2005 BAFTAs, proves that filmmakers can use the splendour and complexity of the Yorkshire landscape as fitting backdrop for cinema with a contemporary edge.
Yasmin (Kenny Glenaan, 2004) an absorbing, realist drama made on digital camera, again with the writing talent of Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Blow Dry) brings Yorkshire bang up to date with a culturally relevant and challenging story of a young British Muslim woman dealing with alienation and crisis of identity in Keighley.
Yorkshire is proving a popular location choice for filmmakers. Forthcoming productions include Gregory Read’s Like Minds, starring Toni Collette, Penny Woolcock’s Mischief Night, shot entirely on location in Leeds, and filming has recently begun on an adaptation of Alan Bennett’s History Boys, using locations around the region.
There were seven feature films in production in Yorkshire in summer 2005 alone, bringing over £1 million investment into the region. There are also a number of initiatives to encourage and support new local talent, including Screen Yorkshire’s annual Caught Short project and the Low Budget Lottery Shorts film award to help first time directors.
Filmmakers drawn to the region are now looking beyond the kitchen sink or the reliance on picturesque location, looking instead for contemporary themes and using Yorkshire as an ambient backdrop with universal appeal. Yorkshire can be both charming and relevant; ensuring the future for Yorkshire film is as bright and eclectic as its heritage.