Our Friend in the East: Rachel Watson

Our Friend in the East: Rachel Watson

By Rachel Watson,
Wednesday, 14th December 2022
Rachel Watson
Rachel Watson
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Rachel Watson says the TV and film sector is missing out by not investing in East Anglia’s more remote areas

The east of England is so endlessly flat that there’s nothing between Cambridge and Siberia but Ely Cathedral. That’s why it gets so icy cold in the winter, I was told when I moved to the region to work as a BBC news producer and first experienced the freezing Fens.

At this time of year, Ely Cathedral soars from the surrounding levels towards big skies that are bright, bold and stone-cold blue. The light and the landscape are stunning, and it can be very attractive to film-makers.

Last month, I went to Ely Cathedral to visit the set of Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s biopic of Leonard Bernstein. The American composer conducted the London Symphony Orchestra here in 1974, and Cooper and his team were recreating the scene with today’s LSO.

I’m new to films – a live drone shot on a multi-camera outside broadcast is about as exciting as it gets in regional news – so I was in awe of the scale of it all, as much as the Californian producer I was with was in awe of the size and drama of the medieval cathedral we found ourselves in.

Ely Cathedral is a popular stand-in for other monuments in film and television: it doubled as Westminster Abbey in the Netflix series The Crown and featured in The Other Boleyn Girl and The King’s Speech.

Film and television productions are also drawn to other landscapes in this region: Apple TV+’s The Essex Serpent was filmed largely in and around Maldon in Essex, and The Dig – about the Sutton Hoo treasures – shot in many Suffolk locations.

Further north, Screen Norfolk tells me that, in the past two years, it has had 120 enquiries about filming in the county.

But locations aside, the eastern edges of our region still lack substantial studio facilities. Over in Hertfordshire, we’ve got large production complexes: Warner Brothers, Elstree Studios and the BBC are all well-­established. And, earlier this summer, planning permission was granted for the new Sunset Waltham Cross Studios in Broxbourne, where a £700m studio complex should open by 2025.

Hertfordshire is close to London and has good transport connections. It’s an ideal place for big studio investment. But as you travel east and the land flattens, so do the opportunities. There are some fabulous smaller studio spaces in Norfolk and elsewhere but, sadly, this summer one of the larger ones, Raynham Hangar Studios, closed down.

Sky Atlantic’s This England was shot there, as was The Souvenir and The Souvenir: Part II. John Travolta was spotted out and about in a Fakenham supermarket in April this year (“I bumped into John Travolta in the biscuit aisle,” as the local BBC reported) when he was filming his short film The Shepherd there.

After I visited the Maestro set, my friend in Ely was very excited to tell me that her daughter had spotted Bradley Cooper in their local pub. It’s so fabulous to hear that Hollywood stars are making the most of their stays in the east. Bradley propped up our bar! John Travolta was at the check out!

But the truth is, these visits are such a huge deal here because they don’t happen very often. It’s a shame because, across the region, we have so much to offer in terms of location and talent.

Maybe, one day, the saying will be: did you know, there’s nothing between Cambridge and Siberia but that vast multi-studio production hub in the middle of the Fens? Oh, and a beautiful cathedral at Ely.

Rachel Watson is Chair of RTS East.