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Thursday, 27th January 2011

Graeme Aldous puts on his dicky-bow for a night at the seaside movies, and the regional premiere of ‘Atonement’.

When my son was very young, we went to the Regent Cinema in Redcar to see (I think) ‘ET’. An old friend, Jeff Edwards, was the Manager then, and after a good chat he took us to see the projection room. Afterwards, my son was desperately impressed, and all the more so by the fact that he had met Stephen Spielberg — after all, the posters did say ‘Stephen Spielberg presents…’

We adults had a good laugh about it, not least because it was highly unlikely that a movie director of such standing should be at the lowly Regent, Redcar to welcome his patrons.

And yet, some 20 years later, the highly-acclaimed ‘Pride & Prejudice’ director Joe Wright was at the Regent, and for a premiere of his latest film (which many have tipped to be the next big British award-winner). Joe had shot one of the most important and complex sequences for ‘Atonement’ — a setting of Ian McEwan’s ‘unfilmable’ novel — on the beach just to the west of the seafront cinema, and even in the building itself.

It’s one of those major Steadicam set-pieces which boggle the mind with the complexity of the organisation involved. Using over 1000 extras, most of them local Redcar people, the Redcar Esplanade and Coatham Sands famously became Dunkirk, as the Allies retreated in the face of the German advance. WW2 vehicles, an abandoned sailing barge and a Ferris Wheel were constructed, and the seafront buildings given French adverts and ‘bomb damage’. It became a great tourist attraction during the shoot, and some of the buildings have been left 'in costume' as a memento.

Stars such as James McAvoy. Keira Knightley, Vanessa Redgrave and Romola Garai had been at Leicester Square the night before for the real glittering premiere, but as an acknowledgement of the contribution made by Redcar and the North East, the Regent became the setting for a regional red-carpet premiere on September 5th. Bubbling with enthusiasm, Joe Wright said “Leicester Square was not a patch on you lot!”

He described the filming as being a bit like his family puppet troupe background — “You get to create a family… me and some thousand ordinary people who really put their hearts into creating something that wasn’t intended to be cool or flash — just beautiful.” And with over 100-million people around the world expected to see the film, it meant that they would be introduced to Redcar. “This was not”, he said, “Hollywood comes to Redcar, but rather Redcar goes to Hollywood — and Hollywood loves you!”

One slight danger of all this Yorkshire Coast euphoria could be that some people may go and see the film for the wrong reason. Basically it’s a story of unrequited love and guilt, and of the 130 minutes, only 9-10 are in ‘Dunkirk’. What it most emphatically is not is a war film set in Redcar, despite what some local papers (maybe inadvertently) suggested in their copy. One even had a photo-montage of images that appeared to place Keira Knightly squarely on the beach with James McAvoy and a vase of flowers, whilst behind them troops tried desperately to escape back to Blighty. In fact Keira had no part in the Redcar filming, much to the disappointment of many of the extras!

But this shouldn’t detract from the amount of enthusiasm given to this project by the likes of Northern Film & Media, Redcar & Cleveland BC, and the Redcar people who supplied the cast. I have at least 2 acquaintances who were absolutely thrilled to have been part of that wonderful Steadicam shot which at just under 5 minutes may not have quite the duration of some of the cinema classics (eg ‘Wall Street’, ‘The Player’ or ‘Children of Men’), but which will probably go down as the most complex ever made (with the obvious exception of ‘Russian Arc’).

Apparently, work on the sequence began at 6am and was rehearsed for 12 hours. Then, in the summer evening light, they went for a take… then another… then a third, resetting all the special effects and pyrotechnics between each. One account I read says that there was an attempt at a fourth take, which was going well until the poor Steadicam operator’s legs gave way beneath him with fatigue. They’re a breed apart, those guys!

‘Atonement’ has been widely tipped for success at the Oscars. Whether or not this is on the basis of that Dunkirk shot, or the overall direction, or the excellently inventive sound production work, it will always be something in which the North East of England in general (and Redcar in particular) can be inordinately proud. If nothing else, as Tom Harvey, Chief Executive of Northern Film & Media has pointed out, the smooth running of a major film project like this can have an immense knock-on effect for all media production in the region, with our crews and facilities basking in ‘Atonement’s reputation.

At the regional premiere, Joe Wright remembered how his puppeteer father had been asked if one of his shows would include audience participation. “Yes,” he said, “there will be participation of the imagination”, which is what he said happened at Redcar. “‘Atonement’ was an extraordinary group effort, and the best filming day of my life”.


The Redcar Red Carpet

The Redcar Red (Pink?) Carpet

The crowds gather to see the stars

The crowds gather to see the stars...

... and get Graeme Thompson instead!

Sharuna Sagar live on 'Look North'

Graeme Thompson and Malcolm Wright with a 'mystery blonde' (actually Malcolm's daughter)


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