North East Passage - Mapping the Cinematic North East
Michael Pattison, a film critic from Gateshead and a PhD candidate in film practice at Newcastle University, takes us on a journey through the Cinematic North East with this article mapping the many incredible locations in the region that have featured in cinematic classics over the decades and how these films have created a snapshot of the history of the North East.
England’s written histories might be heavily London-centric, but the film versions are often shot up north. Elizabeth (1998), the first British film by Bollywood director Shekhar Kapur, features no less than four Northumberland castles, each of which stands in for another (the lake at Raby Castle also serves as the River Thames). Chillingham becomes a fort in Leith, Scotland. Warkworth is transformed into the Tower of London. Rooms inside the much smaller Aydon Castle, near Corbridge, double as the quarters of spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, played in the film by Geoffrey Rush, as well as the chambers in which a pre-007 Daniel Craig is seen suspended from the ceiling being tortured. Alnwick, most significantly, appears as Bishopsgate, London — where three Protestant martyrs are burned alive — and also provides the Leith garrison’s exterior, its hills strewn with dead bodies.
First built in the final years of the eleventh century, Alnwick Castle has become one of many tourist attractions for fans of J.K. Rowling. In the first two entries of the Harry Potter film franchise, the Grade I listed building serves as the big-screen, CGI-assisted image of Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft. Chris Columbus’ films, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002), also share with Elizabeth another North East treasure: in Kapur’s riveting biography of England’s last Tudor monarch, Durham Cathedral stands in for the Palace of Whitehall; the cloisters are seen in Hogwarts.
Propped atop sand dunes 16 miles north of Alnwick, Bamburgh Castle had already seen its fair share of violence in the nine centuries of its existence prior to the invention of cinema. It has, over the last 100 years, notched up an impressive portfolio of film appearances, including significant chunks of Huntingtower (1927), George Pearson’s silent-era ‘tale of chivalry in modern times’, which was otherwise shot at Cricklewood Studios; a bit part in Anthony Mann’s epic El Cid (1961); Peter Glenville’s Becket (1964), made for Paramount Pictures and starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole; and Charles Jarrott’s Mary, Queen of Scots (1972), a film in which Alnwick Castle also appeared, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson.
Using real-world locations as expensive backdrops, these studio productions might be situated in contrast to two independent films, both released in 1971, that paid close attention to the psychological character of setting. The first was Ken Russell’s masterpiece, The Devils, an adaptation of John Whitling’s 1961 play — itself based on The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley’s 1952 retelling of a notorious witch trial in seventeenth-century France. Starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave, Russell’s barnstorming film exploited Bamburgh Castle for its establishing shots; the white-tiled interiors of the Loudun set were built from designs devised by Derek Jarman, who returned to Bamburgh in 1979 to shoot exteriors for his adaptation of The Tempest.
The second 1971 film, funded by Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Enterprises, was another Shakespeare adaptation. Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, often argued as the nastiest version of the Scottish play, was shot in Wales and at a number of Northumberland sites — most significantly transforming Bamburgh into Dunsinane, the castle where ‘Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be’. Plagued by poor weather, filming resulted in a picture steeped in atmosphere. The Northumberland Coast looks as if it’s had its colour drained, the stone-grey palette only further heightening the film’s bursts of blood. In a 1972 interview for Mademoiselle, hardened New Yorker critic Pauline Kael confessed that the film’s violent imagery had knocked her: ‘I felt numb. When I came home my daughter thought I’d been mugged.’
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It isn’t easy, mapping the Cinematic North East. The names and places, the blink-and-miss cameos from digitally-altered landmarks: they form a dizzying constellation of repetitions and overlaps. In 1966, Polanski had made Cul-de-sac, a darkly comic thriller, at Lindisfarne — whose castle would also serve as King Duncan’s Inverness abode, two years later, in Macbeth.
From the outset, Cul-de-sac makes proper use of its location. Two gangsters, played by Jack MacGowran and Lionel Stander, are stranded on a coastal path increasingly engulfed by fast-moving waters — the real-life mile-long causeway that connects Holy Island, during low tide, to mainland England. As the gangsters seek shelter on the island, they meet its only occupants, a husband and wife (Donald Pleasance and Françoise Dorléac) whose remote lifestyle is about to take a belatedly dreadful toll on their marriage.
In 1969, two years prior to The Devils, Ken Russell had filmed several scenes of Women in Love, his acclaimed adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel, on Tyneside and Northumberland. In Gateshead, Glenda Jackson is propositioned by a drunken miner who staggers out of Central Bar on Half Moon Lane — transformed into a bawdy, fire-lit evening market. Jackson, en route to an Oscar for her performance, asks the man about his thighs: ‘I want to drown in flesh. Hot, physical, naked flesh.’ Her would-be suitor stumbles into meat hanging from a butcher’s stall — before Oliver Reed, emerging from the since-demolished Half Moon pub, intervenes on Jackson’s behalf.
There are other Gateshead locales. South of the town centre, in Low Fell, Russell shot a scene of Reed walking down the back lane between Kells Gardens and Derwent Gardens (the reverse-shot, of Jackson watching Reed, was filmed in Matlock, Derbyshire). Soon after, Alan Bates and Jennie Linden make their way through a street sale, buying furniture and descending Tiger Stairs, from Bedford Street to Little Bedford Street, in North Shields.
Earlier still, Russell had shot the documentary Miners’ Picnic (1960), for the BBC’s flagship arts programme Monitor (1958-65), at Bedlington Colliery, Northumberland. Focusing on the community’s brass band contest, Russell returned to the colliery twice: to shoot a scene in Women in Love at the end of the ’60s, and again in 2005 for a half-hour follow-up to Miners’ Picnic commissioned by the BBC. By that point, the pit had been closed for decades.
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The Cinematic North East can be defined, in part, by the ways in which the region’s counties (Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, and County Durham) inform its cultural position as an outlier. We think in oppositional terms — oppositional, that is, to London. The North East’s mythologies are under-told: local. The histories already feel alternative. This is a story, partly, of an international film industry getting in on the North East’s picturesque qualities, the time-capsule potential in some of its untouched landscapes, its cost-effective value as a substitute for places that in film production terms are too expensive to buy access to.
The results are often impressive. In 2006, Redcar Beach was reworked into 1940s Dunkirk for a stunning sequence in Joe Wright’s adaptation of the Ian McEwan bestseller Atonement. It took more than a month to prepare the scene — a sweeping Steadicam shot that lasts five continuous minutes of screen-time: tanks, military ambulances, explosions, horses, 260 tonnes of rubble, 1000 extras, a 1930s Ferris wheel. Thirteen years earlier, 20 miles north, the opening scenes of David Fincher’s Alien 3 were filmed at Blast Beach, then a dumping ground for waste coal from the recently-closed Dawdon Colliery. The site’s abandoned, coke-grey miserablism provided the perfect starting point for the film’s grim, post-industrial look.
Geographies do what they can to sell a postcard pictorialism. When it appeared in Mark Herman’s Purely Belter (2000), Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North was less than two years old: avatar of a new economic era juxtaposed against the obsolete architecture of Dunston Staithes. In Tina Gharavi’s coming-of-age drama I Am Nasrine (2012), two Iranian asylum seekers (Micsha Sadeghi and Shiraz Haq) navigate a North East that takes much meaning from its rich milieus: the Traveller community, the bricked-terrace community of an urban working-class, and the workplace community of a Newcastle takeaway (Spice of Punjab, opposite Times Square).
Places shape, and are shaped by, people: a point of pain as well as pride. If Ken Russell’s Miners’ Picnic is a snapshot of an industry not yet fully aware of the fact that it is living out its final days, Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot (2000) presents an image of the 1984-5 coal miners’ strike with bittersweet hindsight. Written by Newcastle-born Lee Hall and starring BAFTA-winning Jamie Bell of Billingham, Cleveland, Daldry’s box-office smash was mostly shot in Easington, whose own pit had closed in 1993; the film’s mining sequences were shot in Northumberland, at Ellington and Lynemouth Milne. The famous shot of Bell dance-hobbling up a street with the North Sea behind him, was filmed in Dawdon: somewhat sunnier, and visibly healthier, than its appearance in Alien 3.
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In 1987, for the BBC’s Screenplay series (1986-93), Alan Clarke directed an hour-long adaptation of Jim Cartwright’s Road. Originally set in Cartwright’s native Lancashire, the teleplay moved the action to the derelict, boarded-up terraces of Easington, some 13 years before Stephen Daldry arrived to make Billy Elliot. As such, Clarke’s film — an exceptional work that burns with a restlessly choreographed, wide-angled Steadicam vigour — is a hauntology: made before the local pit finally closed, it captures not so much a lost past as a fading future.
Clarke’s inimitable vision, at once invigorating and hellish, allowed him to embrace a social class that was in the process of disappearing: shunted, shunned, starved. In some respects, Road plays out like an angrier, heavily stylised extension of the documentary output of Amber, the photography and filmmaking collective based at Side. The sloping terraces of Easington, as seen in Roadand later Billy Elliot, recall the Tyneside streets in Launch (1974), Amber’s second film, a ten-minute ode to the rhythms of work and leisure in and around Wallsend’s Swan Hunter shipyards.
Here, the surreal sight of an oil tanker — the World Unicorn — so massive it blocks the skies, brings an entire community together in awestruck ritual. In Murray Martin and Peter Roberts’ film, the vessel flattens hierarchies, social division: Princess Anne, representing the Royals, stands separate from locals but is equally dwarfed by the ship as it languidly lurches to life, groaning reluctantly out of frame like a hyperreal backdrop being dragged away from a film set.
Amber’s documentaries emerged as part of a general turn, in UK film and television, towards the working class. It was, we’re told, a golden age. In retrospect, we are able to see how post-war social welfare programmes allowed artists the cultural and institutional space, as well as the financial means, to make work fully invested in ordinary life.
One such artist was Jim Allen. A socialist playwright, born in Manchester in 1926, Allen had already worked with Ken Loach on The Big Flame (1969) and The Rank and File (1971) — made for the BBC’s Wednesday Play and Play for Today series respectively — when they collaborated on Days of Hope (1975), a four-part, seven-hour telefilm that’s still as astonishing and ambitious today as it was in the context of Thatcher’s Britain. Charting the lives and the divergent political developments of a working-class family from 1916 to 1926, Allen and Loach paint a razor-sharp portrait of how social experience informs personal politics: how one member of a family invests in parliamentary reform and a career as a Labour politician, for instance, while another is radicalised by the bitter betrayals he encounters during the 1921 miners’ dispute in County Durham.
Before collaborating on three feature films with Loach — Hidden Agenda (1990), Raining Stones (1993), and Land and Freedom (1995) — Allen wrote two more outstanding teleplays, both directed by a pre-Killing Fields Roland Joffé. Following The Spongers (1978), about a poverty-stricken single mother-of-four (Christine Hargreaves) struggling to make ends meet in Manchester during the 1977 Silver Jubilee celebrations, Allen and Joffé made United Kingdom (1981). When London Weekend Television — who had commissioned the play to be shot in Manchester — withdrew at the eleventh hour, the production was relocated to Gateshead; it aired on the BBC as a Play for Today. Relentlessly scathing of the state apparatus (local government, the police, and what was then the Special Patrol Group), United Kingdom focuses on a housing crisis battled, with dogged togetherness, by a group of Tynesiders — led by a Scouser played by 40-year-old, first-time actor, Ricky Tomlinson.
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This is the North East. Dave Johns, as the Byker-dwelling title character in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake (2016), pumps a fist after spraying a graffito on the exterior of the Jobcentre that has made his life a living hell. Like Christ, Daniel is a carpenter: scripted by Paul Laverty, Loach’s film taps into the quiet durability, the sacrificial heroism, of the working-class everyman.
For Stormy Monday (1988), his feature debut, Carlisle-born Mike Figgis reworked Newcastle into a stylish neo-noir starring Sean Bean, Melanie Griffith, and Tommy Lee Jones — a more or less international contingent supported by local lad Sting, as nightclub owner Finney, who in one scene meets with Jones’ corrupt American businessman on the eastern walkway of the High Level Bridge. Like Payroll (1961), Sidney Hayers’ heist film, Stormy Monday boasts an impressive checklist of North East locales — not all of them immediately recognisable: Barras Bridge, Dean Street, Pilgrim Street, Bottle Bank, Walker Road. Figgis’ film was released a year after — and in some senses its subject echoes — Amber’s T. Dan Smith (1987), a docudrama on the eponymous leader of Newcastle City Council between 1960 and 1965, who was imprisoned in 1974 for bribery.
This too, somehow, is the North East. ‘You’re a big man but you’re in bad shape,’ Michael Caine tells a thug in Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971). ‘With me,’ he continues, ‘it’s a fulltime job.’ Caine’s Jack Carter, arriving in his native Newcastle hell-bent on investigating his brother’s suspicious death, confronts a sinister urban underbelly of corruption, embezzlement and gangster capitalism. He takes no prisoners: he throws Bryan Mosley, better known as cuddly Alf Roberts in Coronation Street, from the second-to-top floor of the brutalist carpark (demolished in 2010) in Gateshead’s Trinity Square.
While Figgis would work with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins on Stormy Monday, Bristol-born Hodges had Wolfgang Suschitzky, who’d cut his teeth filming state-sponsored industrial documentaries. In Get Carter, the two reveal an almost mythic dimension to the region: a perfect convergence of narrative incident and place-specific energies captured in vivid, concrete detail. Their film is the inescapable cliché of the Cinematic North East precisely because it’s so good: sharply attuned to the local, it transcends time-capsule tourism.
Consider the brilliant finale, when Carter ends up at that otherworldly land-and seascape. This time it’s another beach, battered and blackened, seeped in a real-world industrial harshness that Fincher’s Alien 3, 22 years later, could only hope to imitate: Blackhall Colliery, County Durham. It feels simultaneously as if it was shot here and not here: a cinematic elsewhere. Blackhall Colliery closed in 1981. It’s so gorgeous, this ending, it nearly hurts.//
Michael Pattison is a film critic from Gateshead and a PhD candidate in film practice at Newcastle University.
The Cinematic North East is Tyneside Cinema's celebration of the history of the North East of England on film through a season of special screenings and events celebrating cinematic classics set and shot in the region - the season runs from July - September 2018 and you can find out more about it by clicking here.