Yorkshire's new film studios proving a big hit

The new film studios based at the site of a former RAF base are already transforming Yorkshire's film and TV industry. Phil Penfold went behind the scenes to find out how.

Filming of ITVs drama, Victoria, at Church Fenton Studios near Selby.
Filming of ITVs drama, Victoria, at Church Fenton Studios near Selby.

There is a long and distinguished list of names which reflect the history of film-making in Britain. Shepperton, Ealing, Elstree, Denham, Isleworth, Pinewood, Gainsborough. In more recent times, Leavesden. Next to join them could be Church Fenton.

While Yorkshire has always been attractive to production crews thanks to its stunning scenery, stately homes, beautiful coastline and industrial heritage, until now it has never had dedicated studio space, where you could make a Harry Potter or a Star Trek epic.

At least not until now because it looks as if the county that gave the world its first moving images – shot on Leeds Bridge and in Roundhay Park in 1888 – will also give the country its latest state of the art film studios, which some are already calling the “Pinewood of the north”.

Behind the scenes at the new Yorkshire film studios.

One big-budget film production has already used the facilities. Mammoth Screen filmed Victoria, its new prime-time blockbuster for ITV, in Yorkshire. They used locations all over the county, but they had nowhere big enough to film the interiors they needed. At least until Screen Yorkshire told them: “We think we’ve found something that you’ll like.”

Enter RAF Church Fenton. Or 
rather, what was RAF Church Fenton until it was decommissioned in 2013. The base, which was home to the first RAF Eagle Squadron of American volunteers in 1940, had seen more 
than 70 years of use and was a key 
base in protecting the industrial heartland of Yorkshire in the Second World War.

When the RAF pulled out many of the villagers were concerned for the future of the site, but the new owner, Chris Makin, of Makin Enterprises, has given it a new lease of life with the vast hangers now fully functioning film studios.

“The one thing that we couldn’t ever offer is a proper studio, large enough to take the biggest sets that could be devised,” says the redoubtable Sally Joynson, chief executive of Screen Yorkshire, who has successfully brought the likes of Dad’s Army and Peaky Blinders to the county.

Behind the scenes at the new Yorkshire film studios.

Sally isn’t too sure how Screen Yorkshire and Makin got together – because things have happened at a break-neck pace – but she does recall Makin’s decision.

“He said, ‘Let’s give it a go’,” she smiles, “and that is precisely what we did. Chris has taken an enormous leap of faith with us, and that takes a lot of guts. I have nothing but admiration for him. He has ejected himself out of his ‘comfort zone’ with this project, and has given us a unique opportunity to make it all work.

“We said, ‘This is something that we should not miss’. I think he sensed 
what a wonderful window of opportunity this is. It is a partnership. We bring the industry sector, he brings the site.”

Because Screen Yorkshire and Mammoth Film (just one of their many contacts) have had a tried and very-much-trusted relationship over the years, it was almost a given that their location scouts would be searching the county for suitable locations for Victoria.

“They knew that would present no problems at all,” says Sally. “However, when we told them, ‘We think we also have the most wonderful studio for you as well. If you want to build the ballroom at Buckingham Palace, the corridor that runs alongside it, and many of the dining and retiring rooms and anything else you want... well, come up and look at what we can offer’, they couldn’t resist.”

So new are the Church Fenton Studios that the signage at the front of the building hasn’t even gone up, but work inside is already advanced. Sally pushes open one door into Hanger One, where the art deco balustrade of the RAF offices has been lovingly restored, and a second door into the studio itself. This is Stage One. And it is exactly like a purpose built studio at Warner Brothers in Hollywood. Very little conversion from the original hanger has been needed.

There, towering in front of us, is the set for the Buckingham Palace scenes in ITV’s Victoria. It stretches from one end to the other, and the massive lighting rigs sit snugly between the top of the set and roof from which hang huge custom-built chandeliers.

It is shrouded in plastic sheeting at the moment, ready for the next series of Victoria to start again.

The carpets all have royal symbols. The plasterwork is intricate. The furniture is detailed. Everything is to scale. Except that, this being the surreal world of film-making, the woollen carpets are actually photo-printed textile, the “plaster” is often plastic, and the mahogany or marble panelling is plywood, with artistically accurate graining.

“The plain fact is”, says Sally, “We would have lost out on possibly hundreds of millions of pounds over the years because we have not had a facility like this. Film-makers have wanted to come to Yorkshire, and yes, they have arrived, and they’ve spent their money. But until now we have not been able to offer them the cherry on the cake.

“A studio that rivals the best elsewhere. There is nothing that this site doesn’t have, or can offer. And if any production needs to fly in their stars, or their executives, where better could you be? They can land right outside.”

Victoria will act, says Sally, as the “calling card” for Church Fenton, raising the profile of the studios. “This is not money coming in to Yorkshire, and then leaving it,” says Sally, “It is money coming in and staying. Look at the hundreds of tons of timber in the Victoria set. That was all brought in Yorkshire, it wasn’t imported from anywhere else. Look at the opportunities we will create for plasterers, costumiers, electricians designers, make-up artists, all local people….we will have many training opportunities as well. No longer will the people who acquire skills up here have to immediately have to think about moving away.”

She sings the praises of the Selby and Church Fenton authorities for their co-operation. “They immediately saw that this was going to be so good for their area and moved heaven and earth to get plans allowed. We explained everything to them in depth, and they backed us 100 per cent.”

Sally celebrates 10 years as Chief Executive of Screen Yorkshire this year and admits that “this could not have been a better ‘birthday present’. “Yorkshire has always been able to offer film companies just about everything they wanted – except a proper studio. Now we have one.

“We can do anything here. Until now, we’ve been able to offer just about everything, scenically, that film-makers needed. Except the Norwegian fjords. Even our splendid coastline couldn’t give them that. But now... it’s all within the bounds of possibility. And imagination. We can build the fjords right here!”