Lad: A Yorkshire Story - How an unknown low-budget film set in the Dales became one of Amazon Prime's biggest lockdown hits

Back in 2011, film director Dan Hartley returned to his native Yorkshire Dales to shoot a project he was passionate about.

Bretten Lord as Tom in a brooding Dales landscape

Lad: A Yorkshire Story was based on his own childhood in Austwick, near Settle, and his friendship with a National Park ranger, and filmed in Dales locations he knew intimately with a budget of just £65,000.

Dan was optimistic that he had found an authentic story that would make cinema audiences both laugh and cry - yet it was not to be for Lad, and he failed to find a distributor who would buy the rights to the film. After organising his own tour of small venues around the country, Dan was forced to move on and accept that Lad might not be the career-defining opus he had imagined.

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Yet the pandemic has vindicated his belief in Lad, and after he uploaded the decade-old movie to Amazon Prime himself, it has amassed over 400,000 views in the past year and proved a slow-burning 'sleeper hit' with lockdown viewers turning away from big-budget frivolity and looking for more wholesome entertainment.

Teenage actors Bretten Lord and Rob Hayes both grew up in the Dales

Lad's appeal lies in its realism - the cast were all unknowns recruited in the area, most of whom were untrained and turned up at an audition advertised in the local papers. The part of the sage ranger Al Thorpe went to Alan Gibson, an SAS veteran in his 50s who had never acted before. Their performances are unaffected and charming, and Bretten Lord, who starred as 13-year-old Tom, has remained in the Dales, setting up his own antiques business in Ingleton. Molly McGlynn, who played Al's granddaughter Lucy, is the only cast member who has gone on to appear in major productions - she is currently playing Daphne Bridgerton's maid, Rose, in the Netflix series Bridgerton.

The plot is relateable - the characters are based on everyday Dales residents and are depicted as sometimes struggling to get by in a side of the National Park that tourists don't often see beneath the surface of. Tom's father is a quarryman, his mother works in a supermarket and dreams of getting a HGV licence, and his brother, feeling he lacks opportunities at home, joins the army straight from school. The bank's threat to repossess their old quarry cottage precipitates the act of rebellion for which Tom is sentenced to community service for, thus bringing him into contact with Al as the pair mend footpaths and stiles together.

The locations are starkly beautiful - viewers see glimpses of Ribblehead Viaduct, Malham Show and the market town of Settle - yet they are not airbrushed. There was no lengthy shoot - to capture the seasons, the small crew returned in winter, summer and autumn, but the three filming blocks added up to just over a month.

"We saw about 150 people at the auditions - we advertised in the Ilkley Gazette, Craven Herald and Westmorland Gazette. Most of them had never acted before, and we got six of the cast from that, which is a stunning ratio from a small pool of people," said Dan, 46.

The plot follows Tom after he is made to do community service with a National Park ranger who becomes a trusted friend

"They were an absolute delight - we had to teach them a few things about camera angles, but otherwise we meddled as little as possible. So much of the story came from the cast - Tom's rock collection was Bretten's idea. I'm still in touch with most of them. Molly's done best, but I really think Nancy Clarkson, who played Tom's mum, could go far - she was the only one who'd had some drama training and she was brilliant. Hopefully now more people have seen the film, that will happen."

All of the locations used in Lad are within 10 miles of Dan's home village of Austwick, and all are familiar to him.

"We took an organic approach, and found the place before we'd written the script, then inserted it into the story. There is so much beauty in the area. We didn't have the budget to recreate Malham Show, so we went to the real show and filmed the stallholders setting up."

By 2012, Dan had finished editing the film, and wrote to UK distributors - only to suffer rejection. He was told Lad was not likely to be a commercial success because of its lack of well-known faces and a storyline that was 'slow to get going'.

Undeterred, he embarked on a screening tour of the UK's twelve National Parks, and even held a premiere in Leeds, but still failed to excite interest from the film industry.

"Nobody took it up - there was this feeling that I'd already released it, and that was that - finished."

He did manage to sell the rights to a US distributor, but they failed to recoup their outlay and made no profit. However, the company did belatedly upload the film as part of a package onto a Youtube channel around four years later, and Dan suddenly found himself fielding emails from all over the world from people who had finally watched it.

"It was kind of catastrophic and affirming at the same time, because I'd always known there was this audience, but I'd almost lost faith. It was a shot in the arm, and I haven't really stopped since then."

He uploaded it to Prime shortly before the pandemic.

"It's just grown and grown, mainly through word of mouth. The bigger the platform, the bigger something can be. I've reclaimed the US rights and I still have the distribution rights in Europe and Australia, so there is still potential for a cinema release.

"I think with the rise of streaming services, people are being a bit more adventurous with their viewing, and trying new things. But I still feel Lad really suits cinema; it's got a blend of drama and humour that's really absorbing. I'm in talks with bookers, but there is such a lot of uncertainty in the cinema industry at the moment."

He also has other projects on the go - including a reality TV format set in the Dales that was attracting interest from major broadcasters before Covid, and a more serious piece based on the Mossdale Caverns tragedy, when six cavers, most of them students, drowned in a flash flood in 1967 after becoming trapped in the cave network near Grassington.

"I want to make hopeful and inspiring films, but also show the Dales for what it is - a working area where people are quite hands-on, labourer types. Lad is about a family who live in that row of old mining and quarry cottages and their circumstances. It's authentic and truthful, plausible and justifiable, Even parts of the film like Tom's slurry attack scene are based on real events."

Lad is available on Amazon Prime.

Lad - the locations and cast

- The quarry scenes were filmed at Helwith Bridge, and the lake is a disused quarry pit now run as a fishing lake

- The Proctors live at Foredale Cottages in Helwith Bridge - a terrace originally built to house the quarry workers

- The scene where Tom and Nick play football together is Norber, a hill where glacial deposits created dramatic rock formations

- The town scenes were shot in Settle, including at Settle High School

- Bretten Lord, who plays main character Tom, grew up in Austwick and Rob Hayes, who plays his brother Nick, is from Malham

- Nancy Clarkson, who played their mum Sarah, lives in Skipton and Alan Gibson, who appeared as ranger Al Thorpe, was living in Rathmell at the time. All four came from open auditions

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