At the start of this year, it wouldn’t have been unusual for the people of Halifax to bump into a Hollywood star on their way to work or while picking up a takeaway. “You just kind of go, ‘Wow, Samuel L Jackson is filming here!’” says Mark Richardson, who runs the Loafers record store in Piece Hall, the town’s cobbled fort surrounded by the rolling hills of Calder Valley. First opened in 1779 for the cloth trade, Piece Hall was revamped five years ago to help put Calderdale on the cultural map. After it was used as a major filming location for Secret Invasion, Jackson’s new Marvel TV series, locals are getting used to the place becoming a pretty big deal.
“That’s Paul Weller’s piano in the corner,” says Richardson, talking to me in his shop. “He gave me that when he played here in July. Day to day, you see people walking about – Rob Brydon calls in when he’s in Halifax. He wore a pair of our Loafers socks on stage and talked about us. It’s not like water off a duck’s back, but I do kind of expect to see these things now. This place is so amazing – it deserves the attention. I’ve got enormous pride in it.”
The former mill town does seem to be establishing itself as the Hollywood of the north. Or “Haliwood”, as some are calling it. In fact, the whole Calderdale district – including Brighouse, Elland, Sowerby Bridge, Hebden Bridge and Ripponden – is having its screen moment. Along with Secret Invasion, the exciting spate of productions that have been filmed here recently includes Shane Meadows’ highly anticipated first period drama, Gallows Pole, based on Benjamin Myers’ prize-winning novel. How has this humble slice of West Yorkshire become such a covetable destination?
With Channel 4 announcing its relocation to Leeds, there was already an air of optimism for the region’s future in film and TV. Then lockdown forced productions to reconsider locations and find cheaper solutions. “Marvel was a gift from God,” says Piece Hall’s chief executive, Nicky Chance-Thompson, over a cup of tea. “Cities struggled to open in lockdown, but here there’s less of a machine to fire up. We said we could help. We could offer a package, mobilise, and we had agility. We could respond much faster. Also, location scouts like to ‘discover’ new places.”
The staff, she says, have loved it. “They’ve got to work on a Hollywood production site! I know people who were extras – they got about 200 from here. Our MP, Holly Lynch, said to me: ‘The people of Halifax have this newfound swagger!’”
Perhaps Calderdale felt under pressure, given the precedent set by North Yorkshire: parts of the latest Mission: Impossible were filmed on its moors last year. “There’s a picture of my friends with Tom Cruise in the middle of nowhere in the Dales,” says Chance-Thompson, “before he ran away to parachute off a cliff or whatever.” Or maybe the pressure was coming from neighbouring Bradford, home of literary mecca Haworth and the wiley, windy moors of Brontë Country, the location of endless Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre adaptations and related productions, the most recent being Emily.
But Calderdale has always offered a diverse yet distinctive palette of locations: the sparse, brutally beautiful uplands stitched together with gritstone walls; densely wooded valleys cut by trickling streams; the stone terraces and mills of untouched industrial towns. In the past, parts of it were used to film long-running BBC comedy Last of the Summer Wine, as well as the 1996 film Brassed Off and Channel 4’s Red Riding.
But it was renowned TV writer Sally Wainwright who really put Calderdale in the spotlight. After growing up in Sowerby Bridge, she left to start her career. “It felt to me as though Halifax were a cultural backwater,” she previously told the Guardian. But she later returned to home ground when writing three of her biggest series: “West Yorkshire has become increasingly important to me as I’ve got older. There’s a real depth to the landscape – it’s so dramatic and awe-inspiring. Now I see Calderdale as really beautiful.”
Wainwright’s 2012 BBC drama Last Tango in Halifax, starring Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid as reunited sweethearts Alan and Celia, often feels like a love letter to the area and its people. Then there was Happy Valley, the 2014 crime series fronted by Sarah Lancashire, which returns after a six-year hiatus later this year. It was so popular that, as part of a tour, coachloads of fans used to be taken to the house where the kidnapped Ann Gallagher was kept hostage during season one.
Perhaps most significant in Calderdale’s rise, certainly for American audiences, was 2019’s BBC drama Gentleman Jack. Starring Suranne Jones, it tells the story of queer diarist, businesswoman and modern-day LGBTQ+ icon Anne Lister. Drive down the road from Piece Hall and Lister’s home, Shibden Hall (“shabby little Shibden,” as she lovingly calls it in the show), hides in the foliage. Now a museum, it was used for much of the filming. Walk around the creaky rooms and it feels as though you could be in a scene – the show’s makers keep the simple manor true to how it really is.
“It’s become a pilgrimage for lesbians,” says Richard Macfarlane, Calderdale Museums manager. “After the third episode, we got a message from someone in America saying they wanted to visit. By the next week, they’d booked a plane and turned up.” Such international acclaim is underlined by the hall’s visitor numbers: 2019 was Shibden’s most successful year, with treble the usual amount. Despite the disastrous lockdowns of 2020, a second series was filmed and there were still more visitors than in the pre-Gentleman Jack era.
In turn, this boosted the local economy. “People used to be day-trippers but there’s no doubt that bed-nights have increased,” explains a very chuffed Jane Scullion, deputy leader of Calderdale Council. There’s also been a rise in demand for local businesses and talent: “Cafes, hairdressers, restaurants – they’re really pleased to supply services and are sorry to see productions leave. And we’re grafters. There are people around here who can knock up a Georgian sideboard in a few hours! Set design, sound, music, lighting – we’ve not yet seen the full potential of apprenticeships in these areas, but that’s where we want to be.”
This focus on homegrown talent, and inspiring the next generation, is something Screen Yorkshire – one of nine regional agencies established by the UK Film Council in 2002 – is passionate about. The achievements of this small team of industry experts are showcased in the posters hanging on the walls of their office in Leeds, from Peaky Blinders to This Is England. They run various schemes for local young people: Beyond Brontës, for example, ensures that more diverse trainees get hands-on industry experience. Just having one such production credit on a CV can be a game-changer.
“We want more stories about Yorkshire, not just filmed in Yorkshire,” says communications manager Rachel McWatt, who is finding that people who moved to London for work are now desperate to come back. “A message we keep saying is, ‘You do not need a degree to work in TV.’” The trainees, she says, are actually on the ground working on productions. “We recently had them on Ackley Bridge,” McWatt adds, referring to Channel 4’s successful high school drama filmed in and around Halifax.
It helps that the organisation has the enthusiastic support of ex-Coronation Street actor Tracey Brabin. Currently the mayor of West Yorkshire and previously MP for Batley and Spen, Brabin played Corrie barmaid Tricia Armstrong in the 1990s. Screen Yorkshire has also built a long-running relationship with Meadows since This Is England, and worked with him again on Gallows Pole, which is set in Cragg Vale. Most of the filming took place in the village of Heptonstall (where, incidentally, Sylvia Plath is buried). “It’s going to bring in a lot of tourists, that one,” McWatt muses.
Of course, not everyone is basking in the Haliwood glow, with some small businesses justifiably complaining about being forced to close during filming. But locals are largely positive about Calderdale’s glamorous reinvention. Peter Vardy from Film Calderdale, which has been set up by the council to facilitate productions, hopes to find new ways to involve local residents: “We’ve got a location database where people can advertise their properties for productions to use.”
However, there is such a thing as getting too involved. Vardy recalls that, during shooting of the Full Monty series, which will star many of the original cast, including Robert Carlisle, his colleague nearly ended up in shot. “She had to be dragged out of the way!” he says.