TV detective drama George Gently filmed in the North East

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TV detective drama George Gently filmed in the North East

Posted: 24 Sep 2010

Gently does it in Geordieland

By Michael Hamilton
Pictures by Dave Foster

TV detective drama Inspector George Gently was filmed for the first time where it is actually set – in the North East – for the new two-part show on BBC1 screened on Sunday September 26 and October 3.

We led the call to film the series here at home, last year. In exclusive interviews both Geordie actress Jill Halfpenny who starred in last year’s series and Tyneside writer Peter Flannery – who also penned the award-winning drama Our Friends in the North – made impassioned pleas to make the series where it is set.

Now it’s become a reality. Previous series of the hit show have been filmed in Ireland for money reasons but now there’s cash backing to bring it all back home.

A £150,000 cash injection from regional screen agency Northern Film and Media (NFM) enticed the BBC to finally film in the region.

The homecoming for Gently is part of the revival of film and TV programme-making in the North East since NFM and One North East’s content fund was established.

Alan Plater’s film for ITV – Joe Maddison’s War – starring Geordies Kevin Whately and Robson Green was also filmed in the North East and screened in September.

Jarrow-born writer Peter Flannery says: ‘A writer gets a particular thrill from writing about the time and place which formed him, in my case the North East of England in the 1960s. It’s now 15 years since the BBC filmed Our Friends in the North in and around Newcastle, so it’s especially rewarding for me to be back on my home patch.

‘Fun though it was to film the earlier series in Dublin, I’ve long wanted the stories to unfold in the landscape in which they are truly set. I’m coming home again and I’m bringing Inspector George Gently with me.’

In the first of two feature-length films it’s 1966, England have just won the World Cup and the USSR are playing at Sunderland’s Roker Park.  The Polaris submarine is at Jarrow docks and there are CND protesters led by radical students at Durham University, where a left wing professor is murdered.

Born Free is playing to packed cinemas, the Labour Party under Harold Wilson wins the General Election, the Moors murderers are found guilty and the Beatles are recording their landmark Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. This is the colourful and nostalgic backdrop against which the drama unfolds.

At Palace Green real students from Durham University – dressed in mini skirts and other Sixties fashions – played the part of extras in the campus scenes.

Meanwhile the stars – Martin Shaw, who plays Gently and Lee Ingleby, as sidekick Detective Sergeant John Bacchus – laughed and joked with the crew during breaks in the filming schedule.

In the drama Gently is a Londoner and his maverick sidekick DC Bacchus, played by Lancashire lad Lee Ingleby, is a Geordie whose marriage is on the rocks. 

Sexual and social rebellion is in the air. Bacchus is horrified yet fascinated by the promiscuity and ‘free-love’ on display. Gently, a war veteran, shrewdly recognises that liberation can be a mixed blessing.

Lee says: ‘Bacchus is from the North East but he wants to get out. It’s too small for him and his ambition is to get to London, go to Soho and work for the Met.

‘He doesn’t like being told what to do. He wants to play fast and loose by his own rules whereas Gently is more straitlaced.’

Lee loves the Sixties music and fashions which feature in the show but he admits he gets a bit tongued-tied with the accent.

‘I’m a Burnley boy so I struggle through the Geordie accent a bit. One of the guys in the show is from the North East so I grab him at every opportunity and ask him: ‘How do you say this and how do you say that?’

‘If I’m in doubt I just stick the word pet on the end!’

In fact Burnley fan Lee loved his time in the North East so much he even went along to the home of Newcastle United, St. James’ Park, to watch the Toon clinch promotion to the Premiership with a 2-1 victory over Sheffield Utd.

‘The atmosphere was brilliant. It was good to see them win promotion. I’m glad they are back in the Premiership.

‘I even had to film a football scene for the show and I realised how unfit I was and how much stamina the professional players need to play 90 minutes. I was knackered after five minutes.

‘I filmed up here a year and a half ago. I did a TV show for Coastal Productions which is Robson Green’s company. So I kind of got to know the area then.

‘I came to Durham years and years ago when I was a little kid. It’s nice to be in the area where it is supposed to be set. Durham Castle is such a great backdrop.

‘I’ve had time to get in my car at weekends and do some exploring. I’ve really enjoyed my time here.’

Producer Suzan Harrison says: ‘It’s the first time we’ve had the authentic landscapes and accents. We don’t have to pretend Ireland is the North East any more.’

Martin, who gained TV heart-throb status in the Seventies as agent Ray Doyle in The Professionals, says: ‘It has made a huge difference. The North East is supposed to be where it is set and, with all due respect to Dublin and Ireland, it doesn’t get any more beautiful than this.

‘I don’t know the North East very well. This is my first time in Durham, although I have been to Newcastle before, and I think it’s spectacular.

‘Everyone talks about the cathedral but this is the first time I have got to see it and it’s quite breathtaking. In fact the whole area is extraordinary. Working here has been wonderful.’

Martin, who also starred as TV’s Judge John Deed, adds: ‘I’d like to do another Gently but I take everything as it comes, one day at a time.’

Shooting stars

By Michael Hamilton

Not only did I get to rub shoulders with the celebrities on the set of the hit BBC TV drama George Gently at Durham Castle – I also got to star in the show. Well, at least my house did!

The telly bosses wanted a 1960s house as the location for the chief inspector’s residence.

And they thought my and my wife’s home, built in 1962, just outside Langley Park, suited perfectly.

It all started with a note through the letterbox from production manager Mark Valentine saying they were scouting throughout the North East for potential locations.

A recce by the director and key members of his production crew followed, and within a couple of weeks it had all been decided.

On the day of shooting, a full four hours before the actors and cameras arrived, an army of behind the scenes workers – including designers, chippies, electricians and various other crew members – descended to prepare the house to the director’s taste.

They only wanted to shoot exterior scenes at the front of the house. But that still entailed removing all the Roman blinds from the upstairs bedrooms and replacing them with Sixties venetian-style blinds.

Then plants and assorted garden furniture was brought in to ‘busy up’ the front façade. Award-winning production designer Maurice Cain explained he wanted it to look ‘like a copper’s house.’

Next, two pristine vintage Sixties cars arrived (not on a trailer but actually driven up to the house). Local businessman Arthur Newton from Lanchester owns the vintage cars and hires them out to film crews shooting period pieces.

One was a lovely powder blue Ford Corsair – which is Bacchus’s car in the series – and a majestic dark blue Ford Zodiac.

As quickly as they descended, the fixers disappeared leaving a perfectly preserved 1966 time-capsule in Langley Park. I felt like I was starring in another time-warp TV show – Ashes to Ashes. 

Neighbours and children from the village gawped through the gates. Security men patrolled outside to keep autograph hunters at bay.

Then the TV cameras and production crew arrived – there seemed to be hundreds of them – including producer Suzan Harrison and DC John Bacchus himself, actor Lee Ingleby.

Imagine his surprise when he saw me – I had just interviewed him the day before at Durham Castle – in his show. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

The scene they were shooting involved Bacchus driving his Corsair up the drive and dropping off his daughter. She runs to the front door and is scooped up in the arms of Bacchus’s wife, who is staying at the home of the chief constable – her father. 

It all seemed a colossal amount of effort, preparation and hard graft for a few minutes of telly footage. Then they were off to Esh Winning chip shop to shoot another scene.

But that’s showbiz for you, darling.

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