From Downton to DCI Banks, how Harrogate became a magnet for TV shows

A researcher for a show which ITV plans to film in Ripley shortly rang the newsroom of the Harrogate Advertiser Series for some information this week and I wasn't even surprised.

Thursday, 17th March 2016, 4:31 pm
Updated Thursday, 17th March 2016, 4:36 pm
Stephen Tompkinson, as Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, and Andrea Lowe, as DS Annie Cabbot during filming at the Cairn Hotel in Harrogate.

Time was the towns and villages of the Harrogate district were something of a secret, their greatness known only to residents.

The last 10 years in particular , however, have seen the TV camera crews arrive on our doorstep on a regular basis.

So much so, in fact, that the title of a show in which Harrogate will star in two weeks’ time sounds a bit of misnomer - Discovering Britain.

More4s Discovering Britain hosts Larry Lamb and Maureen Lipman who are visiting Harrogate.

Hosted by actors Larry Lamb and Maureen Lipman, the More4 show, which will be broadcast on Wednesday, March 30 at 9pm, prides itself on ‘discovering’ the best of Britain’s outdoors, history and culture.

The Harrogate district has come a long way since it was something of a shock to see Alan Bennett sitting in the Crown Hotel in Harrogate reminiscing about his childhood in his acclaimed TV drama Dinner at Noon back in 1988.

But why has the district become a TV star?

The man leading the effort to promote what the area has to offer to visitors has no doubt as to what makes the area such a magnet for film crews.

More4s Discovering Britain hosts Larry Lamb and Maureen Lipman who are visiting Harrogate.

Mike Newby, director of Visit Harrogate said: “When you are famous for being the happiest place to live and the best place to live that is going to attract a lot of interest.

“We now have a well established reputation as a friendly and hospitable place that welcomes visitors including those who want to film.”

Perhaps the first programme to spot what an attractive place the district is was Channel 4’s Location, Location, Location.

Properties in various spots in the Harrogate district have featured in the hit show many times since the long-running series was first aired 16 years ago, most recently in January this year.

The popular TV partnership of Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer have become familiar over the years.

Where Location, Location, Location led, others have followed, most notably ITV’s phenomenally successful period drama Downton Abbey.

After award-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes’ show was first launched in 2010, Ripon became virtually became a household name when one of the characters, young middle-class solicitor, Matthew Crawley, began talking about becoming a partner in a firm of solicitors in Ripon.

Local locations were mentioned frequently by the show’s stars such as Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith and Harrogate-born actor Jim Carter who played the butler, Mr Carson.

The publicity must have been worth millions for Harrogate district.

But nothing is to be entirely trusted in the world of television, not even classic Sunday night TV.

In the beginning, the Downton Abbey production team spent six months visiting country houses for possible locations for the fictitious stately home - including a number in Yorkshire.

But in the end the production team opted for Highclere Castle in Berkshire, home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.

As for Bettys’ cameo in an episode in 2014, the famous tearooms did provide the breads, cakes and treats on show on TV but the actual set was a replica in London.

Bettys did at least supply archive photographs to assist the crew,

Other high quality TV dramas to use our district for locations in recent years include BBC’s Last Tango in Halifax and ITV’s crime series DCI Banks.

In the former, Caroline’s house was supposed to be in Harrogate, though, when it came to the crunch, Altrincham was actually used to represent it on screen.

Last Tango star Sarah Lancashire told Daily Mail in 2012: “ I completely understand why Yorkshire is used a lot because the landscape is absolutely beautiful but you’re only a stone’s throw from towns. I’ve filmed in Harrogate, where I fell in love with Bettys Tea Rooms.”

Film shoots for ITV crime drama DCI Banks has actually taken place in Harrogate several times, with the cameras and cast, including lead actor Stephen Tompkinson, often turning up at the Cairn Hotel on Ripon Road.

Ben Hepworth, location manager of the show’s makers Left Bank Pictures, explained why he had picked the town for bits and pieces of the series inspired by the novels of Peter Robinson.

He said: “The reason we chose Harrogate is because we wanted a location with buildings on a grand scale - and Harrogate has many.”

That line of thinking will come as no surprise to anyone who knows the district well.

Mike Newby of Visit Harrogate, which promotes all the district rather than simply Harrogate, said: “The Harrogate district provides a fantastic backdrop for all sorts of filming. Historic architecture, fantastic countryside, interesting out of the way places all enhance any filming.

“There is a wide range of accommodation for film crews to stay near their chosen locations making this a very convenient place and, of course, there are plenty of places where you can unwind after a heavy day’s filming. Why should anyone want to go anywhere else?”

The popularity of the Harrogate area for TV crews can best be judged by its appearance on reality shows which make little pretence of appealing to viewers’ higher instincts.

Back in 2004, Simon Colgan, the owner of Harrogate’s Blues Bar, appeared in Channel 4’s Fairy Godfathers.

That was the show where two gay men move in with two straight men for a week at the request of their wife or girlfriend in a bid to transform the straight guys into more considerate, domesticated and less scruffy creatures.

Harrogate celebrity chef Richard Fox starred with actor Neil Morrissey, formerly of sitcom Men Behaving Badly and currently appearing on our screens in The Night Manager on BBC 1 on Sunday nights, in Risky Business.

Broadcast in 2008 on Channel 4, the two friends took over Ye Old Punchbowl in Marton-cum-Grafton to open up their own pub and produce their own beer.

Such is our district’s diverse and rich culture, our genteel streets are now also being portrayed in less salubrious TV shows.

The phone call I mentioned at the start of this article was from London company Century films.

The programme they are working on for ITV isn’t really genteel at all. It’s c alled Parking Wars.

Still, even I was taken aback the other week when I realised the young man being chased by the police in an episode of Traffic Cops on BBC 1 was actually running through the historic streets of Harrogate near the Royal Pump Room Museum on Crown Place!