There is more to Yorkshire on screen than the traditional choice between industrial grit or idyllic village life, it has a rich tapestry of cinematic gems to draw you in.
What image does Yorkshire conjure up for you? Rolling green hills, desolate moors, or gritty industrial cities? The eclectic Yorkshire landscape, so full of contrasts, has long been a favourite for filmmakers. From Billy Liar to Calendar Girls, Yorkshire has played host to many famous films.
In a poll a by the Film Distributors Association (1) on the most atmospheric use of location in British cinema, four of the top ten films were set in Yorkshire, proving that Yorkshire has a rich and recognisable heritage in film.
Despite Leeds being the chosen location for the first moving image film by Louis le Prince in 1888, it was perhaps the 1960s British New Wave that really put Yorkshire on the cinematic map. Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958), based on local boy John Braine’s Bradford-set novel, and starring Lawrence Harvey as the ambitious Joe Lampton, used authentic locations as it aimed to show the north of England as it really was.
Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) was also shot on location in Bradford. Adapted by Keith Waterhouse from his own novel and starring Tom Courtenay as Billy, this warm, witty film blended northern realism and fantasy. Instantly recognisable, the city of Bradford is such a feature of the film that it can perhaps be seen as much a star as the actors. Both films showed Yorkshire as a place of change and transition, capturing the mood of prosperity and recreating the reality of life in a northern industrial town.
This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963) is often seen as the film that brought the British New Wave to a close. From the novel by David Storey, set in the tough and uncompromising world of northern Rugby League and filmed in Wakefield, this was more a film about people than location. Intelligent and intense, with real passion shown in the relationship between the two leads Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts, the harshness and authenticity that would long be associated with the grittiness of life up north was a powerful presence.
Kes (Ken Loach, 1969) also showed the harsh reality of life in a Barnsley mining village. Loach’s seminal film starred David Bradley as Billy Casper, who escapes the grime and grit of life through his relationship with a wild kestrel. Using real people and real locations to add to the authenticity, this moving adaptation of the Barry Hines novel A Kestrel for a Nave provided an unsentimental and very genuine picture of life with no prospects in a northern town.
However, The Railway Children (Lionel Jeffries, 1970) showed a different side to Yorkshire as it captured the beauty of the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway and its lush and peaceful surroundings, harking back to the more simple times of the golden Edwardian days. The rural side of Yorkshire life, the green valleys and rolling, magical hills and moors has long been a staple of cosy tea-time viewing, in stark contrast to the industrial landscape familiar to us from the British New Wave.
The 1980s saw a continuation of Yorkshire in extremes. Malcolm Mowbray’s A Private Function (1984), a comedy of post-war austerity, manners and social aspiration set in a small Yorkshire town (filmed in Ilkley) in 1947 and scripted by Alan Bennett. Alan Clarke’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1986), which captured the rough side of contemporary working class life on a rundown Bradford estate and was adapted from Andrea Dunbar’s play, demonstrated a different side to the region and courted controversy at the time.
A Month in the Country (Pat O’Connor, 1987) was set in an idyllic rural Yorkshire of the post First World War era. An elegant and moving film, often overlooked and long forgotten by many, it captured the feeling of a seemingly perfect Yorkshire summer. Contrast that image with Threads (1984) written by Barry Hines and directed by Mick Jackson. Apocalyptic nuclear winter in urban Sheffield anyone?
The 1990s brought with it a resurgence of the gritty, issue led cinema whose legacy lay in the new wave of the 1960s. But this time the industrial landscape no longer provided economic hope and prosperity. Films such as Brassed Off (Mark Herman, 1996) filmed in Barnsley, Doncaster and Halifax, and the Sheffield based The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997) blended comedy and politics to show the harsh realities of life in post Thatcher Britain and its effect on the Yorkshire towns and cities that once boomed. Industrial wastelands and broken dreams became synonymous with Yorkshire.
The often bleak and uncompromising reality of these political films can be seen in sharp contrast with the cosy image that has often been projected into living rooms across the country through television programmes such as Last of the Summer Wine and Heartbeat. It was this more saleable picture of Yorkshire, full of harmless whimsy that emerged in the era of New Labour.
Blow Dry (Paddy Breathnach, 2000) and Fanny & Elvis (Kay Mellor, 1999) provided some light hearted northern wit amidst the cobbles and charm of their Yorkshire setting. But it was Calendar Girls (Nigel Cole, 2003) the cheery and heart-warming comedy which tells the tale of the Rylstone and District Womens Institute who bared all for a charity calendar, that successfully blended the uplifting mass appeal of The Full Monty strippers and the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales.
But by the mid 2000s there was a shift in focus and an opportunity to see something other than the extremes of industrial grit or chocolate box sentimentality, with the richness and diversity of the region is being shown.
My Summer of Love, (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2004) gave us a tale of intense teenage love in the picturesque Calder Valley, showcased by a sun-lit, endless summer. The Yorkshire landscape has never looked more stunning, but this off-beat and intelligent tale, which won the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film at the 2005 BAFTAs, proved that filmmakers can use the splendour and complexity of the Yorkshire landscape as fitting backdrop for cinema with a contemporary edge.
Yasmin (Kenny Glenaan, 2004) an absorbing, realist drama made on digital camera, again with the writing talent of Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Blow Dry) brought Yorkshire bang up to date with a culturally relevant and challenging story of a young British Muslim woman dealing with alienation and crisis of identity in Keighley.
Penny Woolcock’s Mischief Night (2006) shot entirely on location in Leeds was the third instalment of the Tina Trilogy, following on from Tina Goes Shopping (1999) and Tina Takes a Break (2001). It portrays the everyday realities of the city’s underbelly, a world away from the fancy shopping districts and bars of the city centre. Having grown up not far from some of the south Leeds settings, I find her work fascinating and familiar.
Filmmakers drawn to the region are now looking beyond the kitchen sink or the reliance on traditional picturesque locations, seeking instead contemporary themes and using Yorkshire as an ambient backdrop with universal appeal.
Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights (2011) captured the gothic intensity of the remote landscape of the Yorkshire Moors in a unique take on the classic tale. Shed Your Tears and Walk Away (2009) from filmmaker Jez Lewis was a very personal and moving journey through his hometown as he seeks to understand why so many childhood friends are killing themselves through addiction. The town of Hebden Bridge is presented as its beautiful and quirky self, heightening the pathos of the tragic story.
The recent critically acclaimed, award winning film God’s Own Country (2017) from writer / director Francis Lee captured the rawness and isolation of contemporary rural Yorkshire and the intensity of the landscape was reflected in the relationships on screen.
My personal highlight of recent years has been the work of Clio Barnard, whose Yorkshire based films have captured the contrasts of the region, whilst challenging the viewer culturally and stylistically. Yorkshire is depicted in many ways in her work and each time it provides more than just a useful backdrop, it’s at the heart of each work.
The Arbor (2010) mixed documentary and fiction to tell the story of playwright Andrea Dunbar. It deconstructs and reconstructs Dunbar’s life against the backdrop of the Bradford housing estate she grew up on. This film defied convention in so many ways, it’s an extraordinary piece of work.
The Selfish Giant (2013) inspired loosely by the Oscar Wilde short story was again set in Bradford and told as a modern social-realist fable. It tells the tale of two thirteen year old friends who become involved in a shady world. The starkness and beauty of the post industrial landscape is breathtaking.
Dark River (2017) again captures the reality and isolation of rural Yorkshire, and is as heavy on the bleakness of the landscape as the storyline. It is a challenging and uncompromising film. Barnard is one of the most fascinating filmmakers working today.
Obviously chocolate box style Yorkshire exists for some, and it sells cinema tickets for a certain demographic who favour middle class whimsy. And many would argue we’ve seen enough post-industrial grittiness. But the region is a world of contrasts and that’s what makes it special. You can enjoy the urban sprawl of Leeds or Sheffield, catch a train out and be in the countryside in 15 minutes enjoying a cream tea. It doesn’t have to be one or the other to reflect real life, it can be both charming and relevant, so let’s continue to see that contrast. The future for Yorkshire film can be as bright and eclectic as its heritage.