Meet the woman who sells the North East to Hollywood

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Stab a finger on your TV guide and you may well hit something filmed in the North East.

Alnwick Castle starred in Harry Potter, Atonement took over Redcar beach and scenes from Durham Cathedral appeared in the 1997 film Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett.

Gayle Woodruffe who tours the North East looking for suitable locations for tv and film companies.

Gayle Woodruffe who tours the North East looking for suitable locations for tv and film companies.

 None of which happened by accident. Gayle Woodruffe, 44, has dedicated 20 years to bringing films and TV programmes to her home stomping ground, and was recently given a Royal Television Society Award for her work.

 The mum-of-two, who lives in Eden Vale, is production service manager for Northern Film and Media.

 Over the years she has become an expert at finding location managers what they want.

 She said: “It goes in trends. Everyone wants a castle. Then it’s a lake, then a dog track, then a warehouse.

 “The Springwatch team were on the phone the other day so I set about trying to find them the perfect place through contacts.

 “It’s amazing where you pick things up from.

 “I’ve got a contact at every local authority, the Forestry Commission and Northumbrian Water.

 “We use Facebook and Twitter too. People really try to help when we put a query out.

 “It’s amazing what they know. You quickly find out that people are experts on all kinds of things, like 18th-century churches, when you put the feelers out there.

 “The National Trust and English Heritage are really helpful too.”

 Gayle has 800 locations on her database, 300 of which are privately-owned.

 She said: “Anyone can add their house if they want to. We have a lot of grand houses on the books but it’s harder to find ordinary ones. It’s a bit difficult when people ask for a really, really rough estate.

 “From a creative point of view they want a run-down council estate when actually that might not be safe.

 “You have to encourage them not to ring up the council and ask for that. Instead, it’s better to find out if they’re regenerating an area and if they can use it before it’s pulled down.

 “That way it’s a kind of ‘before’ picture on record and the council can be proud of the redevelopment.”

 Gayle started in the industry almost by chance. She said: “I was working in the benefits office when the Government set up the Northern Screen Commission, as it was then.

 “It started out with the aim of getting productions to come here. They just wanted me to take photos for a database.

 “We started out as four staff, went up to 23 and now we’re back to five. It’s changed a lot as Government funding has changed.

 “We describe ourselves as a creative development agency and our funding comes from local authorities and European grants.”

 Gayle grew up in Seaham and attended Northlea School and is proud to represent the North East as a backdrop.

 “The North East has an awful lot to offer,” she said. “It’s really easy to get around for one thing, compared to other places.

 “I love it when people ring up and ask for castles. We have lots so that’s always fun.”

 There are big benefits to having film crews use the area. Northern Film Media has brought £50million to the North East in the last 10 years, as well as creating jobs and interest in the region.

 Gayle explained: “Films have a big connection to tourism. About 350 people came with Harry Potter.

 “Films and film crews bring money to the area, and not always in ways you can easily track.

 “If a crew are here for eight weeks and they have a daily allowance, they’re going to spend it in local restaurants. They’re going to buy things they’ve forgotten like toothpaste and it all adds up.

 “Then there’s the benefit of people seeing their homes and streets on TV. They love it. There’s a real feel-good factor, even if what they see isn’t always good. Auf Wiedersehen Pet did a scene near the Transporter bridge with some drug addicts meeting.

 “The council were concerned it wouldn’t be very positive but the residents were all for it.

 “TV crews aren’t very secretive, so when they got talking to people, all the residents wanted them to film there. It’s exciting and something a bit different. People get so tickled by it.”

 Another boost comes from the potential jobs market. Gayle said: “There are a lot of crews in the region and a lot of people who want to work in film and TV. If you’re in charge and you have to get it done in eight weeks, then you tend to employ people that you know.

 “Every time we get a film or TV crew here, more and more North East people are getting the chance to meet the right people and progress up the ladder. It gives them the opportunity to move into the industry without having to leave the region.

 “When Wire in the Blood was cancelled the majority of the crew moved to Manchester or gave up. Now we have a lot of dramas shooting again and a lot more people coming through again, getting jobs and getting on set.”

 Gayle has also helped create a Filming Friendly Charter for councils to use when filming is going on.

 She said: “It’s a steep learning curve but once you’ve done it it’s there. We talk to them before it happens and we’re there to help them through it. Redcar hadn’t had a lot of filming before Atonement so I went down again and again and rounded up anyone I could find who was interested so I could talk to them about what it would be like.

 “It’s always going to be bigger than the crew predict. If the boss says there’s going to be 30 big trucks arriving, there’s going to be 70.

 “My job is to facilitate and keep everyone happy. It’s not about bringing in a production that rides roughshod over the area – it has to bring some benefit to the area.

 “So if they’re going to knock things down they have to build them up again. They’ve got to give back.

 “I need to make sure local people can ask questions about what’s happening without feeling silly or out of their depth.”

 In her unusual job, Gayle has hit many highs. She said: “Atonement that first day was amazing. It’s days like that keep you in the job.

 “They were there for three months and closed Redcar seafront through the school holidays. But they did allow people to come and see the set.

 “It was amazing – the biggest production I’d ever seen and I thought I’d seen it all. More than 70,000 people came down just to stand around and watch them build things.  “The fish and chip shop sold out. It created such a buzz. They had 1,000 extras in uniform and some war veterans came down to watch as well. I saw one grandad in his wheelchair with his medals and I had a lump in my throat.

 “Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett, was special too. The location manager said they only needed a vault for three days of filming and everything else was already decided.

 “I drove her around for four days and showed her all our castles and churches and she loved the region. They ended up filming here for eight weeks.”

 Another major success was netting Harry Potter with Alnwick Castle.

 Gayle said: “So many people travelled up to film that. All of those people have then been to the North East, met loads of people here and seen somewhere beyond the M25. I always joke that we have gas, electricity, internet connection, running water and everything up here.

 “I had no idea what Harry Potter was at first. I was due to go on holiday when the location manager rang me and I read the first book on holiday. I took him to Alnwick Castle and Durham Cathedral. A lot of people still remember us for Harry Potter.”

 Every job requires something different, as Northern Film Media support all kinds of projects.

 Gayle said: “I love a challenge and I love the problem-solving aspect of the job.

 “There are productions that barely need us, like anything on CBBC. Dumping Ground has worked in the region for years and they don’t need us as much.

 “But then there are films or low-budget projects where we can help as much as they need.

 “If you’re not involved you think film and TV is about sexy red carpets, but it’s not at all, really.”

 Dealing with strange and impractical requests on a daily basis is a big part of the job. People do ring up and ask for funny things. Someone asked if we had an equivalent of Wimbledon Centre Court and I had to point out there’s only one and that’s the real thing.

 “Researchers will ring up and ask which week the leaves fall off the trees and what the temperature will be 100 yards out to sea.

 “There’s a lot of demand for squats and empty buildings but these aren’t practical as they’ve usually been condemned. If someone asks for a squat, what they actually want is a big room for all the crew with a corner that can be made to look like a squat.

 “Industrial settings are harder and harder to find. A surprising number ask for a working coal mine and you have to tell them they’re closed. When the Get Carter car park came down, part of me was proud and part thought it was a shame.

 “We did everything to try to get World War Z here. Brad Pitt would have been a real coup. But they filmed in Glasgow in the end.

 “Trying to find an underground lake for the Quantum of Solace James Bond was pretty interesting. Unfortunately, we don’t have one.”

 Despite her awards, there’s still plenty on Gayle’s wish list.

 She said: “Big films are great but I would love us to get a long-running TV drama like Coronation Street or EastEnders. That would really keep us going.

 “It would allow a lot of people to train up through the industry and get apprenticeships and experience.

 “It would bring people to the region to see what it’s all about.

 “I would also be lovely to have a production like Pride and Prejudice or a Brideshead Revisited that would encourage visitors to come and see the sights.

 “The one thing the region lacks is a central meeting point. Somewhere these creative types can meet and have lunch and get new projects started. We haven’t got that melting pot. Three of the line producers from Inspector George Gently all know each other from Heartbeat – it’s that kind of industry.”

 But though she has plenty of opportunity, Gayle is not one to get the autograph book out on set.

 She said: “I’ve got a soft spot for Tim Roth and Martin Shaw, but my job isn’t with the actors. I try not to meet them because I don’t want my illusions shattered. Tim Roth was rehearsing in the room next door once, but I still didn’t go and meet him.

 “I like to think of them as being how they are on telly! I’m also much more interested in the people behind the scenes who make it all happen. I had breakfast with Chris Columbus (Harry Potter director and producer) once and he was so interesting.

 “I’m interested in people who make things, not the ones who say the words. It’s the ‘little people’ who have my sympathies. People don’t scream after them but they’re brilliant.

 “Behind the camera is where I can help, then I’m off to the next thing.”