March 31, 2020
Rendered hollow by the futility of warfare, a soldier floats face up in the water.
Symbolic of frontline conflict’s shocking reality, Lance Corporal Will Schofield – kept buoyant by a piece of driftwood – carries an injured hand and a tortured soul.
Yet all is not quite as it seems.
Schofield is the lead protagonist in 1917, Sam Mendes’ multi Oscar and Bafta-award winning wartime drama, with Stockton’s Tees Barrage – normally a haven for elite canoeists – substituting for Europe’s choppy First World War waters.
However, while the story may be largely fictional, its effect on Tees Valley’s creative industry is altogether more tangible.
Highlighting the area’s prowess as a trusted shooting location, 1917 represents a significant marker post in the progress of Tees Valley Screen.
Supported financially by the European Regional Development Fund and Tees Valley Combined Authority, the award- winning development programme, which has an office in Hartlepool, is overseen by Northern Film + Media.
In a fluctuating broadcast environment, headlined by the weakening of the South East’s traditional production monopoly, Tees Valley Screen is priming the area for growth.
The venture – which only launched in January last year – provides people with training and development assistance, offers crucial networking support via its Screen Socials events and holds the industry door ajar for the next generation.
Furthermore, it promotes Tees Valley’s various landmarks and locations to companies – the programme’s production service arm was instrumental in 1917’s presence at Tees Barrage – which last year helped bring £1.4 million into the area’s economy.
“The screen sector is in boom and is growing four times faster than the economy,” says Alison Gwynn, Northern Film + Media’s acting managing director.
“However, less than two per cent of activity takes place in the North East.
“But with the Government and Ofcom ensuring more broadcast content is going to be made in the nations and regions, we have a fantastic opportunity to grow and develop the industry here.
“We want to attract more productions and ensure they employ as many local professionals as possible,” continues Alison on the objectives of Tees Valley Screen, which recently won a regional Royal Television Society award for its contribution to the film and television sector.
“Some of the ITV drama Vera happened in Tees Valley during our first year, but the jewel in the crown was 1917, and such projects contribute to the aspirational element of the combined authority’s vision for Tees Valley.
“We are now having really interesting conversations with some big studios about other facilities,” reveals Alison.
Alongside physical backdrops and top- class new filming resources – which include Hartlepool’s Northern School of Arts’ planned Northern Studios venture – Alison says Tees Valley Screen is committed to providing individuals and companies with opportunities to thrive.
Having already helped a number of local creators gain commissions from Channel Four on a comedy shorts project, the organisation is also using the Northern Film + Media Academy to prepare others.
“We have a lot of emerging and early career production companies and our
job is to support them through their professional development journey,” says Alison, who was previously programme and development director at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books.
“We are helping producers and companies become ‘match-fit’ to take the commission opportunities as they come.
“One of the big achievements from our first year was the North East Comedy Hot House.
“We worked with Channel Four and Emma Lawson, a scripted comedy executive producer originally from Tees Valley, to produce 24 digital comedy shorts,” continues Alison.
“They are shown on the channel’s social media and it was great for the filmmakers involved to get a commission on their CV.
“Additionally, our NFM Academy, on which we work with ScreenSkills, is a crucial bridge between education and industry.
“We do bootcamps, masterclasses and workshops, and get people placements on productions,” adds Alison.
This work was extended when Tees Valley Screen teamed up with Creative Factory and The Auxiliary to launch a 12-week artist residency programme alongside Middlesbrough’s artificial intelligence video search software firm Vlogbase.
Supported by Arts Council England, the project gave two artists the opportunity to bolster their respective skills in a different environment.
“Everything we do is about professional development,” says Alison.
“We had two great artist installations, which helped change the way Vlogbase thought about their products and development.”
So how does Alison reflect on Tees Valley Screen’s first year – and look ahead to the future?
“We have made progress, but this is not an industry that can be developed overnight,” she says.
“What we are doing is all about building a longer-term legacy.”