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We visit the set of ITV's mighty Beowulf production in County Durham

One of the most ambitious TV series ever shot in the North East is taking shape at a remote location in Weardale

Beowulf producer Stephen Smallwood on the set near Stanhope
Beowulf producer Stephen Smallwood on the set near Stanhope

High up in Weardale, far enough off the beaten track to be invisible to all but helicopter pilots and hikers who stray off course, two bustling communities have sprung up.

One is the fantasy frontier town of Herot, where ITV’s big budget “re-imagining” of Beowulf is being filmed, and the other is the rolling assembly of portable changing rooms, catering vans, horse boxes, toilets and taxis that comes with any major film or TV enterprise.

You are most unlikely to stumble on either of these, as I found out when I visited the set this week.

“You’ve still got a two-mile drive ahead of you,” advised the man guarding the gated track that leads off the country road near Eastgate, just to the west of Stanhope.

“Go up the hill, through the forest, mind the potholes and bear right.”

It’s wild country – high, windswept and saturated. Nature has made its mark, as have years of quarrying, with gravelly slopes and hewn rock scattered like giant mildewed Lego bricks.

As I parked in the mud, I saw birds wheeling against a distant cliff. It’s the sort of visual effect you can often attribute to CGI, but here it’s real – as is the eerie shriek of curlews.

This is a strange place currently made stranger by a culture clash.

Drinking coffee from plastic cups were people in the costumes of a bygone age. Horse-riding doubles for the stars of the show, they explained. The horses, with warpaint on their rumps, were tethered further up the hill.

Forty-year-old Les Hall, from Cramlington, has been riding since childhood, he said. This, though, was his first screen job after signing up with Newcastle casting agency NE14TV, and he was doubling for the star of the show, Hartlepool-born Kieran Bew, who is playing Beowulf.

How did he feel when he learned he’d got this important role? “Fantasic, unreal.” The make-up people had done a good job of covering up his tattoos, he said.

The set is huge and an extraordinary example of television artifice.

“Over there is where the poor people live,” said producer Stephen Smallwood, indicating a carefully constructed Dark Ages shanty town reminiscent of a mini Dunston staithes. “That is ‘peasantville’, where the inhabitants create the wealth for the rich people who live up there in the big hall, whose interior is completely lined in gold.”

Stephen turned to indicate the impressive building they call the Mead Hall, with its exterior carvings of wolves and its long flight of dark grey steps.

“Between them both is the lake which marks the separation between the two.”

An evil-looking lake it is, too. You can easily imagine something slimy and malevolent lurking in its depths, even if frogspawn is probably all it contains.

Stephen pointed out the place where, in this fantasy version of the Dark Ages, the iron is smelted that creates the weapons and the wealth. “Iron is a very valuable commodity,” he stressed.

A chill wind blew. “We can go down to the troll arena if you like.”

Les Hall, from Cramlington, who is riding double for Kieran Bew as Beowulf
Les Hall, from Cramlington, who is riding double for Kieran Bew as Beowulf

In the drama, created by James Dormer, there will be human heroes and villains, as well as creatures of the imagination, just as there are in Beowulf, which famously features a dragon and a troll-like monster called Grendel.

Stephen showed us a short trailer, based on the footage of just four weeks of filming, that will be used to sell the series to overseas broadcasters at Cannes and other festivals.

It looked very exciting, a crystallised epic of battle and romance with dramatic interiors, soaring music and a computer-generated hideous monster. “An epic story of a hero,” ran the strapline.

The hero is Beowulf, played by affable 34-year-old Hartlepool actor and one-time fencing champion Kieran Bew.

In a break from filming he said that this role, with its opportunities for horse riding and sword fighting, was every boy’s dream.

But he had had no idea the series was to be filmed so close to home when he auditioned. That was a bonus for the actor who said his life of filming and auditioning mostly kept him away.

He first auditioned in December, he said, having been told about the role by his agent, and was then recalled to prove that he could be aggressive.

Between acting jobs a few years ago, he had set himself the task of learning about the old Norse sagas and had become fascinated by the genre. This is a Beowulf who knows Beowulf.

“I read Tolkien’s translation and a whole lot of other stuff. They didn’t know anything about my fascination with history when I auditioned but we had a total ‘geek off’ about it.

“They also didn’t know about my fencing. I started when I was nine years old and it has helped with my career. When I was 19 and still at drama school I was choreographing fight scenes for Mark Rylance’s Hamlet at the Globe Theatre.”

As well as a the large cast and crew, Beowulf has provided work for all sorts of other people, as evidenced by all the vehicles parked up the quarry road.

As well as the professional actors, including Kieran, Joanne Whalley (Rheda), Laura Donnelly (Elvina) and Gisil Orn Gardarsson (Breca), lots of extras were on set, shivering in costumes which were clearly not as warm as they were meant to look.

They will be on the telly and they were getting a close-up of the action – in this case a scene of Beowulf emerging from a hut and approaching his horse being filmed over and over again as a man wafted fake smoke over everyone.

It all looked a far cry from the TV world’s supposed glamour.

Production designer Grant Montgomery, charged with creating the look of the show, proudly reeled off his many influences, including the artist Gustav Klmit, the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and the Schwarzenegger film Conan the Barbarian.

“When they said it was going to be like a western, I was in,” he said.

Everything we’ll see on screen when Beowulf is aired next year was specially made for the production rather than hired or repurposed from other productions.

That, confirmed Grant with a narrow smile and a nod of the head, was a measure of the budget and ambition riding on this show.

As well as the external scenes being shot in the quarry, internal shooting is taking place in a warehouse in Blyth.

That impressive Mead Hall is little more than a facade. Characters will enter through the main door in Weardale and emerge into the gilt interior in Blyth.

But viewers won’t realise that. It’s just part of the magic of television.

The reality was this cold and muddy outpost where quarrymen as hard as nails once suffered a daily grind.

Stephen Smallwood, wrapped up against the cold, said it had been chosen because you could swing a camera through 360 degrees and see no obvious evidence of the 21st Century.

On the downside, horizontal rain and high winds had added to the technical difficulties and removed some of the pleasure from the undertaking.

The first 13 hours of Beowulf will air on ITV next year but the company has a five-year tenure of this quarry site and so other series – Game of Thrones-style – may follow.

So, given the potential sequels, this is not quite the Beowulf of academic study?

“TV is a strange phenomenon,” said Stephen.

“People like to hang their peg on something familiar and while many people won’t know Beowulf well, they will have heard of it. Audience recognition is very important.”

He paused. “I don’t think any Beowulf academic is going to relate to this. No doubt they’ll say they hate it... but the original poem is filled with monsters and we are recreating them.”

A monster epic is in the making. It is generating excitement, creating work and trumpeting the scale and variety of North East locations. Now we just have to hope it’s a hit.

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