With more than 240 filming days last year, Suffolk’s economy is being boosted to the tune of millions of pounds from spending by the TV and film industry. Local democracy reporter Jason Noble sat down with the team at the county’s official film office to find out more.

What do the cast of Downton Abbey, Ray Winstone, and the Grand Tour’s mischievous trio all have in common? Award winners? Possibly. Have they all appeared on the small screen? Undoubtedly. But in fact the common link in 2021 is that they all shot in Suffolk.

By any measure 2021 was a successful year for filming in the county, as the TV and film industry worldwide looked to bounce back from the Covid-19-ravaged 2020 calendar.

East Anglian Daily Times: Screen Suffolk team from left to right: Karen Everett, Jim Horsfield and Rachel AldridgeScreen Suffolk team from left to right: Karen Everett, Jim Horsfield and Rachel Aldridge (Image: JASON NOBLE/LDRS)

Suffolk’s official film office Screen Suffolk has gone from strength to strength since its launch in December 2016, back when just 30 days of filming took place locally. In 2021 it produced its most successful year to date, and isn’t far off 10 times more filming days than when it started.

In 2020 it pulled off a miracle by increasing its filming days (albeit by three) on the year before despite Covid shutting down the industry for three months. In 2021 it did even better with 243 days – a 72% increase on 2020.

That’s included movies, TV dramas, streaming giants, local productions and big brands filming adverts and catalogue shoots.

“Everyone involved in the project is extremely happy with the way things are going,” says Karen Everett, Screen Suffolk director.

“It is going as planned because we are delivering on our projections and what we set out to do to make ourselves the most film-friendly county to film in – make sure people came in and had a really good experience, and then tell people about that good experience. All of that is paying off now.”

Formed with the support and financial backing of the councils to generate economic spend in the county, the office acts as a one-stop-shop for productions wanting to film.

East Anglian Daily Times: Filming for The Grand Tour in BawdseyFilming for The Grand Tour in Bawdsey (Image: SCREEN SUFFOLK)

It issues filming permits, helps organise caterers, hotels and local crew, facilitates any road closures and helps location scouts utilising the team’s local knowledge.

Screen Suffolk estimates that a day of filming generates around £13,000, meaning 2021 alone has brought at least £3.1million to the county.

Since its inception, filming days have exceeded 859, generating £11m in local spend.

That covers all sorts of costs from hotel nights, catering, hiring local talent and supplies.

But on top of that comes the tourism boost from people coming to the county. Perhaps one of the best examples was Sutton Hoo reporting visitor numbers hitting its daily capacity last summer as a result of The Dig – the Netflix movie released during lockdown in 2021 regaling the story of the Anglo-Saxon burial ship find back in the 1930s.

East Anglian Daily Times: A Little Bit of Light filmed around the Cherry Lane recreation groundA Little Bit of Light filmed around the Cherry Lane recreation ground (Image: SCREEN SUFFOLK)

“It was our most successful year by a long way, which is great considering the success we had the previous year,” says Jim Horsfield, business development manager.

“I think the lack of international travel has made a big difference. The largest production we had in last year were originally going to film in South Africa. Because they couldn’t travel to South Africa, they had to then look locally in the UK and quite rightly picked Suffolk.”

The county’s mix of urban towns, extensive coastline, rural villages and sweeping agricultural landscapes has made it a destination able to offer flexibility. For instance, Ipswich frequently doubles for London, while locations have also doubled for places as far afield as Ghana and South Carolina in recent years.

Who has been filming?

One of the biggest visitors was Amazon Prime production The Power, which alone brought more than 12,000 hotel night stays and £1.4m in local spend.

A dedicated location set was built in a field in Bawdsey in the summer with filming during the autumn.

Jim says: “The largest production that came was down in Bawdsey and we estimate they took 12,000 hotel nights, which is a lot.

East Anglian Daily Times: A wedding scene was filmed at Belchamp Hall on the Suffolk/Essex border for the new Downton Abbey movieA wedding scene was filmed at Belchamp Hall on the Suffolk/Essex border for the new Downton Abbey movie (Image: SCREEN SUFFOLK)

“It supports local jobs, it has a massive impact for local suppliers.

“They were here for months and months because they did 30 days of filming, but they were here a couple of months before using carpenters – many of whom were local – and set builders to put the structure up.

“The filming was only a part of the time they were here because of all the prep time beforehand, the set-up and the de-rig.

“The level to which they cleared afterwards was amazing. It was a set build in a field near a cliff. The way they disposed of all the set was fantastic – they recycled all the wood, they were down to doing soil scans and filtering to return it to an agricultural field. They needed to get it back to how a farmer can use it in future years.”

Another big name viewers will recognise is The Grand Tour, which filmed its festive special, the close-to-the-bone-titled Carnage a Trois, also in Bawdsey.

“They needed somewhere to launch a 30-tonne trebuchet to fling a car back to France,” says Jim. “They were here four or five days, launched a trebuchet on a cold bitter day standing on the edge of a cliff down near Bawdsey.”

Rachel Aldridge, also business development manager, adds: “They also winched a car up on a crane and crushed a shed with it, a mock French barn. That was Bawdsey doubling as France.”

But it isn’t just Suffolk doubling for locations, the county also has its own stories to offer.

One of those is out next month – Magpie Murders – the TV adaptation of Orford-based bestselling writer Anthony Horowitz’s crime thriller partially set in the county.

In May the production spent two weeks in Kersey, before filming a plethora of driving shots mostly around Mid Suffolk in a classic car, also taking in Ipswich locations near Christchurch Park and the Willis Building and Woodbridge train station.

“It’s absolutely perfect, and the fact that Anthony had been to our big launch at Christchurch Mansion [in April 2017], it felt nice to be tying it all together really,” Karen says.

“So many people in Suffolk are going to be really proud of that. Like The Dig, it really resonates with people and it’s a really good feel-good moment.”

Another movie making the most of Suffolk was Coldharbour Lane, which spent a week in October/November in Lavenham and Kersey, which also necessitated road closures.

Elsewhere, director Stephen Moyer brought his Ray Winstone-led movie A Little Bit of Light for a three-week stint that also utilised lots of local crew in locations around Leiston, Framlingham and Ipswich.

Meanwhile, eagle-eyed viewers on the Suffolk/Essex border around Belchamp Hall may have spotted the Downton Abbey cast filming a wedding scene for the second movie in May, which also shot nearby over the border in Harwich.

But it isn’t just the big TV and film shows that bring the cash. The Suffolk coast in particular is becoming increasingly popular with magazine and advert shoots. Among those were a fashion segment for Harper’s Bazaar in Walberswick and Snape, Weird Fish clothing (Walberswick and Southwold), local brewing giant Adnams in Southwold, and Crew Clothing around Aldeburgh, Thorpeness, Walberswick and Southwold.

Other successes this year include more places on the location database – now up to 536 locations, as well as 500 local crew available and a work experience list in excess of 360.

East Anglian Daily Times: One sixth form near Ipswich doubled for a hospital in Magpie MurdersOne sixth form near Ipswich doubled for a hospital in Magpie Murders (Image: SCREEN SUFFOLK)

All of that marks a potent 2021 and high hopes for 2022 as the team continues putting Suffolk on the filmmaker’s map.

Jim says: “We would like to thank residents’ support for accepting that film crews are a massive benefit to the economy, and working with us and understanding what filming brings in is good for tourism, is good for local economic benefits and we couldn’t have done it without resident engagement.”