Maggie Brown talks to actors and other staff at the BBC’s new studio complex in Roath Lock, Cardiff, to find out what they think about relocating there, how they rate the new facilities and what the plans are for the future of the site
Ask Derek Thompson, the longest serving actor in Casualty what he thinks of its base in the massive new studio complex at Roath Lock, Cardiff Bay, which BBC Wales officially launched in March, and he replies with a heartfelt, “Better”.
The former Bristol studios for the drama he joined in 1986, as nurse Charlie Fairhead, were little better than a “chicken shed” he added, as he stands in the glistening new Casualty emergency reception area, waiting for the cameras to roll. Nor is he put out about the personal upheaval, commuting to Cardiff from his Bristol home, and staying in a service apartment during the week. Cardiff is turning out to be an easy place to live.
Roath Lock has nine studios of various sizes, and all are acoustically sealed and ready for HD drama production. They are accessed by covered walkways, (one called Russell T Davies Alley, in homage to the creative force who kick-started the revival), and fronted by a two storey office building, 300 metres long, housing all the production offices and support functions, from costumes to prosthetics. Up to 600 people can work here at any one time, and there is a spacious car and truck park too.
It means Roath Lock has become the single largest producer of BBC made drama, thanks to the co-location of Doctor Who, Upstairs Downstairs, the forthcoming new CBBC drama, Aliens vs Wizards devised by Davies, and the nightly Pobol y Cwm, made for S4C.
This utilitarian complex is built on the last 38 acres of derelict land, next to the port. Key facilities, including the canteen, look out across the calm water of the lock. Yet it is just a short ride from the Cardiff Central station, linked by a new road and bridge, which also passes a new Doctor Who Experience centre, opening in the summer. For months it struggled without even a postcode, but a regular bus service starts shortly.
When extras were booked for Casualty in Bristol, they had to change in the toilets and wait in the reception area to be called. Now they have their own changing rooms, and waiting area. So do child actors, who gain a quiet place for tutoring. The Casualty sets, which include an outside ambulance reception area, a body scanning ward, enhanced recovery room and garden of contemplation and a pub, is already resulting in single take, streamlined shooting schedules.
Series producer Nikki Clarke says that thanks to the improved facilities, an ambulance can be filmed screeching along a road, arriving at the ambulance entrance and decanting the emergency victim, all in one long take. As part of the change, the long-running drama has been overhauled and returned to its roots as a more eventful, less soapy drama. For example, this month it has tackled a three-part story about the tragedy of gun crime and gangs.
Faith Penhale, head of BBC Wales drama, who took over from Piers Wenger last summer, oversees it all, with a sense of her own good fortune. If script writers or producers are worried about tricky scenes they simply go downstairs, and check. She can view rushes, or deliver guidance notes swiftly. Both Casualty and Welsh language soap. Pobol y Cwm, which also has its own village street sets, and chapel, moved to HD with the move, are also edited on the site too.
Upper Boat, the semi-rural studios where Doctor Who and spin-offs The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood were based after 2006, was a former seat belt factory – there was only partial sound proofing, and facilities were pretty basic.
It was five years ago that BBC began to commit to moving production more equitably around the UK, just as BBC Wales was in the middle of a reinvention as a centre of excellency for drama. After much fierce debate, and some bitterness, Casualty was forced to relocate there too.
Central to the deal has been a seemingly benign partnership between the Welsh Assembly Government, Cardiff City Council, contributing land and infrastructure, Igloo, property developers, and the BBC. Dubbed the Porth Teigr development, there are plans for shops, offices and 1,000 extra homes around a home of the creative sector.
Under the deal the BBC signed up for a 20-year lease, at a £1.35 million annual rent. It spent £10 million fitting it out for drama production, tailoring the designs to needs to existing productions. Not surprisingly, it is fully booked with BBC related work. Aliens vs Wizards, billed as Doctor Who meets Harry Potter, starts filming 26 half hours in a 13-week shoot. The largest double height studio housed all the sets for Upstairs Downstairs, 165 Eaton Place, from kitchen to bedrooms. They are being carefully stored, as Doctor Who takes over.
Nick Brown, BBC controller of drama production, says: “Roath Lock is a great addition to studio space for drama production and the new set for Casualty has definitely allowed us to shoot in a more dynamic and efficient way, delivering more value on screen.
“Physically moving shows is a good opportunity to change how we do things. Whenever you do something new you learn about what works and what doesn’t.
“I’ve always believed in the idea of production being co-located wherever practical – studios can generate a great, buzzy, creative atmosphere – and Roath Lock certainly has that.”
The question of whether it remains fully-booked in the long term to some extent rests on Penhale. She was wooed from the drama indie, Kudos, to replace Piers Wenger, where, as creative manager and executive producer, she ran its development side. Before that, she trained as a drama executive at the BBC. “When this opportunity came it was too good to pass up, the slate of shows is incredible,” she explains.
Her task is also overseeing the dramas from independents based in South Wales – Sherlock, Merlin, Being Human – while developing new 9pm dramas for BBC1, regarded as the holy grail.
“I am very keen to find returning series, but we are working with a range of writers, with a range of passions – some keen on single drama, event drama and serials,” she says.
“We do have a resource to develop scripts, and we are really interested in stories we can set in Wales.”
The nitty-gritty of driving the project and delivering it virtually on time was the duty of director Alun Jones, who says the BBC’s executive has asked for a detailed report for future use.
Roath Lock is partly designed, adds Jones, so a section can be sealed for independent producers to hire, delivering the promise of building a creative hub. But there is no space for them currently. What seemed big enough to the BBC’s corporate ambitions three years ago now may prove to be too modest.
Writer Davies says his ambitions for Roath Lock are limitless and he has no intention of slackening. On the plus side, there still seems plenty of empty land all around.