Smoking ban is damaging drama production in Wales, BBC warns

Some scenes featuring characters smoking in Upstairs Downstairs had to be filmed in England. Photo: Jane Hilton/BBC
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BBC Wales is calling on a smoking ban in the country to be relaxed, claiming current legislation is deterring drama producers from filming there.

It argues that current legislation – which bans smoking in enclosed places, including film sets – has resulted in many BBC productions filmed in Wales having to pay more to shoot certain scenes in England. This is because there is an exemption in England that allows performers to smoke on sets as part of a performance.

The BBC says the only other options would be to cut smoking from a production entirely or use fake cigarettes, which it claims damages the authenticity of some productions, or to rely on computer generated effects, which it has been claimed can cost £30,000 for a ten second shot.

It has made its claims in a submission to Welsh Assembly members who have been tasked with gathering evidence ahead of a vote on a proposed amendment later this year, which would allow performers to smoke “provided certain conditions are satisfied”.

BBC Wales states: “The current legislation in Wales makes it impossible to film a lit cigarette as part of a scene. This is problematic for period dramas, which often feature cigarettes as a fact of period life. It is especially difficult to truthfully capture big, emotional moments in close-up shots, where fake cigarettes or CGI don’t create an honest effect.”

It adds that some scenes in Upstairs Downstairs had to be shot in Bristol to avoid damaging the authenticity of the series and blames the legislation for the BBC’s decision to drop a storyline from Casualty showing a smoker in a hotel room “causing a blaze”.

“The existing legislation made filming the scenes too difficult to contemplate within the production budget and schedule,” it adds.

BBC Wales argues that it believes “it is never justifiable to promote cigarettes” and adds that “any portrayal of smoking should always have strong editorial grounds”.

But it warns that a new drama it is making for BBC1 is likely to “include fictional smoking” and adds: “In this case the decision on filming location is finely balanced and the existing smoking legislation may have an impact on the final decision.”

In its submission, it states: “We believe the introduction of an exemption to the ban would help ensure that even more of the economic benefit of Wales-based drama will flow into the Welsh economy.”

Meanwhile, producers’ body PACT has argued there is a “significant commercial need for a change to this legislation as it currently puts Wales at a disadvantage to England as a location for film and television”.

In its submission, it states: “The smoking legislation in Wales could create a barrier to big-budget international drama productions wishing to invest if the content which they are making includes smoking scenes”.

However, critics have warned against amending the legislation, with anti-smoking group ASH arguing that an amendment will lead to a “litany of requests from other industries such as pubs, clubs and the tourism industry”.

It has called the proposed amendment “wholly unnecessary”.