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Lights, cameras and plenty of action: Cambridge makes list of top UK filming locations

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We all know that the majestic buildings of Cambridge are a popular destination for filmmakers seeking to tell stories related to the university, but did you know that the 2011 film Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was also shot in our city – King’s College, to be precise?

The filming of Red Joan at Newnham College, Cambridge. Picture: Richard Marsham
The filming of Red Joan at Newnham College, Cambridge. Picture: Richard Marsham

In fact so many movies – some less obvious – have over the years used Cambridge as a backdrop, that the city has made a list of the UK’s top filming locations compiled by Jurys Inn. The hotel group has conducted research on 5,915 films and TV shows listed on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) to see which locations across the country are the most popular filming destinations, and which parts of the UK featured in the most films and TV series.

Unsurprisingly, London is way out in front on the list with 10 times as many listings as anywhere else in the UK, appearing 1,008 times as a filming location in the data. Spiderman: Far From Home, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, and the James Bond film, Skyfall, are just three examples of movies shot in the capital city.

The Man Who Knew Infinity filming in Cambridge Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography
The Man Who Knew Infinity filming in Cambridge Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography

Cambridge, however, has an impressive 51 citations, putting it level with Manchester and ahead of Liverpool (38) and Bristol (24).

Films and TV series made in Cambridge include Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007, partly filmed at St John’s College), The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015, mostly shot at Trinity College), Maurice (1987, King’s College), and Sylvia (2003) and The Theory of Everything (2014), both of which make use of various city locations.

A more recent foray into the movies for Cambridge came in the form of the 2018 film inspired by the life of Soviet spy Melita Norwood, Red Joan, filmed at Newnham College, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Dame Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson – who can currently be seen in the BBC1 mini-series, The Trial of Christine Keeler. A popular example of a TV series that makes the most of Cambridge’s buildings, bridges, alleyways and streets is of course ITV’s Grantchester.

ITV's Grantchester being filmed in Cambridge Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography
ITV's Grantchester being filmed in Cambridge Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography

Dr Gill Sutherland, a historian and fellow of Newnham College, said: “It’s fascinating to see the skill of film directors like Trevor Nunn, as they transform the college buildings and gardens of today to create the atmosphere they need for their story. And for Cambridge residents, it’s always great fun to see how a production has stitched together a doorway from one college, a flight of steps from another college, and then a street from the other end of town.

Dr Gill Sutherland (26174979)
Dr Gill Sutherland (26174979)

“But don’t mistake the directors’ magic for reality – residents all know Cambridge is very much a 21st century city, despite the visions of the 1930s we see in Red Joan or the 1950s in Grantchester.”

Harriet Truscott, director of communications at Newnham, added: “I’m not at all surprised we rank so highly on the list. Cambridge is a great film location because it’s astonishingly architecturally varied, within a very compact city. We’ve got iconic buildings from every age, from Tudor through to post-modern. It’s very easy to make Cambridge look beautiful.

“But more mundanely, filming has tight timescales and budgets, which means working with professional locations which are used to having film and TV crews on site and can supply all the logistics like electrics and parking. The more filming takes place in Cambridge colleges, the more experienced the college staff become in managing it smoothly.

“Over the summer, ITV’s Grantchester spent a week filming in Newnham College’s gorgeous gardens. That was all scheduled well in advance, but they came back for another day’s extra filming in the autumn because they knew that as well as looking stunning, Newnham is a very practical, easy place to film.

“When the Grantchester tea urn broke, we even managed to supply kettles to keep the crew going. The result is that Newnham plays the role of three different Cambridge colleges in the upcoming series of Grantchester.”

Jessica Nelson, marketing, communications and PR executive at Visit Cambridge and Beyond, said they are contacted by people, usually via VisitEngland or VisitBritain, asking how they would go about getting permission to film. She said: “That could be anything from a film company looking for an empty shopping centre to a film company that’s looking for a grand dining hall.”

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