From cobbled streets to silver screen

Emma Lee Norwich plays a starring role in the new fantasy blockbuster, Stardust, which opens today. EMMA LEE discovers how the fine city came to light up the big screen.

Emma Lee

It was a pivotal role in a major Hollywood movie and the chance to share the limelight with the likes of Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Claire Danes, so it's hardly surprising that there were several contenders for the part.

The team behind the epic blockbuster Stardust were looking for charisma and photogenic good looks.

They found exactly the right candidate tucked away in Norwich - and in the summer of 2006, historic Elm Hill was transformed into a film set.

The eagerly-anticipated fantasy adventure arrives in cinemas today, featuring Norwich's turn as the mythical settlement of Stormhold.

The magical journey to the silver screen began in December 2005, when Screen East film liaison officer Katie Macdonald was approached by Stardust's location manager, Emma Pill.

Most Read

Screen East is the screen agency for our region. Funded by the UK Film Council and the East of England Development Agency, one of its roles is to promote the east as a film location.

“We were approached with a number of location inquiries, including one for a village with timber-framed buildings and cobbled streets. And they really liked the look of Elm Hill,” Katie explains.

Stardust is based on the grown-up fairytale of the same name by the acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman, and the production team were looking for a building to play the Slaughtered Prince inn, which appears in an emotionally-charged scene in the film where young hero Tristan Thorne (newcomer Charlie Cox) and fallen star Yvaine (Claire Danes) admit their true feelings for each other.

With its chocolate-box pretty historic buildings, Elm Hill - and in particular the Briton's Arms - was just the location they had scouted far and wide for.

An on-site meeting was arranged with the production team and various agencies, including the council and the police, to discuss the historic thoroughfare's potential transformation.

“The outcome of the meeting was extremely positive,” Katie says. “Everyone was up for it.”

Emma Pill says: “We were so pleased when we stumbled across Elm Hill after scouring the length of the UK, and some European locations.

“It is a magical street, providing the production with the exact requirements for the script.”

But, of course, the crew couldn't just pitch up with its trailers, shut off the street, repaint the buildings and start filming.

The buildings in the street are Grade II listed, so the crew needed permission from Norwich City Council to make temporary changes to their exteriors so they could be dressed to fit the production team's vision.

The Briton's Arms, which dates from the early 14th century, is the only building in Elm Hill which survived the great fire of Norwich in 1507 intact, and it's one of just five original thatched houses left in the city.

Today it's a coffee house and restaurant, but during its history it's been used for weaving, saddle-making, and as a beguinage - a place where women live as nuns, but don't take formal vows.

It's also been a pub, and was originally known as the King's Arms, being renamed as the Briton's Arms in 1804.

As city council urban design and conservation officer Chris Bennett explains, the film-makers had to follow strict guidelines.

“We were consulted quite a long way ahead of the filming,” he says. “The key was reversibility - anything they did had to be reversed without damaging the fabric of the building.

“When they changed the Briton's Arms they put a thatched extension on it which had to be fitted and taken away.”

The film-makers were given written temporary consent to make changes.

“Normally when we get planning applications we have to consider whether they are in keeping, and although the changes they were making didn't look authentic for Norwich, we thought we would turn a blind eye to it in this case,” he jokes.

The film's crew was on site for around two weeks and they did one night's shooting, involving 300 extras.

“A massive amount of work went into it, and it's a credit to Norwich how accommodating the residents and businesses of Elm Hill were,” Katie says.

Although much of Stardust was filmed in the British Isles, including the Cotswolds, Loch Lomond and at the Pinewood studios, the production unit travelled as far afield as Iceland.

Emma Pill added they appreciated the warm welcome they got in Norwich.

“The residents and businesses of Elm Hill were very helpful and a joy to work with. Screen East was there to assist us in all aspects of the production during the preparation and the shoot, which is greatly appreciated.”

In recent years several major TV and film productions have been made in Norfolk, which has a reputation in the industry as being a particularly film-friendly destination, and not just in terms of its looks.

“Norfolk is very accommodating to film productions,” says Kerry Ixer, head of locations at Screen East.

“They're good for the local economy. Supporting services make work for local companies, such as construction companies and taxi firms. As far as I know everybody had a good experience during the filming of Stardust.”

She says that the film industry is worth around £3m a year to Norfolk and can be a boost to the tourism industry, with set-jetting - visiting places that have appeared on the big screen - growing in popularity.

Keira Knightley's latest film, the Duchess, is due to shoot at Holkham, and a harrowing scene in another Knightley film, Atonement, was part filmed in the Fens.

And Stephen Fry's latest TV hit, Kingdom, filmed in and around Swaffham, has raised the profile of the west of the county.

“Norfolk is becoming more and more popular as a location,” Kerry says.

And then, of course, there's the chance to star on the big or small screen yourself. Just last week, hundreds of hopefuls queued for hours to be in with a chance of appearing in the Duchess.

But, there's always the risk you might end up on the cutting room floor too.

t Stardust is previewing from today, October 17, and is on general release from Friday, October 19. See this week's EDP Saturday magazine for an interview with Michelle Pfeiffer.

GROWN-UP FAIRYTALE IS TRULY MAGIC

Stardust is based on the grown-up fairytale by acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman and is directed by Matthew Vaughn, whose previous credits include Layer Cake.

The epic tale begins in the sleepy English village of Wall - so-called after the dry stone wall that has, for eons, kept the villagers safely apart from the supernatural parallel universe that lies just on the other side.

It is here that young Tristan Thorne (the Orlando Bloom-esque Charlie Cox) makes a promise to the prettiest girl in the village (Sienna Miller), whose heart that he hopes to win, that he will bring her back a fallen star.

To do that Tristan has to cross the forbidden wall and enter a mysterious kingdom lit by unending magic and unfolding legends of which he will quickly become a part.

In the fantastical realm, known as Stormhold, Tristan discovers that the fallen star is not at all what he expected, but a spirited young woman (Claire Danes), Yvaine, who has been injured by her cosmic tumble.

Now she is in terrible danger - sought after by colossal powers including the king (Peter O'Toole) of Stormhold's scheming sons, for whom only she can secure the throne, and a chillingly powerful witch (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), who is desperate to use the star to achieve eternal youth and beauty.

As Tristan sets out to protect the star and bring her back to his beloved on the other side of the wall, he meets some quirky characters along the way - cross-dressing Captain Shakespeare (a show-stealing performance by Robert De Niro) and his motley pirate crew and a shady trader (Ricky Gervais, in full-on David Brent mode).

But if he can survive by his wits and the strength of his new-found love, Tristan will also uncover the secret key to his own identity and a fate beyond his wildest dreams.

The cast-list reads like a who's who of British comedy, with David Walliams, Sarah Alexander, Adam Buxton and Mark Williams playing supporting roles.

And Mark Strong, who plays evil Prince Septimus, also shines.

YOUR CHANCE TO WIN

To celebrate the release of Stardust, we've got some brilliant prizes to give away. Five readers will win a fabulous Stardust gift set, including a dressing gown, scented candle, perfume atomiser and a copy of the film's soundtrack, which includes an exclusive song by Take That, Rule the World. To be in with a chance of winning, simply tell us who plays Yvaine, the fallen star, in Stardust.

t A: Lindsay Lohan,

t B: Claire Danes

t C: Keira Knightley

Send your answer on a postcard to: Stardust competition, c/o Emma Lee, EDP Features, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE. Entries must reach us by Wednesday October 24. Normal Archant competition rules apply.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter