We were delighted to receive an invitation from IW-based actor Geoffrey Hughes to visit him at work – on the set of ITV’s popular 1960s police series Heartbeat, in which he plays the lovable rogue Vernon Scripps. Here, Martin describes the day he travelled to Yorkshire and walked into the real-life village that leads a double life as the fictional Aidensfield.
Until 16 years ago, Goathland was just any other sleepy village on the Yorkshire Moors, catering mainly for visitors who liked to walk the surrounding North Yorkshire Moors, or perhaps take a ride on the famous steam train that runs through the village.
At least that was until Yorkshire TV rolled up to film a new programme called Heartbeat, a new drama based on Nicholas Rhea’s books. Originally planned just as two episodes, Heartbeat has since become a cult TV drama – and has made the village an unexpected star.
Situated in the North Yorkshire Moors north of Pickering, and not far from the seaside resort of Whitby, Goathland is surrounded by beautiful scenery, and has its own station on the North Yorkshire Moors steam railway line.
Despite all that, it wouldn’t normally be singled out as a particularly pretty village – and would definitely not justify the large throngs of tourists that visit throughout the summer months, were it not famous as Aidensfield, the setting for the popular ITV police series Heartbeat. I must admit to being a fan of the series myself, as it entertains without gratuitous violence, and episodes usually end on a happy note.
Fans of the show are rarely disappointed by a visit to the fictional Aidensfield, as many of the series landmarks are recognisable, including the stores, the garage/funeral directors, the public house and of course the railway station. Some other regular settings in the series are located outside of the village. The police house can be found about 70 miles away in the small village of Askwith near Ilkley and the police station can be found in the town of Otley, where it was a real police station in former years. However I discovered that most interior shots are filmed in reconstructed studios.
The Steam Railway is run by a private trust and carries upwards of 200,000 passengers a year, linking Grosmount with Pickering. It follows the route of the 19th century line that originally connected to the seaside resort of Whitby.
Overnight, Heartbeat changed Goathland, injecting a certain buzz into what was previously a sleepy rural village. As we all know, Heartbeat went on to become a huge success not only in the UK but all over the world including Canada and Australia, and it’s even a favourite with the police force of the Pacific island of Vanuata.
My plan was to travel up from the Isle of Wight that morning and catch the 6am FastCat from Ryde and travel by train to York where I had arranged to meet Geoffrey Hughes at 11.30am. He arrived in his new Toyota 4 x 4 to pick me up and I had to confess that it was the first time I had been this far North, so I half-expected to see whippets and flat caps everywhere. However I was very surprised to see a real buzzing, metropolitan city. As we drove out of the city, Geoff was like a talking encyclopedia of the area – after all, he spent the best part of four years of his life up there in his early days of Heartbeat.
The drive from York to Goathland was worth the trip on its own. From vibrant city one minute, it seemed as if the set had been changed and within minutes we were in the Downs for as far as the eye could see.
On arriving in Goathland – where fans flock in every day in the hope of catching a glimpse of one of the cast – Geoff stopped off to see an old friend who owned one of the shops on the green. As we walked into the shop you could see people staring in disbelief … surely that can’t be Vernon Scripps!
The following morning I had a couple of hours before we were due on location, so I strolled down to the village at 8.30am which, believe it or not, was packed with tourists even at this time of day.
I managed to track down Bob Wood, who has been the proprietor of the village garage that appears in Heartbeat. Bob has owned the garage for over 32 years so I asked him how Heartbeat had affected the village. “The village was here long before Heartbeat, and it will be here long after Heartbeat” he said. “It has always done well from visitors either walking the surrounding North Yorkshire Moors or taking a ride on the steam train. In my opinion Heartbeat has brought a few more visitors to what was already a popular tourist spot. Don’t think Heartbeat runs the village because it doesn’t, life still goes on without Heartbeat, it’s tourism that runs the village. However we would be fools not to use Heartbeat – after all they use us.”
Bob’s view on Heartbeat was quite different from other shopkeepers I spoke to. Brian Taylor and his wife (pictured below) have had the village Post Office for the last five years, and are quite adamant that without Heartbeat, the Post Office would have closed down years ago. “Heartbeat has set up many shop keepers in the village, we have all jumped on the Heartbeat merry-go-round, and have all done very nicely from it” said Brian.
“I send my son to private school from the proceeds of Heartbeat, so it cannot be that bad. If Heartbeat stopped it would be a huge blow to the village because most people now that visit the village come to see Scripps Garage or the Aidensfield Arms, there are really fanatical fans out there from all over the world.”
After chatting with Brian and his wife I could not believe my luck when one of the longest-serving members of the Heartbeat extras crew walked in. Peter Wainwright (pictured right) has been in the village for over 20 years. Peter had been coming on holiday to the village for many years and in the end he decided to settle down in Goathland. I asked Peter how he became an extra.
“ITV arrived in 1990 and asked permission from the council to start filming Heartbeat, at this meeting they asked if any local residents would like to become background artists, so I straight away said Oh, yes please! Actually I would have probably paid them to be on it originally. In the early days I think there were about 40 of us, although nowadays that figure has dwindled to about 12.
“In this latest series I think I have done about five episodes. None of us ever joined Equity, so we could not have speaking parts, we are only allowed to say the odd word like “Ta” in the pub, or “How do Ventrice” in the vet’s and that’s about it. The best story line I was asked to do was with Bill Maynard (Greengrass) which was quite exciting. I had to drive him in a drunken manner, and he had to keep grabbing the wheel, which was pretty frightening, although it all went off OK in the end. Luckily for me, the camera was on the driver’s side so I appeared on film quite a lot. I enjoyed that day.”
Arriving back at the hotel, I found Geoff in reception talking to some holidaymakers. We then made our way to the production site, which is located about a mile from the village in a remote car park on the moors. Geoff was shown to his caravan where his clothes for that day were hanging, so I left him to change, do make-up and go over his script for the day.
Our location was a 1960’s style farm house located about 10 minutes drive from the base camp. As we arrived on set, it was hard to believe the number of people it took to film just five minutes of finished film – in fact, I counted about 80 people in all. I asked the director Jonas Grimas how long it takes to make an episode. “We usually get to film about 5 minutes of finished film a day, so it takes about 10 days of filming for one 45 minute episode” he said. “Normally we find outdoor locations can take slightly longer than filming in the studio, as on location we can have planes, trains and weather to deal with”.
All in all, I guess that Geoff had about four minutes of dialogue that day to film. The crew began by doing a dry run (no cameras rolling), and once the director was happy with the shot, they went for a take. At this stage I thought we would be finished in about an hour – but I hadn’t allowed for the steam train going by, or planes flying overhead, or the sun going in. It seemed that on every take something happened, including even the odd occasion when actors fluffed their lines. One amusing thing was that every time a steam train went by, the whole cast stood and waved at the passengers in the carriages, which was a nice touch. After the first time it happened, the word must have spread that they were filming because the trains got slower and slower to a point where they almost stopped. Apparently this is a ritual that has developed over the years.
Another interesting point was the fact that they filmed the scene not once but up to five times, and I discovered from the Director that this was because it gave the editing team more angles to work from to make the finished film more interesting. So I asked why they did not simply have more cameramen and do one take? “Cameramen do not come cheap, they are highly skilled and are highly paid, so it is more economical to have two cameramen and simply re-shoot the scene. If you are producing a blockbuster film then you would have more cameramen because films nowadays have quite substantial budgets – more than Heatbeat anyway!”
Another unexpected factor was the bitter cold. It was freezing – and because most of the day is spent standing around this makes it worse. I could not believe how Geoff was able to concentrate on his acting as I spent most of the day freezing and shivering, and to make the situation even worse it decided to rain at one point. I think that Geoff hit the jackpot that day because his character was lucky enough to be wearing a thick sheepskin coat, although David Stockwell (David Lonsdale) had to wear just a shirt and a flimsy corduroy jacket whilst washing a car and filming his scene – his hands must have been freezing. The crew told me that this was quite a mild day, and that later on in the filming schedule in December, January it gets five times worse. And they say that acting is a glamorous life!
Later on that day Gwen Davies arrived on set to film a scene with David and Geoff. Gwen arrived on set in the character of Aunt Peggy, I had always wondered when watching Heartbeat that surely a woman cannot have teeth like that. Normally you can tell straight away that they are false, but her teeth did look real both in real life and on TV. We’ll come back to this later….
The day was coming to an end, they were filming the last scene and the weather was constantly changing, one minute cloud, one minute sunshine, this was the biggest problem that day because you cannot have a scene where one minute its cloudy and the next bright sunshine, so in the end they were estimating how long the next cloud would take to pass over.
By this time I could see that everyone was getting tired and cold. Then at last the Director shouted out “OK, that’s a wrap, well done, thank you very much everyone.”
Well, talk about a vanishing act, I have never seen a place clear so quickly. In a matter of minutes, the set was deserted, and it was as if they were never there.
As Gwen finished her scene her hand went to her mouth and out came those horrible teeth. She told make-up that the teeth have been giving her some pain so she wanted to get them out as soon as possible – and yes, there was a perfect set of sparkling white teeth hidden beneath.
When we arrived back to the caravan I waited in the car whilst Vernon Scripps transformed himself back into Geoffrey Hughes. Geoff and the others had to be in Leeds that night because they had filming for the following week in the studios, which are based in a disused mill on the outskirts of Leeds.
On the way back to York station I chatted to Geoff about his role in Heartbeat and asked would he like to return full time?
“I don’t think so” he said, “I moved to the Island for some peace and quiet, and I love working in my woodland. It’s not all about money, filming Heartbeat is a hectic schedule and as you have seen over the last couple of days, it’s very hard work, and I have to spend a lot of time away from home.
“ I like doing the odd episode but I want to relax a bit more these days. The same goes for The Royle Family – it’s nice to do a Christmas special once a year.”
I asked Geoff about all the autograph hunters everywhere we went – did that get on his nerves?
“No, not really, it’s all part of the job, but I must say that the one thing about the Isle of Wight is that people leave you alone. Of course I get asked to do the odd charity event on the Island but on the whole people let me get on with my life, which I really respect them for. I love my woodland, which I know probably sounds silly.
“I have been acting all my life. I would not say that I am super rich, but I can afford a new car, or a meal out when I want, that’s really what makes me content. Now I’m getting older I want to see more of my wife Sue. It’s nice to be at home. I am very happy and contented on the Island, and if acting parts come along that I like, then I have the choice of taking them. All in all, I’m a very lucky man!”