James Muirhead has been a location manager for three decades, so there isn’t much that fazes him at this stage.
But Years and Years, which is currently airing on BBC One, posed its challenges.
The six-part drama, created and written by Russell T Davies, focuses on one family, the Lyons, but spans 15 years and is set in multiple locations across the globe, although most of the scenes were shot right here in Manchester.
“We started scouting locations last March, ready for filming in the summer,” says James.
“It’s like a jigsaw, but fortunately we had good scripts in place, which is very helpful. The director Simon Cellan Jones was totally driven and had great passion.
“It was lovely working with him because between the two of us, along with the designer, we saw as much as possible to stack up a feeling of Manchester and worked out how we could transpose that onto the production with a myriad of locations and characters in different demographics.
“We needed to find a high-rise, an archetypal red brick terrace, and the matriarch Muriel (played by Anne Reid) lives in this enormous pile, a lovely big house, which used to be owned by the mayor allegedly of Manchester. It had fallen into disrepair and was empty when we found it.
And then there’s Celeste and Stephen (T’Nia Miller and Rory Kinnear), a couple in finance who were living in London at the beginning of the series, but all of it including ‘Milan’ and ‘Calais’ and ‘Barcelona’, and various other locations, had to be shot in Manchester.”
They found ‘Japan’ “opposite the MRI”, and the refugee camp where Daniel (Russell Tovey) works as a housing officer for Manchester City Council, was filmed beneath Barton Bridge, opposite the Trafford Centre.
“That was a location, which completely ruined my Christmas,” recalls James.
“We had a great location for that prior to the one we shot in and then lost it two days before we broke for the holiday. So, my Christmas was ruined not knowing whether my option two would come through. The camp itself took one and a half weeks to build but it went incredibly well.
“We had stock footage from America of riot scenes, and then wanted to transpose actors into those scenes so had to find matching buildings. We also had to find beaches of Malaysia within striking distance of Manchester so there were big asks for this one.”
It’s hard work, but James thrives on it.
“You’re dealing with real people and you have a little adventure every day. The biggest pay-off is when it goes on screen and gets a BAFTA or Emmy or RTS,” he says, although he admits it can be hard to switch off.
“Often when I’m driving, I’m looking left and right all the time to see if there’s something interesting we can use. You can’t really switch off until you go on holiday and can’t scout for locations.”
James got his break covering for a stills photographer who got seasick while filming scenes off the coast of Whitby.
“The executive producer saw the photos and said, ‘You’ve got an eye for this, why don’t you go into the locations department’. I cut my teeth on Heartbeat and then Yorkshire TV eventually went bump, and Manchester mopped up everything.
“Then I found myself doing all my work on this side of the Pennines.”
Two projects he’s particularly proud of are Appropriate Adult, in which Dominic West played Fred West, and See No Evil: The Moors Murders starring Sean Harris and Maxine Peake as Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
“The nature of the storylines were the ones that took a part of me with them so I’m proud in a reserved fashion. I wouldn’t have done either of those projects, certainly The Moors Murders, had the relatives of the victims not been very open and honest and pro the project.
“We got it right and that was the important thing. When you’re working on things of that sensitivity, that was something to look back on as a benchmark.”
As a location manager, James sometimes starts working on a project before a director’s even on board.
“We get sent scripts, sometimes treatments, sometimes a bible as they call it, a summary of what the show is about that gives you a brief idea about the characters, and then we start assigning locations to those people.
“In Years and Years, it was an interesting brief because we went forward into the future so had to think how we were going to perceive that skyline in Manchester,” explains James.
“But you take it through the whole process, from contracts and risk assessments, closing the roads down for car crashes, explosions, it could be any number of things you have to do and on top of that you have the practicality of parking up 150 people in a unit base for makeup and costume and catering and toilets and caravans and changing areas, which is separate to the actual location.
“For Years and Years, we had 87 locations all together across six episodes.”
He went straight from Years and Years to Tin Star starring Tim Roth, which is being filmed in Liverpool.
“I’m trying to get them over to Manchester,” says James who has favourite spots to shoot in the city.
“Manchester Town Hall was always a go-to but is currently shut for renovations, and the Northern Quarter is still a good place to film,” he says, although he notes the area’s regeneration is causing problems.
“It’s fantastic for business and the city but from my point of view, it makes my job that little bit harder when they stick another air conditioning unit at the back of a building where before it was a totally period location,” says James who also references the state-of-the-art Space Studios at Gorton.
“It’s phenomenal. I’ve been there when Danny Boyle’s been around because he’s brought production up from London,” says James.
“There is a huge and film and TV industry happening in Manchester, and I must mention the Manchester film office as it’s the absolute premiership on locations.
“They help you as best they can, using all their tools to make things work when it comes to road closures and so on. That’s why there’s so much filming going on up here. It’s rife with productions and a lot of credit must go to Bobby Cochrane at Screen Manchester.
“And also to the people of Manchester who are now so blasé about filming, they just walk past and don’t even stop to watch. They’ve seen it all before.”
Years and Years is on Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC One. Catch up on iPlayer.