Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Famous faces act the goat in west Belfast

Actor Paul Nicholls shares a joke with a make-up girl on the set of Billy Goats' Gruff shooting in Belfast

Paul Nicholls and Bernard Hill are among the cast of a new BBCNI drama currently being filmed in and around Belfast. Showbiz Correspondent Maureen Coleman joins them on set

It's a long way from Albert Square or Middle Earth, but actors Paul Nicholls and Bernard Hill seem quite at home in Belfast.

The pair are currently in the city to film a new comedy drama for television, based on the children's classic fairytale The Three Billy Goats' Gruff.

The drama is one of four commissioned by BBC Northern Ireland and made by Hat Trick Productions, which are brought to life by contemporary writers - and given a modern twist.

Each of the four tales will be filmed on location in the province - a major coup for Northern Ireland Screen.

The first drama, Billy Goat, tells the story of a Northern boy band craving pastures new and fortune and fame.

But there's one obstacle in their way. Their manager, played by Lord Of The Rings star Bernard Hill, is a canny troll trying to trap them into a contract.

On a secret film set in west Belfast, Nicholls takes a break from shooting to tell me about his role.

"I play the big Billy Goat Gruff. I'm the leader of a boyband, with my brother and friend. My character, Connor Gruff, is very ambitious," he said.

"He's got his mates and the band is quite successful in his own town, but he wants to be on Pop Idol. There's a culture of celebrity television shows and quick music deals and that's what he is aiming for. He's chomping at the bit to be famous."

But the band's stumbling block is their manager Grettongrat, a troll played by Hill.

The actor, well-known for his roles as Theoden in Lord Of The Rings and Yosser Hughes in Boys From The Blackstuff, appears on set, looking half-human, half-troll. Wearing prosthetic make-up, pointed ears and a hump on his back, he slopes past us and takes a seat.

It's a strange sight - this modern-day troll sitting next to the film crew's coffee machine, learning his lines. Hill cannot be disturbed as he's keen to stay in character and, after a short break from set, he's back filming again until late in the evening.

Billy Goat's producer Hannah Prescod, who will also work on Rapunzel, explains why Northern Ireland was chosen as the location for all four Fairy Tales.

"BBC Northern Ireland were keen for us to come here, as there's such a fantastic array of locations and of course, a brilliant crew," she said.

"The landscape is a lot less familiar and a lot fresher and each time we found somewhere more exciting and different. In Newtownbreda, we were shooting in quite a lot of locals' houses.

"Everyone was every welcoming and the kids were loving it. They were coming up getting autographs, mainly of Paul Nicholls, who they all recognised.

"In one house where Bernard was filming, the owners found it hard to believe that there was a troll sitting in their living room."

In a dark, grubby den designed to look like a two-bit backstage dressing room, Nicholls is having his make-up applied as he tells me why he decided to take the part of Connor Gruff. "The script by Jeremy Dyson was brilliant and I knew that if the BBC and Hat Trick were involved, it would be a quality drama," he said.

The Bolton actor, who was a heart-throb for tens of thousands of teenage girls when he played Joe Wicks in EastEnders, said he hoped to take in more of the sights before filming ends.

"I had a wander round the city centre, but I've been on set every day since I got here," he said.

"But we're all having a great time here and think it's a wonderful place."

Filming of Billy Goat is expected to be completed next week.

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