Back in 2002, Bronagh Waugh made a very big decision. Unable to get acting work in England after graduating from drama school, she moved home to Northern Ireland.
“It was the BBC series Murphy’s Law that pushed me to make the move,” she said. “Even though I’m from Coleraine, the same town as the lead actor Jimmy Nesbitt, the casting director wouldn’t see me because I had no Northern Ireland fantastic to take people to The Ramore in Portrush because the owner is a friend of my family.
“Now I don’t need to sell Northern Ireland. Everyone knows how good it is.”
Bronagh is currently starring in the locally-filmed movie A Christmas Star, backed by the Cinemagic charity that offers young people the opportunity to learn about film-making, behind and in front of the camera. There are appearances from Pierce Brosnan, Richard Clements, Kylie Minogue, and Downton Abbey’s difficult butler, Robert James-Collier, as well as writer Julian Fellowes. The voiceover is performed by Liam Neeson.
“Everyone loved working on A Christmas Star,” said Bronagh. “One of the English crew, the gaffer (head electrician), loved Northern Ireland so much that he’s bought a house in Carnlough, where we were filming for eight weeks, and he’s living there now full time. The great thing is that he’s getting lots of steady work in the industry locally.”
Bronagh is excited about the fast-expanding film and television industry in Northern Ireland and believes that young people who want to work in the sector now have a real chance of a successful career.
“When I was growing up in the 80s, the notion of becoming an actor in Northern Ireland was regarded as totally implausible. There wasn’t enough of an industry to sustain you. Now it’s a real prospect, and there are so many opportunities for people who want to work as crew, make-up, directing.
“The industry here is really vibrant and the regeneration and investment it’s bringing is fantastic. HBO and Game of Thrones have made such a difference. It showcases what Northern Ireland has to offer as a location: the mountains and the water, our wonderful landscape that can represent anywhere in the world. It’s so versatile.
“And I know that producers and directors are so incredibly impressed with the local crews, they really are second to none. In the past, they had to fly in a DoP (Director of Photography) and camera operators, now they’re hiring locally. It means a lot of people in the industry don’t have to leave Northern Ireland to get work.”
Bronagh now lives in Guildford, near London, but the appeal of home is very strong.
“I’m back and forth all the time and I have definitely toyed with the idea of moving back home. I would love to set up an accredited drama school. My involvement with Cinemagic is all about giving something back and I feel very privileged to be able to do that.
“My partner is from the south of England, but if I was single I would definitely be back. There are so many positives to living in Northern Ireland, my English friends are flabbergasted when I tell them about the price of houses and rent back home. Plus, it’s so easy to fly over to England now when you need to commute.
“We will see a big wave of my generation moving back, now that the situation is so positive, and not just in the film industry.”
However, Bronagh is worried about the impact of austerity on the arts sector in Northern Ireland, and has flown home on several occasions to lend her support to protests against cuts.
“You have to look after the small, homegrown arts and theatre companies.
Coleraine’s James Nesbitt is in demand for film and TV roles worldwideTo have a Ridley Scott film made here is brilliant, of course, but I would argue that it doesn’t have the same impact on a community as a community-based theatre company.
“When Game of Thrones eventually packs up and leaves town, we still want to have a conveyor belt of talent coming through. Art changes lives and it often comes out of conflict, which is probably why our arts scene is thriving. But we must nurture it.
“It’s time to write the next chapter.”
No-one will be surprised if Bronagh is one of the people writing it.