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So, just what's our Ivan doing in one of TV's must-see shows this Christmas with a star from Downton Abbey?


Ivan Little on the set of A Christmas Star

Ivan Little on the set of A Christmas Star

Robert James-Collier chats with director Richard Elson

Robert James-Collier chats with director Richard Elson

Rob in Downton Abbey

Rob in Downton Abbey

Reel life: Downton Abbey and former Corrie star Rob James-Collier, who has a role in A Christmas Star

Reel life: Downton Abbey and former Corrie star Rob James-Collier, who has a role in A Christmas Star

Ivan and Rob James-Collier

Ivan and Rob James-Collier

Kylie Minogue

Kylie Minogue

Liam Neeson

Liam Neeson

Little stars: Rob with some of the young girls taking part in the film

Little stars: Rob with some of the young girls taking part in the film


Ivan Little on the set of A Christmas Star

Ivan Little goes behind the scenes on the Cinemagic film starring Rob James-Collier, Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan and Kylie Minogue alongside young Ulster actors.

Even the dawn couldn't seem to muster the enthusiasm to break over Stormont on a bleak and miserable Friday morning when, even though the politicians were probably still in their beds, a different cast were busily and excitedly rolling into Parliament Buildings for a drama which is a far cry from the ones normally played out in Northern Ireland's troubled seat of power.

For once there was no wrangling over welfare cuts, no squabbling over sectarianism, no banner-waving over flags and not a word about the Irish language, curries or yoghurts. And if all this sounds like a feelgood fantasy, that's because it was - a Christmas fantasy, a home-grown movie which has the likes of Liam Neeson, Pierce Brosnan and Kylie Minogue in the cast. And, er, me.

Which is why on an early morning after a late night before, a taxi was depositing me on set at Stormont, which normally proves harder for movie companies to get into than Fort Knox.

But the politicians who usually say no to just about everything could only say yes to the persuasive charms of Cinemagic, Northern Ireland's film festival organisation for young people, who are celebrating their 25th anniversary by making their own full-length movie, A Christmas Star, which has been filming around the province for the last couple of weeks.

The recruitment of Neeson, Brosnan, and Minogue has captured most of the headlines so far after Cinemagic CEO Joan Burney Keatings persuaded the international stars to play cameo roles or, as in Liam's case, to act as the narrator for the movie which will premiere next year and will be broadcast simultaneously on BBC and UTV.

Joan says: "The idea came to me a year ago. We'd done 18 short films back-to-back and we decided to take it a stage further and do something that had never been done before. We got more than a little help from all our patrons, friends and lots of amazing industry professionals."

The 90-minute film is also giving 40 young people the opportunity to work in every imaginable department behind the scenes and in front of the cameras.

The 11 lead actors were picked from a massive 5,500 strong audition pool by internationally renowned casting directors Roz and John Hubbard who says: "It was one of our biggest ever casting calls. And the standard was unbelievably high."

"The professionals are mentoring the young cast and crew throughout the film production process from script to screen, giving them invaluable insights across various disciplines ranging from directing, acting and production to script-editing, film composition and costume-making," says Joan.

And the pre-dawn chorus of youthful exuberance was unmistakeable as I trundled half asleep up to Stormont to get ready in a mobile dressing room for my role as the Speaker of the Assembly, which the cynic might think could have spawned its own genre of films down the years. Not so much action movies, mind you, more lack-of-action movies.

My Mister Speaker wasn't a Mister Anything. He was a Speaker with no name. But he had a blue suit, if that's any clue.

Not that this was even a partly political broadcast. The storyline centres on a nine-year-old girl who fights to keep the true meaning of Christmas alive by taking on big business interests and bringing her case - with 10 of her spirited friends - to Stormont.

And that's where they burst into my Assembly chamber, blowing whistles and shouting as the Speaker tried to open a debate on the new investment plan which the children believed would wreck their festive dreams.

The Assembly's meeting place wasn't available and so it was cameras, lights and action in the smaller Senate chamber where I can testify to the comfort of the Speaker's commodious chair which was bigger than some flats I've lived in and which played host to my backside for most of the day as the filming went on. And on.

But that, of course, is the way of the movie world as the same scenes are filmed over and over again from different angles to make sure the crews - and the actors - get things just right.

Playing opposite me was a man once dubbed Britain's sexiest male who wasn't out of place in the big house. For Rob James-Collier is a star of the biggest house on the box, Downton Abbey.

In A Christmas Star, Rob was playing the part of Pat McKerrod, an unscrupulous American businessman - but that's all I'm allowed to say about what happens to him. Rob, of course, is now famous the world over for his portrayal of the gay, scheming under-butler Thomas Barrow in Downton, a role he got after playing another rogue, Liam Connor in Coronation Street.

So why on earth, I wondered, was a star of one of TV's most lucrative series playing a part in A Christmas Star and earning a mere fraction of the money he could command elsewhere?

"Joan from Cinemagic is a friend of a friend and she sent me a script. I thought 'Yes - a nice movie and a week or more in Belfast. So why not?' And it's been great fun to be part of something which is like a training scheme, allowing scores of young people to work on a film either as part of the crew or as an actor," he says.

"You've got the best cameramen and sound operators in the business mentoring trainees, showing them how it's done.

"The important thing in this game is getting your first credit. So this is a step on the ladder and hopefully we will see many of the youngsters going on into the industry."

Rob is no stranger to Ireland. His mum is a McLaughlin from the Isle of Doagh in Co Donegal and he holidayed there for countless summers. "I love the place," he says. And it would appear the feeling is mutual.

For even though Rob's TV characters have been roguish, he said that people here couldn't have been nicer to him.

"It's not usually like that at home so maybe I should come here more often," laughs Rob, who added that he was thrilled to be part of Downton and was looking forward to a sixth series if the producers still want him.

Rob says that he believed Downton fans were starting to view his character Barrow more sympathetically than before. "He's quite a tragic figure - a gay guy at a time when it's not permitted legally or morally and he has this tremendous burden and secret that he carries around with him. If he's exposed his reputation and his career are over. He's an outsider who has always felt quite alienated," he says.

"We've seen deep down some moments of vulnerability and we've seen there is a heart there. It's just that the world is telling him he's some vile creature but he's not."

Rob, who is an Everton supporter and a university graduate, said the Downton Christmas special was already in the can and promises: "It won't be as gloomy as the ones in previous years. There'll be no car crashes or anything like that."

He says that although it's years since he acted on Corrie, some people still call him Liam. But he has no regrets about working on the Street. "I came out of Corrie 10 times the actor I was when I went in. It was a fantastic learning curve and it was great to be part of a worldwide institution," says Rob, who at Stormont belied his Downton characters' bad boy reputations on screen by showing he was one of the good guys off it.

Throughout the day he selflessly posed for selfies with his youthful co-stars and the background artists playing the parts of Stormont politicians, and he patiently corrected people like me who called his TV hit Downtown, saying that, yes, he knew there was a radio station with that name in Northern Ireland.

Nor did Rob seem to mind that the youngsters in A Christmas Star were likely to emerge as the real stars of the film.

The main role of Noelle is in the capable hands of 12-year-old Newtownards schoolgirl Erin Galway-Kendrick and she said she was loving every second of her time in the limelight.

Erin, who has already acted in the science fiction TV series The Sparticle Mystery, said the work schedule was hectic but rewarding. "I really enjoy acting but after A Christmas Star I will focus on my schoolwork again and just wait and see what happens," says Erin, whose retired schoolteacher mum, Christine, is tutoring her daughter in her downtimes from filming while the other youngsters are also attending special education sessions.

Erin even has a body double for the long shots in the filming and although Noelle is just nine-years-old the stand-in is in her late 30s!

James Stockdale, a 13-year-old Royal School Dungannon schoolboy from Moy, is playing the role of Spud-Bob and his engaging wit and ad-libbing between takes has endeared him to the rest of the cast and crew.

At Stormont, James was quite obviously in his element and told me: "I'm living the dream. This is my first film but I would like to make acting my life. It is long hard work but you just push through it and at the end of the day it's a bunch of craic and really good fun."

Acting with Downton star Rob and Scott and Bailey actress Suranne Jones was a thrill for James as was getting the chance to stay in luxury hotels during filming around Northern Ireland.

"I've had three different beds in the past week," he says. "It's been really cool."

In the Senate chamber, my close-ups were the last to be shot and after production manager Terry Bamber called a wrap he told me how he had worked on six James Bond movies but was getting a real buzz from Belfast.

He first came here to work on City of Ember, one of the first films to be shot at the Titanic Studios.

"We had the most wonderful time and through that I got introduced to Cinemagic and I've been coming back to do production managing and assistant direction classes," he says.

"A year ago Joan mentioned A Christmas Star, which would be made by young people and star young people. So it's been a part of my life ever since. The youngsters have been fantastic.

"We have to make sure they get their breaks and that there's time for all their tutoring. We've had great support from chaperones and parents and the tutors."

Movie-making at Stormont may be rare but it wasn't the first time that fictional protesters had besieged the estate. In the mid-1960s the cast of a UTV drama Boatman Do Not Tarry marched through the front gates on the Upper Newtownards Road to demonstrate about the withdrawal of a ferry service.

How do I know? Because as a youngster I lived opposite Stormont and just happened to see the film-makers recording the protesters as they made their way to Stormont. Naturally I joined in and appeared for a couple of seconds on screen.

Hopefully my Christmas Star will shine for a little bit longer on than that blink-and-you'll miss it moment ...

Five of our fave festive films

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

An oldie but a goodie and for many Christmas isn't Christmas without at least one viewing of Frank Capra's classic (below). James Stewart gives a star turn as the down-trodden George Bailey who sets out to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. Cue his guardian angel who helps show him what a difference he has made to the world

The Snowman (1982)

At just half an hour long it's not exactly a movie but Raymond Briggs' characters and Aled Jones' soaring soprano are both instantly recognisable. Featuring a young boy who wishes that the snowman he has built will come to life, this animated tale with a wonderful score has become part of Christmas

Elf (2003)

The story of how one of Santa's adopted elves leaves the North Pole to find his real father. Buddy the elf's enthusiasm for just about everything in modern day New York is infectious. The movie has a stellar cast include James Caan and Zooey Deschanel and keep an eye out for Game Of Thrones star Peter Dinklage

Home Alone (1990)

Macauley Culkin takes full advantage of being left behind while his family go on vacation. He can do whatever or eat whatever he likes. The problems start when a pair of burglars target the family home but they're no match for the crafty kid

The Muppets Christmas Carol (1992)

Dickens fans will love this re-imagining of the classic Christmas Carol with Michael Caine as the flinty Scrooge. Bob Cratchit is played by Kermit the Frog with Miss Piggy as his wife and The Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens. The remake makes one of Christmas' best loved stories more accessible for a younger audience

Belfast Telegraph

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