August 8, 2022

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This is a very different Northern Ireland than the one Belfast actor Ian McElhinney grew...

This is a very different Northern Ireland than the one Belfast actor Ian McElhinney grew up in.
hile the politics may still be dysfunctional, the violence has gone and a place which attracted very little investment is now home to a thriving film and television industry envied across the island.

Netflix and Paramount Pictures have become the latest US studios to bring projects to the region, and last Friday the world’s first Game of Thrones Studio Tour opened in Banbridge, Co Down, where a large proportion of the show’s filming took place.
For McElhinney, who played Ser Barristan Selmy in Game of Thrones for five seasons, the major investment shows an “extraordinary” side to Northern Ireland.
“When I started acting it was mostly Troubles-related productions and even that couldn’t be filmed here because it was too sensitive. Right through the 1980s, if there were any jobs for Northern Irish actors it was almost always about the Troubles,” he told the Sunday Independent.
“Now we have a number of quality studios and a heck of a lot of TV productions being made here. It is now one of the major industries in Northern Ireland in the same way that if you go back 100 years it was shipbuilding or linen, or whatever. Now it is film.”
It is understood HBO spent £250m (€295m) in Northern Ireland over eight seasons of Game of Thrones, with shops and businesses also benefiting from the trickle-down effect.
Line of Duty, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, The Fall and Derry Girls, in which McElhinney stars as Grandpa Joe, are just some of the productions that have been shot in the region.
Animation, games and interactive content are also being made in Belfast, while filming has begun for the new series of hit crime drama Bloodlands, which stars James Nesbitt as DCI Tom Brannick.
It is being shot once again in Belfast and the surrounding areas, including Strangford Lough, with actress Victoria Smurfit taking on the new role of Olivia.
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The first series started with an average of 8.2 million viewers and was Northern Ireland’s most-watched BBC drama launch on record.
But one of the biggest exports for the region has been Game of Thrones, which aired in more than 207 countries and territories and became one of the most iconic series in TV history.
While some scenes were filmed in locations such as Croatia and Spain, much of it was filmed in Northern Ireland — including at Linen Mill Studios, which is now open to guests for the new tour. A selection of sets, costumes, weapons and video clips are included in the 110,000 square foot exhibition, which cost more than £40m to create.
“Visitors are going to get what they haven’t had before as a punter. They have seen it on the screen and now they’re in it and surrounded by it, immersed in it,” Mr McElhinney said.
“It is a properly immersive experience, it’s a truly fabulous experience, people will be blown away.”
It showcases the world of Westeros and the famous sets of King’s Landing, Winterfell, Dragonstone, The Wall and others. It features props from all eight seasons of the hit show, including Jon Snow’s sword Longclaw and Sansa’s wedding dress worn at her marriage to Joffrey.
“I think people will be hugely impressed by what they see. There is such a passion for the show from all around the world. Northern Ireland has become a tourist destination for a variety of reasons, one of which is Game of Thrones. This does not only add to it, it multiplies it. From the ceasefire a whole new vision for Northern Ireland developed,” said McElhinney. 
He revealed the third and final season of Derry Girls is expected to come out in April — a show which he believes has had a positive impact on his own life as well as the lives of its millions of fans.
“I worked for years as an actor and you can be an actor and be under the radar — ‘oh, I know that face but I don’t know the name’, or ‘I have seen you in something but I don’t know what’. Game of Thrones changed all that and suddenly you were an actor, a known name. It used to be, ‘oh, it’s Barristan’, now it’s, ‘oh it’s Grandpa Joe’, which is lovely,” he said.
Filming for the latest series was delayed in 2020 due to the pandemic, but finished just before Christmas last year.
“I am delighted about the success of Derry Girls and how the last season went and I think it is going to be an absolute cracker,” he said, paying tribute to writer Lisa McGee.
“Lisa is brilliant, she is a wonderful writer. She is very funny — but she is more than that and I feel because of her this final season has a warmth and a heart and a kind of emotional clock that makes it very special. I think you are going to get that in spades,” he said.

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