London, Dec. 26: Lord Attenborough, the last of the old-school British cinema impresarios, is building what the Welsh are calling Valleywood: a £300 million film studio to rival any in Hollywood.
He is thrilled with the project. “I’m 79, and I suppose I can fall off the twig in the not too distant future, but I am as driven as I ever was.” Richard Attenborough added: “And my greatest ambition is to lure Tony Hopkins back to Wales.”
He might well do so when the mighty “back-lot” of Dragon Studios, which he chairs, opens in 2004 on 840 acres. It is larger than Pinewood and Shepperton put together with sound stages equipped with cutting-edge technology and a staff of 900 technicians.
Sited at Llanilid, between Cardiff and Bridgend, the complex will rival Universal Studios, “where at the moment you can see a silly picture of me saying: ‘Welcome to Jurassic Park.’”
The idea is already attracting the attention of a production company owned by Catherine Zeta Jones, who is building a new home on the Gower Peninsular.
For Wales is turning the tables on Hollywood — or perhaps finally getting revenge for the 1941 Oscar-winner How Green Was My Valley being shot in Los Angeles, and not the Rhondda mining village in which it was set.
Lord Attenborough said it would be marvellous if Sir Anthony Hopkins, now a US citizen, returned to his homeland.
“I made five pictures with him. He played Lloyd George in Young Winston, the lawyer in Chaplin, the lead in A Bridge Too Far, and he was quite perfect in Shadowlands and Magic. He has the scope of a genius. It is tragic that he feels he doesn’t want to be here. But those are personal reasons, and one has to respect them.”
Backed by a UK financial institution, believed to be a bank, Lord Attenborough thinks he can lure filmmakers to the Valleys as he will be able to cut production costs by up to 28 per cent. He reckons a $50 million movie could shave $10 million off its budget if made in Wales.
The new studio will be Britain’s first since MGM at Elstree, where Lord Attenborough played Pinky in Brighton Rock. “That was in 1948. The studios were just incredible. They were later sold for supermarkets and housing estates.
“Pinewood and Shepperton are terrific. I’ve spent most of my life there. But they are old. They have grown like Topsy, and are not in a position to start a state-of-the-art venture.”
He recalled filming Gandhi in India. “We had a crowd of 400,000 extras. That was 20 years ago. We could do it today with 40. The world of cinema has changed fundamentally. I would say to filmmakers: would you rather trundle through all the filth and muck to reach a London studio, or come to Cardiff, where the air is fresh'”
The plan, “in an area where unemployment is terrifying from the collapse of the steel and coal industries”, was, he said, to train people “as chippies, plasterers and electricians”.
Wales was perfect for the studio, he said. “It was where my lunatic brother, Dave, began collecting fossils. I think I’m a raving idiot. I must be certified. But, you know, the idea of retirement is anathema to me. I love working, and, apart from my family, movies are my life.”
His return to the Valley will also be personal. “I made a film called The Angry Silence about a guy who stood out against a strike. He was sent to Coventry.
“In those day, the sixties, a huge part of a movie’s revenue was from miners’ clubs. But they banned it. I was livid.”
Lord Attenborough went to Aberdare to show the film at a club. “I must say I was nervous. The room was packed to the rafters. I explained why I made the film and they made me an honorary member of the union - and gave me a miner’s lamp.”
Did rival studios in the UK mind his plan' “Michael Grade, who is chairman of a company that owns both Pinewood and Shepperton, said: ‘Dick, go for it, for God’s sake’.”