IF the walls of the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow could talk, they would certainly have some interesting stories to tell.

Over the decades, the much-beloved building – famed for its distinctive red sandstone facade and palatial entrance piazza – has operated in many guises, variously used as an exhibition space, concert venue, museum of transport and an arena for world-class sporting events.

It has welcomed such greats as Jerry Lee Lewis, Ella Fitzgerald, Elton John and The Kinks. In 1955, the US superstar evangelist Billy Graham preached there as part of his six-week crusade, while many Glaswegians will fondly remember trips to the annual carnival and visiting circus.

READ MORE: The Kelvin Hall: A Glasgow landmark – highlights through history

Now comes another incarnation: a TV and film studio. As part of £11.9million plans announced last month, the goal is for the Kelvin Hall to become a Scottish hub for big-budget productions being made for the BBC, ITV, Sky, Channel 4 and Netflix.

 

Testing the water for this latest mantle, part of the historic interior was used to house a purpose-built set for the filming of new prison drama Screw, which began airing on Thursday evening.

The six-part series, produced by STV Studios for Channel 4, stars Nina Sosanya from W1A, Last Tango in Halifax and His Dark Materials, alongside Derry Girls actor Jamie-Lee O’Donnell. It was shot last summer and is billed as “darkly comic, refreshingly absurd and violently shocking”.

How do you turn one of Glasgow’s most famous landmarks into a three-storey gaol? Dave Arrowsmith is the man to ask. As the production designer on Screw, he helped mastermind the transformation of the Kelvin Hall into the fictional Long Marsh Prison.

Glasgow Times: Behind the scenes during filming of drama series Screw at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. Picture: STV Studios/Channel 4Behind the scenes during filming of drama series Screw at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. Picture: STV Studios/Channel 4

When the project was mooted in 2020, Arrowsmith initially began scouting locations within real prisons. It soon became apparent that wouldn’t work for Screw. “I have done quite a few shows over the last 30 years that involve prisons, but generally it is a small part of a TV show,” he explains.

“We go into a jail for a week, use it as a location for a few scenes, then come away. But Screw was different because the jail is one of the main characters in the show – it is the main setting.

“We looked at Peterhead and all the other prisons around Scotland we could get into, but because we needed so much time to film, we decided to do it as a build. Then the hunt began for a space to build it in.”

This was something Glasgow-based Arrowsmith has had some past experience in doing. “I was involved in Outlander and setting that up. We set the studio up for that job because there wasn’t a studio in Scotland.”

He was delighted when the Kelvin Hall was chosen as a de facto studio space for filming Screw. “I remember it from way back in the day when my kids were little and we used to go to the transport museum,” says Arrowsmith. “It is a fantastic space.”

Glasgow Times: Actor Jack Bardoe shoots a scene during filming of drama series Screw at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. Picture: STV Studios/Channel 4Actor Jack Bardoe shoots a scene during filming of drama series Screw at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. Picture: STV Studios/Channel 4

Over the years, his role as a production designer has seen him garner an encyclopaedic knowledge of many former and existing prisons around the UK and Ireland.

“We did a prison on Cold Feet,” he recalls. “There was a series with Dougray Scott called Father & Son and part of that was set in a prison. The Lakes was another. There was a stage where I did prisons and police stations over and over again.

“For Deadwater Fell we did a prison. We built that in The Pyramid church in Anderston. That was a little prison cell and corridor – we did that in the church hall. For Outlander we used Blackness Castle and filmed the interiors in the studio.”

Arrowsmith drew on all this when working on Screw’s set design. “It was an amalgamation of loads of prisons,” he confirms. “We designed it in terms of the story, the stage directions and the scripts.

"I have shot in Strangeways before. I haven’t shot in Barlinnie, but I have visited. Originally, we thought about shooting in Peterhead, but the cells were too small. We ended up using it for the exteriors.

“So, it is a combination of Strangeways, Peterhead, an old Oxford prison I know, a couple of prisons in Dublin I have shot at in the past – basically any old Victorian prison because they are all fairly similar in terms of layout.”

As production designer, Arrowsmith has to oversee myriad moving parts. “I am responsible for designing the look and feel of the show,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter whether it is period, modern or sci-fi, I get the script from the director and the writer, then interpret that.

Glasgow Times: Jamie-Lee O’Donnell and Nina Sosanya in Screw. Picture: STV Studios/Channel 4Jamie-Lee O’Donnell and Nina Sosanya in Screw. Picture: STV Studios/Channel 4

"That might be finding locations and dressing them, or in the case of Screw, creating the whole prison from scratch. I am responsible for everything including special effects, cars, set builds, set dressing, graphics – anything you see on the screen, other than the actors and the costumes, is my job.”

Countless hours of research and painstaking detail went into the set for Screw. “My brief was to try and create something that was contemporary but had an old-fashioned feel to it,” he says.

“We wanted it to be Victorian – we didn’t want to do a modern prison. The story is about the challenges involved in what is effectively a small city inside the prison. It is its own ecosystem, with the prisoners and the guards and the relationships.”

Building the set inside the Kelvin Hall, says Arrowsmith, proved a gargantuan undertaking. “We put a concrete floor down over Christmas 2020 and then started the scaffolding and construction metalwork at the end of January/beginning of February 2021,” he says.

“We began filming three months later – it was around a 12 or 14-week build. There was between 50 and 60 people involved at some points. It was frenetic.”

No aspect was overlooked, right down to the minute detail of the balcony railings and locks on the prison cell doors. “We did it for real,” says Arrowsmith. “All the metalwork is real. We used all the local trades in Glasgow. The old shipbuilding guys – they did the metalwork.

"We had local plasterers come in and they plastered the whole set. Local lino and flooring guys. We made all the door locks and handles – everything – from scratch and it was all done in Glasgow which was great.”

What were the biggest challenges working on Screw? “This one was unusual,” he says. “I have built some big sets in my time working on American shows, like The Musketeers and Outlander, which are period dramas and Doctor Who, which is sci-fi.

Glasgow Times: A scene from drama series Screw filmed at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. Picture: STV Studios/Channel 4A scene from drama series Screw filmed at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. Picture: STV Studios/Channel 4

"Structurally, the set for Screw was quite a challenge because it was three storeys – a ground floor and two storeys with the balconies. The engineering side of it was quite complicated in terms of weight-loading and the height.

“We oversized it. Everything we do in film and TV is slightly bigger than it is in reality just so we can get the cameras in. The challenge was making it look real, safe, structurally sound and giving us that extra size.

"We introduced a new system I haven’t done before using sliding walls. All the cells had these secret walls that slide open allowing you to get the cameras and cranes in. You couldn’t do that on location.”

Sarah Brown, creative director of drama for STV Studios and executive producer of Screw, worked closely with Bafta-nominated writer Rob Williams, whose past credits include The Victim and Killing Eve, in developing the new TV series.

“We had made The Victim together for the BBC,” she says. “While we were making that we chatted about what we might want to do together next.

“I knew Rob had always been interested in prisons and volunteered in prisons over many years and it was a real passion subject for him. I said, ‘Why don’t we find a way for you to write in that area?’

“The challenge was to find an idea that didn’t feel as though we were re-treading old ground because there have been lots of other prison shows. What we realised, though, was that there had never been a UK show focusing on the prison officers.

Glasgow Times: Behind the scenes during filming of drama series Screw at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. Picture: STV Studios/Channel 4Behind the scenes during filming of drama series Screw at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. Picture: STV Studios/Channel 4

“All the other public servants, like police officers and firefighters and paramedics, had all had their own shows, but prison officers never had. That felt like an interesting way into the subject.”

Williams, she says, had strong ideas about the direction the drama should take. “The challenge was how we did that in a way that doesn’t feel like a bleak watch,” says Brown. “Prison dramas can sometimes feel very dark and not hugely entertaining. One of the things Rob feels is that the prison he saw has never been represented.

"The danger, darkness and violence, all that exists, but what he had never seen depicted was the humour that he saw so much of, the humanity and what he calls ‘the fellowship’ between prisoners.

“It felt like there was an opportunity to do something in a precinct that has always held fascination for the audience but do it in a way that felt like an unusual, distinctive and authentic take on that world. One that will entertain the audience. It is a lot funnier than you might imagine.

“The humour fits alongside some big issues and dark storylines but somehow it melds in a truthful way. What I hope is that people will be entertained by it but that it will also take them to some thought-provoking and dark places they didn’t know they wanted to go.”

Like many involved in the project, Brown felt a sense of familiarity and fondness when they chose to film Screw at the Kelvin Hall. “I used to go to the carnival every Christmas in that space,” she says. “It is an iconic building and a real landmark in Glasgow. When we got the green light from Channel 4, we wanted to make it in Scotland – that was a real commitment.”

Glasgow Times: Jamie-Lee O’Donnell and Asheq Akhtar in Screw filmed at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. Picture: STV Studios/Channel 4Jamie-Lee O’Donnell and Asheq Akhtar in Screw filmed at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. Picture: STV Studios/Channel 4

With the Kelvin Hall confirmed, Screw’s producer Brian Kaczynski began devising a masterplan. As well as the set build overseen by Dave Arrowsmith, there were other more practical elements to consider.

“We had to create our own studio space from nothing,” says Brown. “Brian, who has an amazing logistical brain, created what is almost like a festival site with Portakabins for our cast instead of the trailers which we would normally use.

"The honey wagons for toilets we created in the black box at the Kelvin Hall. There was a costume and make-up area. We basically created a mini studio from an empty space. It worked brilliantly.”

Brown, a graduate of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, joined STV Studios in 2014. She has previously worked on big-name dramas such as Elizabeth Is Missing and The Victim, both of which aired on BBC. How did Screw compare to past projects?

“It was a huge undertaking,” she says. “On The Victim we built our courtroom set but this is on a completely different scale. Dave is such a genius and has done a phenomenal job because it was a logistical and practical challenge to create a three-storey set that is believable and doesn’t look like TV land.

"It is certainly the biggest thing I have made. I have worked on small sets before. Elizabeth Is Missing was all location and we didn’t build any sets for that.”

The newly unveiled plans for the film and broadcast hub at the Kelvin Hall, co-funded by Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Government, will house a 10,500 square foot studio and cater to a wide array of entertainment shows across multiple genres.

Glasgow Times: The cast of Screw filmed at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. Pictures: STV Studios/Channel 4The cast of Screw filmed at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow. Pictures: STV Studios/Channel 4

BBC Studioworks, the commercial arm of the BBC which provides studios and post-production services to the TV industry, will be the tenant operator of the facility.

It is hoped that the space can play a key role in further developing the industry as a whole in Glasgow, with the city recently welcoming several major movie productions, including The Batman, Indiana Jones 5, The Flash and Batgirl.

Over the past two decades, the sector has boosted the local economy by £350 million, bringing in jobs and opportunities for residents. When the hub was announced, Susan Aitken, leader of Glasgow City Council, described it as “one of our most important sectors as our economy recovers from Covid-19”.

The set used for Screw remains in place at the Kelvin Hall – currently mothballed – with the series makers quietly optimistic it could return for a second run. “The lights have been taken away because they were hired, but they can be put back in should we make another series,” says Brown. “All the props are stored there.

“It is basically ready to come back to life again should we get a recommission which, obviously, we won’t know for a little while.” And if they do get the nod for series two? “We can get back up and running reasonably fast because we don’t need to build the set.”

Brown is buoyed by the number of high-calibre projects to have been filmed here in recent times. “It is brilliant to see how much good work is coming to Scotland,” she says. “It is great for the industry because we have so much talent, both in front and behind the camera.

“If Screw comes back that will be an important thing for the industry because it will be a returning series which is what we need to be sustainable as an industry. People know they have a job next year and they can pay their mortgage and not have to go abroad to work.

“One of my main goals is to get a returning series out of Scotland. It is so important to the ecosystem of the industry.”

Screw continues on Channel 4, Thursdays, 9pm. The series is available to stream on All 4