FOR much of Bradford’s history it has been known as the city of wool, its staple industry on which its original wealth was built.

Some 200 years after its first textile mills were producing worsted cloth and other woollen goods, Bradford became the world’s first UNESCO City of Film, exploiting technology not invented until the late 19th century.

The award on June 9, 2009 was a surprise to many whose view of Bradford was shaped by its industrial heritage. One imagined that places such as Los Angeles, Venice or Cannes with a global film profile might have been the preferred choice, but the award came to Bradford. And it came from the legacy of its buildings, people and innovations.

This UNESCO title bestows international recognition on Bradford as a world centre for film because of its national museum, its rich film heritage, its movie and TV locations and its many celebrations of the moving image through film festivals. The city has been at the forefront of film technology from the 1890s when pioneers showed one of the first-ever films in a cinema at the People’s Palace on the very site when in 1983 the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (now National Science and Media Museum) opened.

In 1897 an early local innovator in cinematography, Richard Appleton, accepted a challenge from the Bradford Daily Argus to bring back the first newsreel of an outside event for same day public showing, repeated the rest of the week. It was Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession in London. This had never been done before in Britain. At the final showing in Forster Square an estimated 10,000 spectators are reported to have seen the newsreel.

Some 80 years later, the new museum, exploring the art and science of the image, had Europe’s first IMAX cinema and the country’s largest cinema screen. IMAX, developed in 1970s America, presents high-resolution films shown in theatres with very large screens (seven storeys high) and steep seating, offering an immersive experience with high quality sound.

From the 1950s Bradford developed a reputation as an ideal location for films of all types. The trendsetter was Room at the Top in 1959, putting both Bradford and Bingley-born author John Braine on the map. It was voted Best British film of 1959 by BAFTA. It won two Oscars (Simone Signoret for Best Actress and Neil Paterson for Adapted Screenplay) and four other nominations, including Laurence Harvey in the lead role.

Both the film and book broke new ground; aiming for social realism. Unusually, it was filmed mainly on location, in Bradford, Bingley, Halifax and Keighley, the first of at least 50 major films directly or indirectly connected with Bradford over the next 60 years. Four years later Billy Liar was another important film in this British New Wave reflecting working-class life for the post-war generation - so-called ‘kitchen sink drama’. Billy Liar is set in an imaginary industrial town in Yorkshire, generally associated with Bradford, which provided many of the locations. Scenes take place at Undercliffe Cemetery, Bolton Woods quarries, the Mecca ballroom on Manningham Lane and suburban Baildon. Directed by John Schlesinger, it had six BAFTA nominations in 1964, including best actor (Tom Courtenay), actress (Julie Christie) and best British film.

Another notable film The Dresser (1983) was not only filmed in Bradford, but explicitly set in the city. As a struggling theatre company in wartime Britain embarks on a provincial tour, the Alhambra is the place where it is about to stage King Lear. The film stars Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney, both BAFTA nominated.

Haworth has attracted films such as Wuthering Heights and The Railway Children and Ilkley was the main location for A Private Function, written by Alan Bennett and starring Michael Palin and Maggie Smith. Several Monty Python sketches were filmed around the district, including Lister Park for The Meaning of Life.

Filming for major TV series has often made use of the Bradford district; Emmerdale used Esholt from 1975-1998 and more recently, Peaky Blinders filmed in locations including Little Germany and Gentleman Jack in Saltaire.

As well as iconic film locations, Bradford has encouraged over the years the development of many national figures in film. The Northern School of Drama, using Bradford Civic, opened in 1945 and for nearly 10 years nurtured local talent such as Shipley-born Tony Richardson (director of Oscar-winning Tom Jones in 1963), Bradford-raised Billie Whitelaw (star of films such as Charlie Bubbles in 1967) and Bradford-born Bernard Hepton (star of many vintage TV dramas such as Smiley’s People).

Since then other figures have emerged such as Keighley’s Simon Beaufoy, who won an Oscar for writing Slumdog Millionaire.

A significant figure for the City of Film award is Bradford-born film producer Steve Abbott. On the day he qualified as an accountant, he found himself interviewed for a job with Handmade Films, set up by ex-Beatle George Harrison to rescue Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Within 18 months Steve was joint business manager for the Pythons. With them he founded Prominent Features, which made films such as A Fish Called Wanda and and Brassed Off, which he also produced.

In 2002 he was appointed chairman of Screen Yorkshire and he led the bid for Bradford to become the world’s first UNESO City of Film. Supported by David Wilson, Bradford City of Film director, Abbott was its chairman for a decade. In 2018 alone, 35 film and TV productions were made in and around the city, including Peaky Blinders, Victoria and The ABC Murders.

The award reflects past achievements but also enables future developments. It has enabled Bradford to team up with Qingdao, City of Film in China, home to the world’s fastest growing cinema industry. Here Bradford became the first European city to open a film office; this partnership has prompted collaboration in producing a modernised version of Jane Eyre, with the Charlotte Bronte classic almost as popular in China as in the UK.

* Martin Greenwood’s book Every Day Bradford provides a story for each day of the year about people, places and events from Bradford’s history. It is available online from Amazon and Waterstones and bookshops including Salts Mill.