TV producers put down roots in movies

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TERN Television, the independent production company behind green-fingered institution The Beechgrove Garden, is sticking a toe into the volatile world of movie-making.

The company, which also produces Scottish editions of Songs of Praise, is planning to make its first low-budget feature this summer after teaming up with Glasgow film-maker Arabella Croft on a number of projects.

Croft, who runs Three Sisters Films, has come to prominence with her short film work, notably Out of the Cold and TATTOO, which was nominated for a Bafta award and was the runner-up best British short film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival last year.

Tern’s evolution beyond God and gardening is being driven by Harry Bell, recruited by the Aberdeen-based producer two years ago to set up a Glasgow office which has helped increase group turnover from 1.4m to almost 2m in the 12 months to March. Bell said: "Film is certainly an area that we have been hoping to move into. We have to start quite small and nurture new scripts and new writers."

The company can also fall back on advice from Malcolm Ritchie, the former chief operating officer of PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, who advises Tern in a non-executive capacity.

Ritchie, who helped to raise backing for box-office hit Four Weddings and a Funeral, has returned to Scotland to raise a new film fund to finance a raft of low budget Scottish movies. He is also one of the new members of the Scottish Screen board - the agency that distributes 3m of Lottery funds to film-makers every year.

When Tern set up a Glasgow office two years ago, the plan was for it to break even in three years, but so far it has yet to turn in an annual loss, giving it funds to reinvest in areas such as drama earlier than anticipated.

Founded in 1988, Tern has largely been known for The Beechgrove Garden, which draws 200,000 viewers on BBC Scotland and this year celebrates its 25th anniversary. A long-running wrangle with BBC Scotland over Beechgrove’s intellectual property rights appears to have been settled and a set of videos and DVDs will be released to capitalise on the milestone this autumn.

Gwyneth Hardy, who founded the company with her husband David Strachan, said Tern flagged up the celebration by building the centrepiece exhibit at the recent Gardening Scotland event.

Tern also remains interested in setting up a Beechgrove visitor centre at the former Cherrybank Garden & Whisky Heritage Centre outside Perth, which has been earmarked to become Scotland’s national garden attraction. Of the film project, Hardy added: "It is a hugely exciting new avenue for us."

The script for Croft’s feature, Anniversary, centres on the story of four women who go inter-railing together at the age of 20, only to be reunited on another road trip into eastern Europe 20 years later following the death of a friend.

Scotland has been craving its next big cinema hit ever since Trainspotting a decade ago, but the long-term speculative investment required to make movies is often a step too far for small, independent producers. Tern is taking things slowly at first and plans to film Anniversary next month on a budget of just 250,000.

Croft said: "The Holy Grail for most companies is to do drama. It earns you a lot of kudos and weight if you can pull off a series or a feature film. I think they [Tern] are ready to do that and it is a completely sensible move for them.

"For me, it is easier to go to a company with an established reputation and work under its umbrella. We want to go to Europe with a documentary-sized crew and four actors to film it on the hoof on digital video, but hopefully we can give it really good production values."

Croft has experience of tight budgets after working as an assistant producer on Canary Wharf, the little-remembered soap opera on cable channel Live TV. The series was produced for 8,000 an episode.

Anniversary was awarded a script development grant from Scottish Screen and Croft is hopeful of another to aid the production, as well as help from the Glasgow Film Office.

A second project, to turn a book on Croft’s uncle, Duncan Pryde, into a film, is also in the pipeline. Pryde, a Scot who emigrated to northern Canada to become a fur trapper, later became the first Eskimo member of parliament and a celebrated leader of Inuit society.

The diversification comes at a busy time for Tern. Weed It and Reap, a gardening and property makeover show, begins airing on digital channel UK Style later this month and Chancers, a six-part documentary series for BBC Scotland on rehabilitating young offenders, will head its autumn schedule this year.

Bell, who helped set up Granada’s Men & Motors channel before editing This Morning, is waiting to hear whether Mike Reid Under Par, in which the ex-Eastenders actor plays a round of golf at some of Scotland’s best courses, has been re-commissioned by Discovery.