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My home town of Hemel Hempstead is apparently the ‘new Hollywood’ – now I’ve seen everything

Hemel Hempstead or Hollywood... who can tell?  (PA)
Hemel Hempstead or Hollywood... who can tell? (PA)

We’re not even two months in, and already this year has offered up some fairly unexpected elements – I’ve snogged a 26-year-old, changed jobs and wept at an episode of Swedish Love is Blind. But I tell you what I definitely didn’t have on my bingo card for 2024: Hemel Hempstead being named “the new Hollywood”.

It’s been dubbed as such by the local council after it was used as a filming location for the Ricky Gervais dramedy After Life and, more recently, Spielberg and Tom Hanks’s Second World War epic Masters of the Air. Other TV series have filmed scenes locally, too, such as Grantchester and Ladhood, but Amy Greenland, filming lead officer for Dacorum Borough Council, said the Old Town had been “transformed” for Masters of the Air, with “quaint shop fronts … all turned into bombed-out streets and bomb shelters”.

“I call it Hemelwood,” she said of the town.

As someone who had the pleasure/misfortune of growing up in this particular pocket of the Hertfordshire commuter belt – which has the major accolade of boasting the second biggest magic roundabout in Britain – I read this unlikeliest of portmanteaus with a disbelief that bordered on hysteria.

Hemelwood. I can picture it now – a sweeping shot that takes it all in. Instead of the opening scene of La La Land, where the cast starts dancing during a traffic jam on an LA highway, we see trained performers chassé-ing their way down the A141 dual carriageway past the Holiday Inn. The pool party in the Hollywood Hills where Emma Stone bumps into Ryan Gosling is switched for the Everyone Active Leisure Centre – home to an indoor and outdoor pool, and host of the much sought-after Aqua Run Pool Inflatable Parties. The movie studio lot where Stone works as a barista? Swap it out for the majestic Hemel industrial estate, where I used to queue every morning in the school holidays to see if I’d be lucky enough to snag a shift pricing up clothes in the Next warehouse. Oh, the joy of the kimble tagging gun-induced RSI of an evening! It was a whirlwind of pure, unadulterated glamour.

And really, who needs the Griffith Observatory when you have Frogmore Paper Mill, the world’s oldest mechanised paper mill, featuring key exhibits such as a scale model of Port Sunlight paper machine, two Fourdrinier paper machines (from 1895 and 1902 respectively), an 1890s fire pump and a range of recycled reams? It’s currently closed to visitors after a fire in 2022 but is due to reopen to much fanfare this summer.

Parts of ‘Masters of the Air’ were shot in Hemel Hempstead (Apple TV+)
Parts of ‘Masters of the Air’ were shot in Hemel Hempstead (Apple TV+)

In fact, speaking of fires: the town has been the real-life setting of at least one action movie-worthy tale. Back in 2005, Hemel hit headlines across Europe after a massive explosion and subsequent fire at an oil storage facility off the M1. I’m not even being snarky here: news reports described the incident as the biggest of its kind in peacetime Europe. The explosion measured 2.4 on the Richter scale – which explains why I had some pretty vivid dreams of being in an earthquake that night. The “based on a true story” feature film is just begging to be made, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the only man who saw it coming – and the only man who can douse the flames.

And really, who needs the Griffith Observatory when you have Frogmore Paper Mill, the world’s oldest mechanised paper mill?

But back to reality. The irony is that Hemel does make an excellent filming location for one very good reason: its very ordinariness is its selling point. Not every film or series needs extravagantly expansive Lord of the Rings-style landscapes à la New Zealand, or the vast desertscapes of Dune. Plenty of our favourite shows are set in unremarkable places – that’s part of the charm. After all, After Life’s main character, Tony Johnson, couldn’t very well roll his eyes at the banality of the stories he’s forced to cover as a reporter for the local rag if he was based in some sun-bleached slice of the US, could he?

‘La La Land’ might have looked a little different if set in the Hertfordshire commuter belt (Lionsgate Films)
‘La La Land’ might have looked a little different if set in the Hertfordshire commuter belt (Lionsgate Films)

And, proving that people will do just about anything if it’s related to this business we call show, Hemel’s brief time in the spotlight has even attracted tourists to the area, say local businesses. “We’ve had quite a lot of people say they’ve come to visit after seeing After Life, from as far as Ireland, Germany and America,” Sue Heaslip, who works at the Old Town’s Tea Tree tearooms, told the BBC. I felt, against all odds, a twinge of pride upon reading that. I just hope Sue’s pointing them in the direction of the leisure centre. And Frogmore Paper Mill. I wouldn’t want them to miss out on Hemelwood’s best and brightest attractions…