The Baratheon fleet is approaching King’s Landing, and I’ve been tasked with finding the Pyromancer’s stash of wildfire for our defence. The clock is ticking – I’ve 60 minutes to find it and defeat the incoming rebel forces, my sacred duty as a Gold Cloak. When the clues have been cracked and the opponents obliterated, the pyromancer’s heavy lab door opens to a crisp spring day in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
“If we’re talking Northern Ireland in 2019, it has to be about Game of Thrones,” says Andrew McFarland, the owner of the ‘GOT to Escape’ attraction in the city centre; before this, his last business was a petrol station outside of Armagh. “This is my first creative venture. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into it.”
The escape room is based on a HBO-endorsed escape room in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Now five months old, it’s hitting its peak, and had its busiest weekends as season eight of the world-dominating series begins. From stag dos via Derry to Valeryian-speaking Toronto couples, it represents an ever-evolving boom in Game of Thrones-related tourism.
HBO began filming in Northern Ireland in 2011, choosing the country as its base from a shortlist of European locations. The tan turrets of King’s Landing bask in Croatian sun, and the Dothraki tribes ride through Maltese planes, but Northern Ireland has remained the primary spot for some of GoT’s most iconic scenes.
The Stark home of Winterfell is the ancient Castle Ward and leafy Tollymore forest, the craggy shores of the Iron Islands set against Ballintoy Harbour, while Gendry and Arya flee King’s Landing under the Antrim Dark Hedges. Paint Hall Studios in Belfast’s docks is the show’s base for indoor scenes. The film and TV industry is growing exponentially in NI, with Line of Duty, Derry Girls, The Fall, and Marcella all filming there.
“When people see the rugged landscape, they’re always gobsmacked by how little CGI is actually used,” says Dorothy Nealon, the business development manager for the Game of Thrones Tours. The tour company operates two main routes, and is adding another that includes the final season’s locations. It launched five years ago with one 25 seater coach operating three times a week; but during peak season when the series have kicked off, they’ve had 25 coaches a week with an average of 40 people per coach. “We are expecting 2019 to be even busier with the hype around the final season of the show.”
With season eight, the tour has been “inundated”, selling out each weekend. Elsewhere, artists and traders champion both the show and heritage artistry – there’s a direwolf painting workshop, a GOT-themed tapestry made from Belfast linen that spans larger than the Bayeaux visited by over 150,000 people, and you can try on a replica of Cersei’s crown at Ballymena’s Steensons jewellers. According to Tourism Ireland, GoT-related tourism contributes £30m a year to the local economy.
Through this fruitful, symbiotic relationship, Northern Ireland has been a welcoming and vibrant home for the show’s major cast and crew for the last near-decade. Local people delight in their brief encounters and in-the-wild spots of the series’ most famous faces. Jamie Lannister dining alone at the popular Italian Il Pirata in Ballyhackamore (a rapidly gentrifying suburb of the capital), while noble knight Brienne of Tarth shops for sneakers in the Belfast branch of Size. The Hound has been out dancing at a local trance rave, Missandei spotted at yoga, and Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton faced off in pool games at Lavery’s bar. “We’ve had some cast members join us on private tours,” adds Nealon, “Although I can’t tell you who!”
“The number of people I’ve had that come in and play who are joiners, set designers, costumers, extras – everybody’s getting a turn,” observes McFarland. “It’s amazing that people are proud to be staying in this country – taking that income, using it to come here and play a GoT escape room, or spending it in Muriel’s bar down the street there.”
Being from Northern Ireland, it becomes a bit of a game to spot people you know in the background of scenes – a schoolmate as an archer in the Battle of Blackwater, a second cousin in the Renley Baratheon rebel camps. Though many remain under strict NDAs, the spirit of the series shines through in the anecdotes extras can share. “I’ve been trained up in sword work and archery,” says Gary Whelan, who’s been a wildling and a foot soldier, and has sustained multiple injuries over the show’s course – splinters in eyes, a torn hamstring, but all taken in stride. “They prepared us for Battle of the Bastards (season six, episode nine) by playing 50 vs 50 rugby in the Titanic Studio car park for hours.”
There’s a distinct strain of Northern Irish grit and love of the craic that’s played out across gruelling shoots and intense work days, with up to 500 extras in its biggest scenes and over 600 crewmembers. “One day I was making dead bodies out of chicken wire, another I was helping to make purses for Winterfell,” says Matthew Hamill, who worked in the props department while still a student in the early seasons.
“Doing extra work, I’ve noticed more and more notifications for work come through since GoT started,” says Dave Burns, a nobleman in Tyrion’s trial during season three. “I think a large part of the industry boom is down to the local community here. In lengthy shoots, there’s no easier going bunch!”
“You may be tackling a portaloo with a sodden woollen dress during a night shoot, but you’re also making friends for life,” says Sara Roberts, an extra in multiple seasons. From all the former cast and crew I speak to, the sense of camaraderie is palpable. Would Game of Thrones have pulled off some of its most stunning scene feats without the frenetic NI spirit?
Timothy Gibbons, who originally auditioned for the role of Joffrey and later bagged the part of Willem Lannister in season three, recalls: “I got the call for the part when I was on holiday and they flew me back to Belfast for the shooting, which made 15-year-old me feel like a proper wee superstar! My 20 seconds of fame is a party trick,that in all honesty, I’ve tried using for a free drink a few times.”
“It’s great to feel like we have all been part of something so international in its impact and fanbase, but so close to home too,” Gibbons adds.
The question remains whether international interest in Northern Ireland will live on now we finally know the fate of the Seven Kingdoms, but both the network and locals seem hopeful. A prequel spinoff series by HBO is in production now in NI, an opportunity to engage fans for another decade. The network is also launching the Game of Thrones Legacy project, with four locations and sets becoming permanent attractions of a “scale and scope bigger than anything the public has ever seen” – the first will open in 2020. McFarland and Nealon both point to the sustained popularity of Lord of the Rings tours and ephemera in New Zealand as testament to an iconic show’s enduring iconography.
In recent times, Northern Ireland has been characterised in the media by the threat of Brexit and a fractured political landscape, the lack of a functioning government and the amorphous threat of dissident activity. In many ways, Northern Ireland remains in stasis – since Stormont collapsed over two years ago, no legislation has been passed.
Yet, the vibrancy of Game of Thrones and the industries it has invigorated offers a sense of hope for its future. The pop culture-capturing giant owes as much to NI as the wee country owes to it. “The show has brought so many people together,” adds Roberts. “It’s great for Northern Ireland to be known for something other than the Troubles – here’s hoping that continues.”