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Gunshots rang out across Langa this week, accompanied by thick tendrils of smoke curling towards the sky, while flames crackled along the ground.
A police car screeched through the gates of an empty lot, trailing dust behind it. The township was on fire.
But the bullets were blanks, the flames controlled and the police were actors – in Strike Back, the hit US television series being filmed here.
Now in its second season (third if you count the original UK version), the series has always relied on SA to provide a backdrop to its gritty action. And Langa is the latest location for a series that has filmed and transformed every corner of SA – whether it’s passing off a town hall in Durban as a hotel in India, or a stretch of Western Cape countryside as a slice of Eastern Europe.
“It’s like the Wild West with an ocean,” lead actor Philip Winchester said of Cape Town this week.
Winchester plays the lead role of Sergeant Michael Stonebridge, a former British Special Forces soldier assigned to Section 20, a secret branch of MI6. In the first season he is teamed up with a select group of operatives and tasked with trying to stop Latif, a Pakistani terrorist, who is plotting “Project Dawn”.
The HBO series, screened on Cinemax in the US and on Sky1 in the UK, has everything we have come to expect from the US network; nudity and sex are bundled with an abundance of violence, delivering an action-intense escapade through the world of counter-terrorism. And all this has been taking place right here in SA.
“South Africa has great scenery and skilled crew,” said producer Bill Shephard. “That’s what makes it such an attractive option to shoot over here.”
The Strike Back team had set up a labyrinth of trailers in the grounds of the Langa Sports Centre for the week. The area around the centre was transformed into a hub of activity as white shuttle buses bustled film crews to and from the set. According to Shephard, renting the facility is just one of the ways they are contributing to the local community.
“We are also hiring people from Langa to make up the crowds,” he said. “There is a lot of excitement around the set.”
Children and adults were milling around outside the film set, or even sneaking in to watch the action as it roared into life with a burst of gunfire.
“We get to do a lot of amazing stunts here in South Africa, which we may not have been able to do elsewhere,” said Winchester, after coming off a set where he was firing a shotgun. “We are doing handbrake turns on Long Street and stunts on the N2.”
But the local flavour doesn’t only come in the form of location; SA actress Natalie Becker is starring in the upcoming second season.
Until five years ago Becker was a popular TV and radio personality. She moved into acting and has landed a string of roles, recently appearing in The Deal, The Scorpion King: Rise of a Warrior, and Disgrace.
But this is her first series, and she says it’s been “a phenomenal experience”.
“I learnt how to put together, shoot and reload six different guns,” she said.
he first season of Strike Back premieres locally on M-Net on June 15 at 9.30pm.