Graeme Thompson: Our Friend in the North

Graeme Thompson: Our Friend in the North

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Every now and again, a show comes along to define the times. The Likely Lads examined the tensions resulting from a new generation of educated, working-class people striving for middle-class lifestyles in a changing North East landscape.

Now comes a programme to cele­brate the role of artists and designers in a world increasingly obsessed with science and engineering.

Inventors! is a new, interactive TV format, where viewers’ weird and wonderful inventions are proto­typed by a telegenic young inventor working with top technologists.

Of course, it hasn’t been broadcast yet. Or, indeed, commissioned. That’s because it only occurred to me a few days ago, when I visited an event in Sunderland that brought together more than 400 inventors of all ages.

We were treated to the work of a primary school pupil who had created a pair of glasses that would let him see what was happening behind his back.

Then, there was the Liftolator, a house built to withstand bombs and pestilence in the event of a world war, and a device to shelter ladybirds during rainstorms.

A pop-up gallery was created in the centre of Sunderland to showcase these and other wonders orchestrated by inventor and artist Dominic Wilcox. He has been working with pioneering arts organisation The Cultural Spring to manufacture ideas dreamed up by imaginative members of the public.

Among the hundreds of visitors to the exhibition was Sir Peter Bazalgette. He was fascinated by the Liftolator, the brainchild of 11-year-old Charlotte Scott. Charlotte’s concept of a home and a pre-planted vegetable garden on a hydraulic platform, inside a protective glass dome, was modelled by Erin Dickson at FabLab Sunderland, a thrilling fusion of arts, design, engineering and science.

It’s a theme that the five North East universities will be exploring as part of a new £3m research project called the North East Fuse.

At a time when many schools are cutting their arts, crafts and performance provision in order to fall in line with league-table criteria and the focus on the new English Baccalaureate, Bazalgette is passionate about the importance of creativity in science, technology and engineering.

We met dozens of youngsters ­busying themselves drawing and modelling new inventions. These included a boy creating a tropical, palm-tree-lined island in the mouth of the River Wear as a tourist destination.

And it got me thinking. The Inventors! format is not simply great television. It’s also topical.

Right now, the creative industries are Britain’s boom sector, expanding at a rate of 9% a year – far faster than the wider UK economy. Music, film, TV, visual effects, computer games, crafts and publishing are worth more than £84bn to the country.

And yet the latest statistics from the DCMS don’t seem to have registered with their Whitehall neighbours, the Department for Education – which has been famously dismissive of the arts and humanities.

Sparing the blushes of the RTS, the charity this month launched its third year of bursaries to encourage students to apply for university courses in TV and related media.

Speaking of talent, if I were pitching my programme idea, I would point out that our star inventor, Wilcox, has already done some TV. He chalked up a memorable appearance on the Late Show in the US.

His stained-glass, driverless car of the future has been packing them in at the National Glass Centre in his home city of Sunderland.

And he can easily find his way to any television studio, because he’s invented a rather stylish pair of brogues with in-built GPS. So there you have it: Inventors!, a TV phenomenon. Commissioners, please form an orderly queue.

Graeme Thompson is Chair of the RTS Education Committee and Dean of Arts, Design and Media at the University of Sunderland.