Graeme Thompson explores how television production can benefit a local community
We are in the wintry Northumberland countryside to celebrate Burns Night with friends on the lakeside at Kielder Water – a vast man-made reservoir surrounded by dense forest. Surprisingly, the chatter is not about the imminent delights of haggis, bagpipes and single malt, or the excitement of gathering beneath the darkest skies in Northern Europe – so prized by stargazers.
No, all the talk is of another star, Brenda Blethyn. Or, more precisely, her character in ITV’s long-running police drama Vera. The locals are thrilled that Brenda came to Kielder to shoot the last episode in the current series. The programme is due for broadcast the following night.
Stories abound of where the actors and crew filmed, ate and drank – and who met who and what they were like. Brenda is universally described as lovely. And they point across to the dam where the body was found in Vera’s Kielder murder mystery.
Northumberland has a healthy visitor economy and TV shows such as Vera, which attracts a consolidated audience of more than 8 million viewers, are important drivers of tourism.
As every tour guide here will tell you, visitors love to hang out in film and TV locations. In Northumberland, you can see Harry Potter’s Hogwarts (Alnwick Castle) and coastal vistas beloved of movie-makers (Elizabeth, Transformers), plus 1960s-set TV whodunnits such as Inspector George Gently.
Between them, the titular stars of Vera and George Gently (Martin Shaw) deserve the freedom of every holiday park and B&B in the county.
These shows are not just a hit in the UK but are broadcast across the world – and attract hordes of tourists to the North East from as far afield as New Zealand, the US and Asia.
Sadly, Inspector Gently no longer feels the collars of 1960s villains amid the North East’s heritage landscape. Shaw and writer Peter Flannery ensured a rather permanent exit for the character at the end of 25 episodes and eight seasons on BBC One. Location tour operators are still in mourning.
Disappointment also for Gently’s North East-based crew. But at least they know the Vera unit will be back filming later this year for season 9. And CBBC’s Tyneside-set The Dumping Ground continues to provide work for local crew and actors as the UK’s most popular children’s drama.
These long-established shows illustrate how the North East remains heavily dependent on the big producers and broadcasters. We haven’t yet grown a local production company capable of rattling the networks and producing to scale. So, we have to be more inventive than most when it comes to developing talent and ideas.
Take, for instance, local cinema, which is not only screening films, but making them. The Tyneside Cinema is a delightful art deco independent filmhouse tucked away behind Newcastle’s busiest shopping street.
As well as showing mainstream and art-house movies, it also runs a thriving film-making facility that brings young talent to work alongside experienced producers and crew.
Most recently, through its work as the lead organisation for Random Acts, co-financed by Arts Council England, the team at Tyneside Cinema has enabled a new generation of young artists to develop and produce original work for Channel 4.
The results have been outstanding – not just in terms of the quality of the films, but also in showcasing the fresh ideas and narratives of the diverse young talent that made them.
In the past 12 months, Tyneside Cinema has led on the commissioning, development and production of 24 short films. They all feature on Channel 4’s Random Acts website.
Five of them were also broadcast on the channel. It’s a priceless calling card and foot in the door for the aspiring creatives.
And, who knows? In a few years, the good people of Kielder could be singing the praises of a new generation of performers and storytellers stopping by to capture their glorious location.
Graeme Thompson is Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of Sunderland and Chair of the RTS Education Committee.