Birmingham accents were once the butt of jokes. Not any more, says Joe Godwin, as he praises regional creative diversity
When it was first mooted that Channel 4 might move outside London, some London-based producers were quoted as saying: “But we’ll all spend our lives on the train – to places like Birmingham.” It was as if Channel 4 was thinking of moving to the Moon.
The facts of life are that, at present, life on a train is what a huge number of producers, writers and other TV professionals have to endure if they don’t want to, or can’t, live in London, but still want to work in the industry.
I’m writing this sitting on a train from Birmingham to Bristol. In 21st-century England, intercity train journeys not via London generally take longer, and occur on less salubrious rolling stock, than journeys to and from the UK’s capital. So, once the usual altercation about seat reservations has been resolved, it’s a good place to ponder “Whither England?”.
This prescient paragraph feels very relevant today: “Centrifugal forces are apparent in society as a whole. It is not only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that look for a separate identity. In England, too, there seems to be a growing resistance to the apparently inexorable magnetism of London.”
Not a line from a recent Ofcom report, but the introduction to a 1969 BBC paper “Broadcasting in the Seventies”, which laid out the plan for the organisation’s local radio and regional television services.
This is not to say that nothing has happened since 1969. It’s the nature of our business to feel like the regions are on a long piece of elastic. This is rather like some hilarious game-show challenge. Occasionally, a contestant stretches and pulls and makes it over the line but, all too often, as victory feels within reach, the elastic twangs them back to the start.
But it definitely feels right now like the regions are pulling hard, sure-footed on the slippery path to success.
At the beginning of April, the BBC brought England’s regions into the Nations & Regions division; and the Director-General talked about a renewed commitment to serving people outside of London at the launch of the annual plan.
Meanwhile, Channel 4 has declared its out-of-London plans, while Ofcom is keenly watching mighty English oaks from little acorns grow....
Why does this matter? It’s not a case of benevolence; I believe that it’s crucial to creative diversity, innovation and fair representation, and fundamental to the future of our public service broadcasters.
Production and content from places beyond London can be a real winner across the whole UK: Channel 4’s Derry Girls, Keeping Faith from BBC Wales and Shetland on BBC Scotland. These commissions also provide jobs, skills, and cultural impact and pride.
Regional portrayal and representation is as important as regional investment and production.
Having a world-class cast take on the roles of Birmingham gangsters, the Peaky Blinders, stomping around Small Heath and Sutton Coldfield is an incomparable experience for local audiences. And not just in the Midlands, it works across the UK.
Whereas, once upon a time, the Midlands accent was often the butt of jokes on TV, now – thanks to Peaky Blinders’ Tommy Shelby – having a Birmingham accent is cool.
The BBC is planning for the Nations & Regions division to be at the heart of what we do. More than half of the BBC’s workforce is now based outside London. And, in England, with all local and regional services joining colleagues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there’s a real opportunity to bring more scale and innovation to the job of telling the stories and hearing the voices of England.
Joe Godwin is director of the BBC Academy and of BBC Birmingham.