Despite a tough 2023, Sarah McCaffrey finds much to feel optimistic about as she surveys Northern Ireland’s growing screen sector
It is more than 10 years since I joined the RTS and became part of the local Northern Ireland Committee. During that time, we have set up the Student Television Awards – which will celebrate their 11th year in 2024 – and the first RTS Futures group outside of London, of which I was very proud.
I was also part of the team that set up the Northern Ireland Programme Awards to highlight the wonderful achievements of our vibrant film and TV industries – organising and chairing these awards in 2017 was a treasured career high.
So I feel truly honoured to have been asked to chair RTS NI. I have big boots to fill, taking over from the remarkable Fiona Campbell. Fiona has been so inspirational and generous with her time, sharing her knowledge with many young people who aspire to careers in the creative industries, and I thank Fiona for her wonderful leadership in recent years.
Fortunately, she has stayed on the committee, so we can continue to benefit from her expertise as we look at the ways that we can showcase the incredible talent working in our screen industries in 2024.
It is fair to say that our sector has come through a tough year, so it was wonderful to see so many industry practitioners at the recent Belfast Media Festival, which featured an impressive line-up of speakers from across the creative industries.
There has never been a more important time to support the new talent coming into our sector as well as our established creatives, who have contributed so much to the growing creative economy we enjoy here.
We have seen global recognition for our Northern Irish talent in terms of audiences, programme sales and awards. And to name just a handful of the BBC’s outstanding programmes that came from Northern Ireland in 2023, I would offer Blue Lights, Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland, Hope Street, Jailed: Inside Maghaberry Prison, Mastermind and The Finish Line.
Sky launched The Lovers, while Channel 5’s Dalgliesh returned to our screens with its second series; a third will be on its way soon.
Our thriving animation sector continues to make delightful, educational and inspiring programmes for young audiences, including Mimi’s World, Puffin Rock, Odo and Happy the Hoglet. And we can look forward to more local content from Disney and Channel 4 following their recent announcements at the Belfast Media Festival.
We’ve cleaned up on the awards circuit, too: Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls series three received an International Emmy and three Baftas among others; Omagh-born Aoife McArdle was one of the directors of Severance, which won the Drama and New Series awards at the Writers’ Guild of America and two Primetime Emmys, not to mention a Women in Film and TV award this month.
Who can forget Tom Berkeley, Ross White and the amazing James Martin picking up their Short Film Oscar in Hollywood for An Irish Goodbye; meanwhile, Ronan Bennett, raised in Northern Ireland, continues to have audiences hooked with shows such as the RTS and Bafta-winning Top Boy.
Our creative infrastructure got an incredible boost with the recent news that an Ulster University-led consortium has secured finance for an advanced screen and performance technology research lab to be set up within Studio Ulster in Belfast. This £138m, state-of-the-art virtual production facility is set to become a global hub for the creative industries.
Serving a local population of only 1.9 million, our sector punches well above its weight in terms of ability, entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, infrastructure and business.
Richard Williams, CEO at Northern Ireland Screen, and his hard-working team offer a very warm welcome to international partners.
Here’s to the next decade of growth and achievement by our Northern Ireland creatives.
Sarah McCaffrey is Chair of RTS Northern Ireland.