Our Friend in Leeds: Andrew Sheldon on the rise of TV production in the North

Our Friend in Leeds: Andrew Sheldon on the rise of TV production in the North

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Andrew Sheldon considers whether TV production in the North of England is finally reaching powerhouse scale.

When George Osborne first uttered the phrase “Northern Powerhouse” back in 2014, it’s fair to say that the TV industry wasn’t at the front of his mind. But, six years on, is it time to start thinking of it as such?

Back then, the mood in the TV industry across the North of England was very different. Both Leeds and Manchester were still struggling with the impact of ITV’s retrenchment to London, while the BBC’s project as the anchor tenant of MediaCity UK was barely into its stride.

In the indie community, there was an ongoing struggle for commissions – with only a handful of companies showing any signs of growth.

Jump forward to today and it’s a different story, with cautious optimism that the TV industry’s own version of the Northern Powerhouse is emerging. In 2020, the key players all have a stake somewhere along
the M62.

After a decade of taking root, Media­City UK is the world-class, digitally focused hub it set out to be. The BBC’s flagship presence is now joined by ITV (with Corrie at its heart, obviously), and myriad other studio and post-production facilities.

Across the Pennines, in Leeds, that is balanced by Channel 4, with its new national headquarters building due to open at the end of this year, and also by Sky (the owner of my own company, True North), which employs 650 people in its future-facing Digital and Technology Services Campus at Leeds Dock.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, the indie sector is growing. In Manchester, established companies such as Blakeway North, Nine Lives and Workerbee have been joined by Studio Lambert and Gobstopper.

In Leeds, True North and Rollem now share the city with Wise Owl, Air TV, True Vision North and Duck Soup. The Garden has opened an office, and Daisybeck, the maker of Channel 5’s Yorkshire Vet franchise, has received an investment from Entertainment One, a clear indicator of confidence in northern production.

After years of wondering whether building a career outside London was even possible, there is a lift across both scripted and non-scripted, and a tangible shift in attitude as the number of vacancies across the production sector rises.

It’s being met in part by people relocating, but there has also been a positive shift in approach from further education. The sector is introducing a degree of real-world practicality through initiatives such as Connected Campus, which brings all the Yorkshire universities together to focus on meeting the needs of the industry.

Despite some cynicism, Channel 4’s relocation has undoubtedly been key. There have been challenges – and there are probably more still to come – but, overall, it has had a clear galvanising effect.

The broadcaster now has a team of commissioners in place who are invested in the project. Armed with the new out-of-London quotas, they have the potential to create a huge impact. And not just in Leeds, but across the North, by encouraging production in the likes of Liverpool, Sheffield, Hull and Newcastle.

Channel 5 has long recognised the value that regional producers offer, and green-lit projects accordingly – many of them in the North West and Yorkshire. ITV has made a long-term commitment with its soaps and shows including The Voice.

No less welcome, the BBC is stepping outside of Salford with a new digital hub in Newcastle, coupled with its promise to move two-thirds of its employees outside London by 2027. Put together, it all suggests that “out of London” is finally being taken seriously.

I have no idea whether George Osborne’s broader vision of a Northern Powerhouse will ever be realised, but, for the first time in this century, there is a good chance that the TV industry will be able to deliver its own evocation. If only someone could sort out those bloody trains…

Andrew Sheldon is creative director and founder of True North.