Our Friend in Leeds: Helen Scott prepares for Channel 4's arrival

Our Friend in Leeds: Helen Scott prepares for Channel 4's arrival

By Helen Scott,
Thursday, 3rd January 2019
Leeds (Credit: Channel 4)
Leeds (Credit: Channel 4)
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Helen Scott celebrates Channel 4’s impending move to her home city

The announcement that Channel 4 will be coming to Leeds literally lit up the city. Social media went mad. Leeds City Region’s #4Sparks campaign had prevailed, and Leeds University floodlit its iconic Parkinson Building in celebration.

Friends and neighbours with no connection to the media were talking about it as a good thing. A new wave of prosperity, jobs and creative pride was on the way.

Moreover, we had been the underdog and beaten off the challenge from the two Andies (mayors Andy Street, heading the Birmingham bid, and Andy Burnham, in Manchester).

Helen Scott (Credit: Paul Hampartsoumian)

More than a decade ago, I was here when the tide went out. As controller of factual programmes at Yorkshire Television, I presided over a department hit by wave after wave of internal policy changes in the ITV system.

Externally, broadcasters’ strategies ended up denuding the eastern side of the country – with the honourable exception of Emmerdale – of any meaningful production. My department was eventually closed down.

Talent, nurtured by us, left. Gradually, YTV retrenched to local news. Network opportunities at the BBC shrank and the once-vibrant city’s production hub was left to reinvent itself.

In truth, though, Leeds never lost its creative mojo. It just needed to be different. Without the backing of a big broadcaster, the indies became its focus. True North became a significant producer (and employer), Screen Yorkshire attracted big-hitting dramas to film in the region and writers such as Kay Mellor steadfastly stuck to their made-and-written-in-Yorkshire mantra.

With two new studios on Kirkstall Road, and Daisybeck expanding due to a slate of returning series from Channel 5, critical mass has been on its way back up.

We’re back in business

Add more than a thousand tech companies in the region, a young and diverse demographic – and Yorkshire grit that persuaded Channel 4 to make the right decision – and we’re back in business.

Channel 4’s arrival could lead a transformation with benefits far beyond the city limits.

But there are huge challenges ahead. How do we grow the talent base from its current size, around 200, to become a creative community capable of both supporting indigenous production and also making shows that play on the global stage?

How do we attract the super-indies without trampling on the smaller production companies? How do we roll out the benefits to other cities east of the Pennines, such as Sheffield, Nottingham and Newcastle, so that they can rival Glasgow, Salford and Bristol in the cultural industries sector?

There’s a palpable sense of excitement and a feeling that the tide is turning

How best do we represent the wonderfully diverse communities around us and give them a voice? It will require vision and partnerships, involving Leeds City Region, Channel 4 and the production sector, but already there’s a palpable sense of excitement and a feeling that the tide is turning.

Last year, one of the RTS bursary students I’m associated with was offered a few weeks’ internship at The Garden production company in London. He turned it down because he couldn’t afford to live in the capital while working for free. Now The Garden is rumoured to be considering bringing its juggernaut production 24 Hours in A&E to Leeds.

Two new production companies, Wise Owl Films and Endemol Shine North, rebranded as Workerbee, have set up in recent weeks. They’re headed by talent who already live in – and believe in – the region. UKTV has announced that it is basing a technology arm here.

The universities are gearing up, with new industry-standard production facilities and a mission to make their media students the best in the country.

There’s so much to look forward to.

When I walk out of the station and see one of Leeds’ iconic buildings with a bloody great figure four outside it, I’ll know we’re on our way.

Helen Scott is a media consultant who lives in Leeds. She regularly produces events for the RTS and sits on its Education Committee.