Our Friend in the North East: Graeme Thompson on Crown Works Studios

Our Friend in the North East: Graeme Thompson on Crown Works Studios

By Graeme Thompson,
Monday, 4th March 2024
Graeme Thompson (credit: University of Sunderland)
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Graeme Thompson contemplates a game-changing TV and film studio for the North East

With the awards season in full swing, it’s always fun to spot unlikely combinations in the bar after the ceremony. Whether it’s GB News hacks in gossipy conversation with their Channel 4 counterparts at the RTS Television Journalism Awards or, in the case of the RTS North East and the Border Awards, the founding partners of super-indie Fulwell 73 swapping stories with Brenda Blethyn of ITV’s Vera fame and super-influencer Charlotte Crosby (who has 14 million followers on social media).

These less predictable exchanges can often lead to entirely unexpected consequences. During my tenure as University of Sunderland Pro-Vice-Chancellor, I recall pursuing Leo Pearlman, one of the founders of Fulwell 73, over many months to persuade him to open a production base in the city – where he was born.

He and his partners had already completed season 1 of their passion project Sunderland ’Til I Die for Netflix. So, I reasoned, why shouldn’t Fulwell have a base in the city that inspired their name so they might engage with students from the university as well as create more content from this corner of the UK?

Incredibly, and mainly I suspect to stop me hounding them online and in person, they relented. And so it was that in 2021 Fulwell 73 moved into the David Puttnam media building at the university’s Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries. Job done, I concluded.

Then, Leo started talking about the idea of opening a studio in Sunderland. Result! I duly put him in touch with a friend at the city council to look at a potential warehouse conversion. Oh no, says Leo. We’re not talking about a warehouse conversion. We’re looking to build one of the biggest high-end TV and film studio complexes in Europe!

Fast forward to March 2024 and the detailed plans for the Crown Works Studios are a game changer for the North East. It’s a region with many economic challenges, including one of the highest levels of child poverty in the UK, with one in three children being brought up in desperate circumstances. And, let’s not forget, places such as Sunderland and Middles­brough regularly endure the cheap jibes of those living in smarter neighbourhoods. The new Vice-President of Rada, Cynthia Erivo, is only the latest to take a swipe at Sunderland’s expense.

So, it’s hardly surprising there’s so much excitement about the studio plans. It’s the biggest thing to hit the city since the arrival of the Nissan car factory in 1986. Fulwell and partner Cain International have raised £450m to create 20 sound stages on a 155,000m2 former shipbuilding site on the banks of the River Wear.

They predict 8,450 jobs and a £330m annual boost to the regional economy, with the first operational studio planned for 2025. To put that in perspective, North East Screen estimates that the whole of the region’s screen sector last year ­generated around £17.8m.

Of course, the project needs significant government investment for infrastructure and skills to make the studios operational. The region has heavily lobbied the Treasury to ask for that support to be included in Jeremy Hunt’s March budget. In a display of North East solidarity, four of the region’s biggest daily newspapers carried the same message to the Chancellor on their front pages on the same day: “This is transformational. Back our studios.”

We’ll know by the time you are reading this whether that campaign proved successful. If the Chancellor agrees that the plans are a win-win for the Government as well as the region, the Fulwell team will step up their campaign to woo streamers and studio bosses to venture north to avoid queuing for studio space in the capital.

If Mr Hunt hasn’t agreed to make it a priority, the indefatigable group led by the visionary Mr Pearlman will turn their attention to the next incumbent of No 11. Either way, it’s always been “Sunderland ’Til I Die” for the Fulwell partners.

Graeme Thompson is Chair of the RTS Education Committee and a visiting professor at the University of Sunderland. Season 3 of Sunderland ’Til I Die is now on Netflix.

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