Our friend in Northern Ireland: Michael Wilson

Our friend in Northern Ireland: Michael Wilson

By Michael Wilson,
Friday, 18th December 2015
Michael Wilson
Michael Wilson
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Michael Wilson hails Northern Ireland’s revival as a force in TV production – and a charitable initiative that reflects this progress  

Even in the dark forest of media land, at this time of year we wish goodwill to all (while still hoping to thrash the opposition in the New Year overnights).

But, here in Northern Ireland, a true festive peace has broken out and, for once, I am not talking politics.

UTV and the BBC in Northern Ireland have worked together with local young people’s charity Cinemagic to help produce and broadcast Northern Ireland’s first ever Christmas film.

Entitled A Christmas Star, it features Pierce Brosnan, Rob James-Collier, Bronagh Waugh, Suranne Jones and Julian Fellowes. It is narrated by Liam Neeson. There are cameos from Dermot O’Leary and Kylie Minogue. A stellar cast for a regional film made on a shoestring.

What is so special about this children’s charity based in Northern Ireland and why so much big-name support? Well, with assistance from the Northern Ireland Assembly, the two regional broadcasters (UTV is Cinemagic’s media partner), Northern Ireland Screen and commercial partners, the charity holds yearly festivals in Belfast, Dublin, New York and Los Angeles.

Cinemagic launched a festival in London, too, in 2014. It works with children from disadvantaged backgrounds, building confidence through TV and film-making skills.

The charity aims to entertain, motivate and inspire young people. Every year, it works with more than 40,000 young people aged from four to 25. It devises accessible ways to learn and stimulate creative works that provoke discussion and understanding of issues that are important to these young people. And, away from the household names, the real effort in producing A Christmas Star was made by a trainee cast and crew of 40, aged 18 to 25. They were mentored by industry professionals with biographies to die for.

And, in the spirit of the end-of-year festivities, the team here at UTV and our colleagues at BBC NI agreed to show the film on the same day as a television premiere, a few weeks after its cinema release.

Why this seasonal tale from Northern Ireland? This page is normally used to bang the drum for the various nations and regions represented by our broadcasters and producers.

Well, I guess that’s what I’m doing now and showing how perceptions can change as progress is made, because 2015 has been a great year for Northern Ireland’s producers and creative industries at all levels. There’s been Game of Thrones, The Fall, The Frankenstein Chronicles, Lily’s Driftwood Bay, Oscar-nominated short films, ITV’s peak-time hit Wild Ireland and the BBC Saturday-night über-hope Can’t Touch This, made by Sony spin-off Stellify Media.

Investment in drama, top-end entertainment and animation is at an all-time high. The skills and capacity that were for so long in short supply, combined with the creative talent, have made the region competitive on a world stage.

But 2016 will be a year of change. UTV will become part of ITV, and corporation-tax rates for firms based in Northern Ireland will soon be ­standardised with the lower rates in Ireland.

Meanwhile, BBC Charter renewal, where the representation of regions and nations will be hotly contested, will continue to occupy centre stage.

The centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising will be commemorated and celebrated, bringing the eyes of the world to “our wee island”.

I started with a Christmas story of goodwill, but end with hard facts: this small nation now has a real edge in television production.

The skills, capacity and funding from various sources makes the tale of Northern Ireland’s creative industries a good news story that will last long after the festive break is over.


Michael Wilson is Managing Director of UTV’s Television Division.