Rebirth of a creative hub in the North East

Rebirth of a creative hub in the North East

Monday, 7th February 2022
Sunderland ’Til I Die (Credit: Netflix)
Sunderland ’Til I Die (Credit: Netflix)
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Film and TV production in the North East is on the up, with the likes of Fulwell 73 opening local centres. Graeme Thompson cheers the revival.

It is a dream come true for Leo Pearlman and his cousins Gabe and Ben Turner to be opening a production base in Sunderland. After all, they named their company in memory of the Fulwell stand at the old Roker Park, where they first fell in love with Sunder­land AFC. The 73 reference is a homage to their team’s glorious FA Cup win against Leeds almost half a century ago. 

Pearlman’s family had a business in the North East coastal city. His cousins’ parents also hailed from the area. There was much excitement in the clan in 2018, when Netflix aired Sunderland ’Til I Die, a labour of love for Fulwell 73.  

The production was widely regarded as a near-perfect example of behind-the-scenes sports documentary, thanks to its focus on the impact of a football club’s mixed fortunes on fans. Local viewers loved it because, unlike most TV and media depictions of Sunderland, the series showcased the city in all its glory, rather than picking out the more run-down areas, which play into stereotypical Grim Up North narratives. 

The two seasons of Sunderland ’Til I Die made the company realise just how under served the North East of England had become in terms of TV and film production. The region represents less than 2% of the UK’s screen sector. And audience appreciation of the BBC is at its lowest in an area where viewers rarely see their distinctive culture and landscape on screen. 

Wearing my University of Sunderland hat, I began talking, pre-pandemic, to the Fulwell team about the Catch 22 scenario facing talented students with ambitions to work in the sector: opportunities on local productions such as ITV’s Vera and MTV’s Geordie Shore are limited, and they’re unable to afford to take up placements in production hotspots such as London. In too many instances, they end up being lost to more accessible jobs and careers closer to home. 

That conversation resulted in site visits by the Fulwell team and the decision in the autumn of 2021 to open a production base in the riverside campus studios of the David Puttnam Media Centre. “We love it,” says Pearlman. “It feels like the excitement and endless possibilities of being in a start-up.” 

But it’s not purely sentiment that’s brought them back to their roots. The trio had to convince their US-based partners, Ben Winston and James Corden, of the business case. Pearlman says the relationship with the university was the catalyst for the decision to open a base in Sunderland alongside their operations in north London and Los Angeles, which currently have about 100 people on the payroll.  

“We saw the limitless potential of telling stories from the North East,” he says. “I always had this dream of coming back. The relationship with the university allowed us access to fantastic facilities as well as to students, staff and graduate businesses. 

“The North East and this city is in our DNA and we want to be part of its rebirth as a creative hub. We are setting up a number of initiatives and programmes to encourage young talent from the region to get involved in the industry. This year, we launch our intern and work-experience programmes.” 

Byker Grove: Ant and Dec in 1990 (Credit: BBC)
Byker Grove: Ant and Dec in 1990 (Credit: BBC)

Fulwell North has recruited production manager Mel Rainbow and development producer (unscripted) Chris Wake. Both are experienced TV hands who jumped at the opportunity to work in their native North East. Other team members from the London office, including chief operating officer Johnny Moore and head of scripted Saskia Schuster, are regular hot-deskers.  

Students, who share the same studios and production resources as their new workmates, are understandably thrilled. “It gives you such a lift having Fulwell 73 based here,” enthuses Mark Stiles, a second-year media production student. “I’m focused on pursuing a career in television, so having access to experienced professionals from a prestigious and successful production company is so exciting.” 

The company – best known for movies such as Cinderella for Amazon Prime and the documentaries I Am Bolt and Bros: After the Screaming Stops, as well as The Late, Late Show with James Corden and his Carpool Karaoke – has been quick to sign up North East talent. 

It is developing several original scripted projects across TV and film, ranging from horror to comedy. The team is discussing content ideas with young North East chef Ryan Riley and, with the BBC, talking about a number of access-all-areas factual proposals. And there’s a true crime documentary that’s fully financed and ready to go into production in Sunderland in the coming weeks. 

Fulwell is even looking to reboot iconic TV dramas such as Byker Grove

The BBC is another player in the North East renaissance. Director-­General Tim Davie has committed to spend a minimum of £25m on new commissions from the region. This has resulted in the 12 local authorities across the North East creating an £11m skills budget and production fund. 

It means the regional screen agency, Northern Film + Media, can look forward to a long overdue expansion as it advertises for staff to co-ordinate the funding, and the prospect of more production and location services. 

Chief Executive Alison Gwynn has been in constant dialogue for months with Fulwell 73, the BBC and the councils making up the North East Screen Industries Partnership. “This is a unique, once in a generation moment for the North East,” she says. “Thanks to recent decisions by the BBC, the university, Fulwell 73, local authorities and others, there is real momentum to make a step change in the region’s screen sector. 

“Having an international player such as Fulwell 73 here is transformational. Its energy and ambition goes hand in hand with its commitment to grass-roots engagement with local indies and crews, and its plans to uncover new talent. We’re looking forward to unprecedented growth over the next few years.” 

The Fulwell team joins a growing number of production companies that have established a track record in the region. MCC Media, founded by Sunderland graduate Paul McCoy, produces award-winning documentaries. Another graduate media company in the city, New World Designs, specialises in “bullet time/time-slice” photography for productions in Hollywood – as well as closer to home with ITV’s The Cube. Also known as The Matrix effect, the technique gives the impression of time slowing down or standing still.  

New World Designs is currently building a new FX studio in Sunderland and Fulwell has made no secret of its own ambitions to build world-class studios on the banks of the River Wear.  

Long-running dramas, including Vera for ITV and The Dumping Ground for CBBC, provide regular employment for local actors and crew. But most local creatives and production staff make their living working outside the North East. Which means the challenge facing producers over the coming months will be finding the production capacity to meet the ambitions of the BBC and new kids on the block such as Fulwell North and Angels of the North producer Twenty Six 03 to make shows in the region.  

Alison Gwynn says one of the solutions is to persuade Northerners based in other parts of the UK to return home. “Training and developing an expanded home-grown workforce will take some time,” she says. “My message to those who have the talent and the skills to make great content from the North East is: it’s time to come back home, pet!”  

Graeme Thompson is Chair of the RTS Education Committee and pro vice-chancellor for external relations at the University of Sunderland.