There is a short promotional video on the BBC website (www.bbc.co.uk/jobs/north), replete with split screen, fast cutting and set to “urban” music, in which Peter Salmon, the director of BBC North, sets out the ethos of the new BBC centre at the 200-acre Media City UK. “We’re really committed to doing something different,” Salmon says, “reaching out into communities”, and creating a “collaborative community on the banks of the Salford ship canals”.
The Salford site will provide a “new waterfront home” for 2,000 BBC staff, some of whom were formerly based in Manchester and London, some of whom will be new. “At BBC North, there’s no such thing as a typical employee,” the website tells us, and Salmon says he isn’t looking for people who are “stereotypically” BBC employees. He wants “difference” – in “accents, backgrounds, interests”.
Jeremy Clarkson has dismissed the move as “box-ticking”, but Salmon is keen to describe it in broader, more dignified terms. He emphasises the tradition of television coming from the north – “not just Coronation Street” – though the video’s string of clips (Life on Mars, The Street) is unconvincing. A few shots from A Day Out or Boys from the Blackstuff or Our Friends in the North might have served the argument better. And there would still be no getting around the fact that the BBC has a southern bias, or that ITV has a stronger northern track record – not just Coronation Street, but Emmerdale and Cracker too. Even Downton Abbey is set in Yorkshire, while its BBC counterparts, The Forsyte Saga and Upstairs, Downstairs, are confined (for the most part) to fancy areas of London.
The BBC’s director-general, Mark Thompson, is aware of this image problem, and that a large number of licence fee payers are based in the north. The move to Salford is just part of a wider project to change the BBC’s remit (or reputation). It seems a point of principle, for instance, that the Martin Shaw serial Inspector George Gently, currently in prime time repeat (Sundays BBC2), is based in Northumbria, while Alan Hunter’s Gently novels took place in Norfolk.
In terms of redressing the balance, this week has been a good one. While ITV aired the final episode of its long-running hospital drama The Royal (Sundays), filmed in Scarborough, the good-natured Sugartown, also filmed there, continued on BBC1 (Sundays), and BBC2 screened an hour-long documentary about the town. The second episode of Town with Nicholas Crane (Thursdays) didn’t make much of Scarborough’s northern identity. As a geographer, Crane was more interested in its position on the east coast. Over a busy and marvellously entertaining hour, he examined Scarborough’s identity at various points between the 10th century, “when men from the North beached their longships in the sheltered bay”, through its various heydays as a trading port (12th century) or a spa town (17th century).
Crane went abseiling and surfing, and visited the world’s most performed living playwright, Alan Ayckbourn, a Londoner who as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre turned Scarborough into an unlikely cultural centre. Other changes have been for the worse. Scarborough has lost its appeal as a seaside resort, and its industries – fishing, mining and manufacturing – have all but died out. Crane is fearful that towns like Scarborough will lose their individuality and purpose, but he nevertheless found cause for hope, not least in the town’s participatory budgeting scheme, whereby the people of the town vote on which local projects receive public funding.
Elsewhere on the BBC this week, there were signs of overt engagement with northern accents, backgrounds and interests. The comedian John Bishop returned with his Saturday night entertainment show, in which he tells – to this viewer, unfunny – jokes and anecdotes, occasionally cutting to vox-pop montages. Bishop makes much of his “Scouse” accent and jokes about Liverpudlian stereotypes, but the interviewees were a strikingly southern bunch. In the end, and despite his own background, Bishop’s Britain (BBC1 Saturdays) proved to be a parochial, London-centric sort of place.
The BBC certainly isn’t short of Scots – Andrew Marr, Andrew Neil, Kirsty Young, Kirsty Wark, James Naughtie. Dragons’ Den (BBC2 Sundays) has its own Scot, the stern and dashing Duncan Bannatyne, but the rest are southerners. Now Lancashire-born Hilary Devey has joined the Den in place of (London-raised) James Caan. Devey proved a straight-talking addition – “You would make my foot itch, mate”, “Where there’s muck, there’s luck” – and her northern spirit was matched by a Yorkshireman who was offering the Dragons a chunk of his solar-panel business: “She made a good offer did Hilary.”
But despite all this effort from the BBC, the week’s best piece of northern entertainment came from Sky 1. Trollied (Thursdays), a new eight-part sitcom, takes place in a Lancashire supermarket, with wonderful performances from Jane Horrocks, best known for the Scarborough-set Little Voice, as the “interim” deputy manager, and Mark Addy, best known for the Sheffield-set The Full Monty, as one of the bantering butchers. The writers – five in all – have a genuine feeling for northern habits, mannerisms and, most of all, speech.