Northern exposure: the BBC in Salford

In the 1960s and 1970s, when I grew up in Stockport, six miles to the south of Manchester, Salford seemed dead, discarded, the drizzly, degraded essence of “grim up north”. One of the greatest cotton towns, coming to populated enterprising life during the 19th century, granted city status in 1926, separated from Manchester to the east by the Irwell river, Salford had succumbed to the after-effects of the industrial revolution of which it had been a driving part.

It was at the busy efficient Salford docks that ships from around the world were loaded and unloaded. But as the Manchester Ship Canal and the wonderfully anomalous inner-city docks outlived their use, shut for good in the early 1980s, Salford withered faster and more dramatically than the once booming city it was jammed against: even Manchester in ravaged postindustrial decline did not shrivel up like Salford. Insensitive postwar refurbishment replaced battered terraced slums, which Friedrich Engels had described as fetid, with concrete tower blocks that themselves quickly became new slums.

Though Ewan MacColl’s 1949 song “Dirty Old Town” and Tony Richardson’s black and white 1961 film of Shelagh Delaney’s Taste of Honey evoked a defiant poetic dimension to the city’s clustered, broken griminess, Salford seemed so encrusted in its besotted past, so slammed into deprivation, it would surely never break free of its soiled image.

That Peter Maxwell Davies, Terry Eagleton, Alistair Cooke, Emmeline Pankhurst and half of Joy Division are Salford-born does not suit the received picture, of a city incapacitated by political indifference and changing economies. Even the city’s adoption of the great but patronised northern artist L.S. Lowry as local symbol emphasised cobbled quaintness rather than imaginative grandness.

Salford’s modernised dock areas, named after the artist, are patterned around a generically plush arts centre, studded with glass-walled apartments, opaque offices, marooned shops, chain hotels, the jaggedly liquid Imperial War Museum North, and modernist wire and metal bridges. Despite the name, they look and feel disconcertingly removed from Lowry’s crooked, smoke-stained passions and fascinations. Sophisticated transformation of industrial history was not part of the methodology of those seeking to turn the original docks into decorative quayside living, inspired not by dignified working-class Salford or a sensitively recalibrated post-industrial world but by Bilbao and Canary Wharf, everywhere and nowhere. Two rusting pale blue cranes at the dock’s Ontario basin are almost all that remain from Lowry’s world as ghostly memorials of lost enterprise, like found objects turned into abstract art giving the blanched concrete area a little evocative kick of distinction. Recently rejected by English Heritage as worthy of protection, these abandoned links to the industrial past seem doomed to extinction.

Salford Quays occupies the same internationally-minded, landscaped and urban-malled territory as does Manchester United FC, a major representative of the city to the outside world, though it is based outside Manchester itself – it’s Trafford or Stretford United, really. To local councillors and single-minded investors, the Salford Quays project, however shinily humdrum and vacant of spirit, was more uplifting and hopeful than the wasteland it replaced.

In 2011, after five years of development, the BBC, with its own quest to alter perceptions and to fend off accusations of being far too London-centric, began to move in to this muted zone of modernisation. About 1,500 members of staff relocated from London to Salford Quays with about 700 others coming from the local area.

The BBC dodged into Salford, next door to the red-blooded United, perhaps hoping the location was neutral enough to deflect critics of the corporation’s controversial decision to move north: a new position in Manchester’s official city centre – where the BBC has had a northwest base since the 1950s, along Oxford Road in New Broadcasting House since the mid-1970s – might have complicated matters. So the BBC moved outside Manchester, away from the animated centre into less dynamic Salford, 20 minutes away by tram.

The commute from London to the northern BBC base can feel not so much about the two and a bit hours on a comfy train as it is about the niggly next stage of the journey, crossing the distance between Manchester Piccadilly station and MediaCity’s reconditioned expanse of office space, retail, leisure and the arts that seems to turn its back on historic Salford even as it seems dedicated to its recovery.

The BBC’s plan to move part of its operations to the north first emerged in 2003 as part of discussions on renewing the corporation’s Royal Charter. The BBC said the move was valid as New Broadcasting House needed replacing and persuaded governors that, despite the £224m cost, it would still represent value for money as well as demonstrating it was serious about becoming less London-centric.

An in-house shortlist of four possible destinations for a new BBC in the north contained two in Manchester and two in Salford. When the decision to move was announced in 2006, it seemed perverse that, in a battle between Salford and Manchester city councils, the city in which the BBC had already been handsomely embedded should have been trounced by an almost gated pseudo-sector of Salford. Salford’s package of inducements included the practicality of its location, and a multimillion pound sponsorship of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, now labelled as Salford’s very own, players regularly fanning out through the community to offer, in perky BBC speak, “new performance platforms”.

The tram station serving the new complex

Peter Saville, employed in 2004 as creative director of Manchester, canvassed support at the time for a central Manchester location. A director of Factory Records, he had designed the elegantly enigmatic sleeves for influential local bands such as Joy Division and New Order. He was part of the Factory collective that contributed to a new postindustrial brand of civic pride with the Hacienda nightclub and a rave-based music scene that temporarily turned the city into Madchester. The pleasures and possibilities of this music-changing scene in turn worked to attract new students to the colleges and universities that helped maintain the city’s status in more inert times. By the 21st century, Manchester had become the sort of city that would hire someone such as Saville to maintain its image as a brand.

As an arbiter of deep Manchester cool, with an official council position, Saville – who notes that the BBC divisions being moved were “kids and sport”, not the more politically influential news or current affairs – gave encouraging talks selling forward-looking northwest values to London-based BBC personnel being moved en masse to the new northern headquarters. Some of those Saville saw were reluctant to move not because it was to the grim north but because of the upheaval involved in moving anywhere, whether Portsmouth or Leicester. There were also some employees for whom a move outside London into the attractive provinces – not necessarily Salford itself – was actually welcome, and cheaper. As for it being Salford not Manchester, he dismisses the distinction. “It’s an irrelevant historical nuance. It’s the same thing really, whether you call it Manchester or not. It still brings the BBC and 2,000 to 3,000 new people to the area, and that makes a difference to the region in the way that only new people with their families can.”

For the BBC, Salford must have seemed the perfect place to move to appease those looking for healthier levels of regionalisation and regeneration. But by moving into Salford, shadower than most northern cities, with characteristics separate from Manchester, the corporation would make another less specific and more elusive statement of need.

The BBC’s new high-tech base in new but neutral serviced buildings, set among standard-issue piazzas and creepily harmonious landscaped gardens, lacks any hint of self-aggrandising ideological distinction. There is no BBC manifesto or corporate boasting blasting across the surrounding rooftops. There is no display dominating the landscape as the Granada TV studios near Deansgate, central Manchester, did in the 1960s, with a purposeful logo self-confidently beaming out over the city. The corporation manages to be somehow invisible, reasonably discreet: based in the north but moored in an extravagantly non-extravagant mocked-up urban space nicely illuminated at night that could be anywhere in Europe.

The BBC has not gone all northern. There is little sign in the MediaCity output of the amplification of local culture that dominated Granada TV and BBC North from the 1950s, or of any significant shift away from polite southern accents and to achieving the impossible, a comprehensive and informed balance. Guests brought in live to Salford for BBC Breakfast tend to be more local, because of the practical problems of bringing people in from elsewhere, but the programme continues to exist within a carefully colour-coded placeless BBC bubble. Inside these buildings, shared with others including the media department of Salford University, BBC employees work in spaces, capsules, alcoves, booths, departments, cubicles, studios and substations discreetly spiked with colour reminiscent of the jolly, almost groovy can-do spirit of Blue Peter, a company almost in disguise.

For the BBC must not modernise to such an extent it appears flash and overfunded but nor must it slip behind the rapidly changing times to such an extent it seems technologically outmanoeuvred. It must sound authoritative, trustworthy but not dogmatic. Settling in the scrubbed-up parts of Salford, a more cryptic location than Manchester city centre and other northern cities, enabled them to be both somewhere – exploiting local environment, nurturing local interest, improving local approval ratings – and nowhere, harmlessly tucked into an identikit modern development where true local grain is swept away. The strategic value of moving north, even into this vacant lot, is that it is outside London, the move either part of a mission to break up the BBC or to make it such a moving target it’s harder for the corporation’s massed enemies to discover and grind down.

Condemned homes in Salford

Before the BBC arrived in prudent, practical MediaCity, you rarely heard any positive mention on television of a contemporary, undead place called Salford. It was mostly, if at all, just folded into Manchester, into the fable of Coronation Street, or lost among the numerous regions, districts and suburbs of Greater Manchester, which had replaced the more authentic-sounding Lancashire as Salford’s bureaucratic base in the local government reorganisation of 1974.

Today, in onscreen captions and general expression of brand, the BBC makes it clear it is in Salford, corporately absorbing feisty local roots to enhance its potential northern integrity, even if the operation has roots only in its own history. But regular mentions of Salford will have a massive effect on the image of a city that was until recently, despite the flashy Quays development, still largely known for toxic decline. The arrival of the BBC with its friendly-faced best intentions has promoted awareness of the city, which now figures a little larger in the national imagination; the association with the power and esteem of the BBC will seep into the city’s reputation, and transform its presence, whatever the actual eventual, if any, impact on jobs and the local economy.

The word, the idea of “Salford” already means something different because it now contains MediaCity, and the BBC, and, soon, even the enchanted Coronation Street set as part of a northern ITV based next door, and it will change shape the longer the BBC remains there. At the moment, the BBC irritates local sensibilities concerned lest a traditional Salford is being replaced by a gutted reproduction, its historic identity erased. But the presence of the BBC, however aloof and fragile, is important in terms of creating an impression, of keeping the city from sinking into obscurity. The effect might take some time but for Salford the alternative would be to disappear, along with the wistful pale blue cranes. The idea of a BBC and the idea of Salford need each other as they both advance into an age that is post-internet and, therefore, post-city and post-scheduled, where Google, Apple and Twitter form new sorts of seductive, mobile locations made up of information, content and communication.

For Saville, the BBC moving to the area has had an inevitable, positive effect on the idea of Manchester and its local dependants. If Manchester is to prosper and compete in this fluid, fragmented new era, then the BBC’s presence can only enhance its position as an international centre of excellence for football, music, education, architecture, entertainment, galleries, art festivals, media and tourism – the elements that project the idea of a physical city moving into an uncertain 21st century.

However confused and cumbersome the corporation may have become, the nation, Saville believes, is impoverished without it – even just as an idea that the rest of the world responds to. “Like it or not, [the BBC] is the leading British brand around the world. Internationally, this is how people connect with us and know us,” he says. And without a north, whether patched-up Salford or aggrieved on-the-make Manchester, or all the other independent northern places maintaining their image and physical place, without that particular mix of energies and resistance to centralised control, the nation is also impoverished, becoming a series of ghostly spaces dispersed outside the capital, sinking towards their own abandonment.

But the BBC and the north still exist, ensuring there is more than just blankness and obscurity outside London’s long, often chilly shadows. As Saville, creative director of Manchester, claims, firmly promoting his brand, Manchester is the capital in this new non-London UK, and it is right that a large portion of the BBC is there, even if it is, like Manchester United, not actually in the city and, in some ways, not even in Salford.

‘The North (And Almost Everything In It)’, by Paul Morley, is published by Bloomsbury in June

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