A fond farewell to Waterloo Road

Tuesday 23 August 2011, 01:01

Peter Salmon Peter Salmon Director, England

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Violet Carson as Ena Sharples in Coronation Street.

When I was a little lass, the world was half a dozen streets, an' a bit o' waste land, an' the rest was all talk.

After all these years, the words of Violet Carson, Coronation Street's legendary battle-axe Ena Sharples still echo in my ears. For me, that line perfectly captures that fine balance between grit and fantasy which has always been particular to the best Northern drama - storytelling with a hard edge but a soft heart.

More recently, I was struck by two articles in the national press about that special relationship between drama and the North of England. Both Mark Lawson in Grimetime TV: why the North rules in the Guardian, and Leo Robson's FT article Why Auntie still has a southern accent, pay tribute to the strength of programmes that had either been inspired by the North or written by people who had their roots in the region.

So it seems particularly appropriate, as we bid a fond farewell to Waterloo Road, to remind ourselves not only of its own success on BBC One but also of its place in this rich Northern heritage.

Like many others, I am lucky enough to have grown up with so many outstanding dramas from this part of the world, such as Boys From The Blackstuff, Auf Wiedersehn Pet, Our Friends In the North, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Born To Run, GBH, Cracker, Cold Feet, Band of Gold, Shameless and Clocking Off. It's been great to work with some of the wonderful writers associated with these dramas on occasion as well - people like Jimmy McGovern, Peter Flannery, Debbie Horsfield, Victoria Wood, Pete Bowker, Alan Bleasdale, Mike Bullen, Paul Abbott and Kay Mellor.

I also take pride that the BBC, supported by some of those writers, has a real commitment to new and emerging talent. BBC Writersroom for example helps writers to find their voice and fine tune their talent which can result in a new piece for the BBC and a career in the industry. Only recently BBC North supported one of their events, The Writers Festival 2011 in Leeds, and I was stunned not so much about the wealth of new talent in the room but also how established writers there including Paula Milne, Tony Marchant and Gwyneth Hughes were willing to share their knowledge and experience - and by their collective conviction that drama can change peoples' lives.

The BBC and ITV continue to make dramas that celebrate the Northern spirit: United, about the Busby Babes; The Road to Coronation Street; South Riding; Eric & Ernie; Accused; The Street; 32 Brinkburn Street; Moving On - to name but a few. Filmed across the region, with local talent both in front of and behind the camera, not only do they continue to entertain audiences, but often challenge them to see contemporary life or recent history from a different perspective.

Since its first troubled term in March 2006, Waterloo Road has taken viewers on a journey, tackling some of the grittier issues of the day - suicide, drugs, bullying and alcoholism. But at the heart of every story, in each of the seven series, Shed Productions, the scriptwriters and the actors themselves ensured that the characters involved were very real and utterly believable. It is this strong, confident storytelling coupled with finely balanced and sympathetic acting from the cast, that ensured that Waterloo Road walked away with Most Popular Drama at the National TV Awards earlier this year as well as prizes from the North West RTS.

We have an ongoing aim at BBC North to train and excite new talent by giving them exposure to dramas being filmed in our area. For last year's Waterloo Road we worked with four schools from across the North. Pupils from Gateshead, Grimsby, Sheffield and Preston worked with the scriptwriters to create, film and star in their very own five-minute mini-episodes. I went to a special screening event in Manchester to showcase the finished works and was very impressed by the talent and energy of all those young people involved. I hope the experience will inspire some of them to become the next generation of Northern writers, actors, directors or producers who will continue this strong drama tradition.

So, after seven very successful series, Waterloo Road is moving to Scotland. Having been made entirely on location in Rochdale, filming of the current series will end soon and from next April it will start filming in a new location, with a new story line, in Scotland.

But the North continues to inspire the very best with a strong slate of new and promising dramas.

First and foremost, we should not forget the immense contribution made by BBC Children's. It's always had a very rich drama tradition, and I'm particularly pleased that this Autumn - as the department moves to Salford - three big series are being made across the North of England. With stories ranging from sibling rivalry and vampires to care home antics, they prove that CBBC is nothing if not diverse.

Brand new to CBBC is The 4 O'Clock Club. Two brothers - teacher Nathan and pupil Josh - clash over the younger brother's dream of becoming a rap star. Currently in production in Bolton, the show mixes music and drama and stars former rapper turned comedy actor Doc Brown. Incidentally, 'club' in the title is the nickname of the detention room where the two brothers seem to spend most of their time. It's Flight of the Conchords for a kids' audience.

Also coming back to CBBC are Young Dracula and Tracy Beaker Returns. Both are big with the CBBC audience and it's good to see them set in Liverpool and Newcastle respectively. Who could have foreseen back in 2002 that Jacqueline Wilson's original story about a feisty young girl in a care home would be such an abiding success with young audiences? That's innovation for you.

And this Christmas CBBC will be unwrapping The Lost Christmas. Filmed in Manchester and starring Eddie Izzard, it's a heart-warming story about one man's unique talent to transform the lives of five ordinary people whose lives have been affected by decisions they made in the past.

And Northern stories continue to make their mark in the peaktime BBC schedules too. Decades after the first larger-than-life characters were tearing up the screen, producers from across the region have fresh stories to tell.

The prolific Red Production Company who, working with AbbottVision, brought John Simm and Jim Broadbent to BBC One in the excellent Exile this Easter, is currently working on Anthony And Cleopatra to be filmed in the Yorkshire Dales. Written by Halifax-born, former Corrie writer Sally Wainwright, also author of ITV's Manchester-based Scott and Bailey, it's a poignant tale of love and second chances for two people in the sunset years of their lives.

Also in Yorkshire, Kay Mellor, who heads up Leeds' Rollem Productions is about to film Syndicate for BBC One. It's a feel-good piece about a group of supermarket workers and a massive lottery win. It charts the impact the win has on their lives and how it changes their fates for better and worse. Just down the road, Tiger are filming in Sheffield, one of the region's most versatile cities. It was such a striking part of the wonderful Channel 4 series This is England '86, and for the BBC it's the backdrop of the tough new series Prisoners' Wives, a fresh take on some sparky women and their turbulent lives.

Closer to new home, Salford's own Christopher Eccleston returns to BBC One in Bill Gallagher's new psychological thriller, The Fuse, filmed and set in Manchester. Eccleston plays a council official hiding a murder behind a façade of public success.

From the pen of talented writer Jimmy McGovern comes a new series of Accused that takes stories and people from every day life and transforms them into the searing, heart-stopping dramas that have become his trademark.

And finally, from BBC Writersroom alumnus Stephen Butchard, whose credits include the Five Daughters, House of Saddam and Vincent, is Savage. Set in Liverpool, it's about the conflict between revenge and public duty. Again, it films for BBC One this autumn.

Both Mark Lawson in the Guardian and Leo Robson for the FT were searching for reasons why the North of England often leads the way in great drama writing and magnificent actors. Is it our heritage, culture or landscape? A spirit of innovation, education or nostalgia? Immigration, the economy or just the power of family life? More likely it's a potent blend of the lot - a tangle of characteristics that is as dense as the weave of Ena Sharples' hairnet.

What is indisputable is that those great Northern-based dramas from the past, with their strong storylines and memorable characters, have had a huge impact. They defined a dramatic generation, created stars on screen and off and made audiences think about and question the society that they lived in. I would like to think that both the BBC and ITV, partners at MediaCityUK and working with production companies across the UK, are keeping that tradition alive for all our audiences.

So while we bid the cast and crew of Waterloo Road adieu, a farewell tinged not only with sadness but with a real sense that it has made a difference, I look forward to sitting back and watching new and bold Northern dramas unfold.

Peter Salmon is Director of BBC North

  • News and information on the BBC North web site.
  • The picture shows Violet Carson, Ena Sharples in Coronation Street.

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    Great shot of 'Ena Sharples'. A recent TV programme that showed the genesis of Coronation Street also showed the background to Violet Carson being cast, I almost wish I had some memory of early Coronation Street. But we didn't watch 'Corrie' when I was a lad, preferring instead to watch a Grand Prix on 16mm cine projected against the wall in our parlour. These days Corrie and the other soaps are everywhere and judging by the magazine racks at M&S many people must believe the characters are true to life, certainly the front pages of many weekly mags portray the various soap characters as real people, this is quite depressing and during the summer I need my batteries re-charged by a couple of hours watching the F1 coverage live on BBC1. I hope in the future soaps will decline in popularity and assuming the TV companies haven't wasted too much money on studio space close to the Corrie set in Salford, perhaps one-off dramas will be commissioned that inspire writers to be more inventive, instead of attracting coverage by inserting random sensational storylines and catfights. 'Northern Grit' hasn't really been shown properly yet, most dramas focus on the 'grim northern cities' and ignore the rest of the country north of Chesterfield of course. So Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle get a look-in but smaller places don't, unless there's a bit of sensational bed-hopping in a small town to be shown. The new Ecclestone drama is set in Manchester I see, which seems incredibly lazy.

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