In search of the BBC's Northern Soul - television from Manchester

Friday 17 June 2011, 16:21

Laurence Inwood Laurence Inwood

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Caroline Aherne as Mrs Merton with the audience of British OAPs she flew over to Las Vegas for a series of shows

Television Centre may seem like a surprising place to start making a documentary about BBC Manchester but as I discovered during the course of the filming, the North West's influence within broadcasting spreads far beyond the perimeter of the M60.

I am in London for two days to interview five contributors about the North West's impact on television over the last 50 years. They are a very mixed group of people. Aled Jones, Christopher Eccleston, Debbie McGee, Janet Street Porter and Juliet Morris. On the face of it they have nothing in common, apart from the fact they have all worked and performed in the North West of England.

Juliet Morris is the first guest and speaks of fond memories working in Manchester. At one point she presented three different shows from the BBC Oxford Road studios, The Travel Show, Here & Now and The Heaven & Earth Show. She tells me she loved the place; says it was compact and cosy and had a really positive vibe about it. She's not seen the new building at Salford but says she will miss the old place.

New Broadcasting House has never won any prizes for its architecture. The staff based in Manchester who are moving to Salford are looking forward to working in brighter and more modern surroundings and few will miss the old building.

But later Aled Jones echoes the sentiment expressed by Juliet Morris. The Songs of Praise presenter tells me he has some lovely memories of New Broadcasting House, although he jokes it has never been 'new'.

Janet Street Porter is even less complimentary about the building from where she launched a whole new brand of youth programming in the mid-80s. She confesses she couldn't stand the place and on a recent visit to Manchester she was appalled to discover it hadn't changed since she last worked in it.

However, like the others she talks about the creativity of the people who worked in the building. Programmes like Reportage and Rough Guides made a massive impact on the way television was produced at the time and still influences others today. This is thanks in no small part to the people who worked in Manchester.

Debbie McGee confesses she never worked at BBC Manchester, although her husband, the magician Paul Daniels did. Her connection with Manchester relates to her appearance on the Mrs Merton Show in 1995. She was the very first guest and didn't know what to expect when she agreed to take part. Caroline Aherne's opening question, "What first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?" has gone down in television folklore and Debbie finds it as funny watching the old clip back today as she did at the time.

The following day Christopher Eccleston explains the humour of Mrs Merton is very Northern. He says it is the type of humour you find a lot of in Manchester and Liverpool and this unique outlook on life is one of the reasons why the North West is blessed with so many great scriptwriters. He says we all think we're comedians.

There are certainly some very good storytellers. When it comes to television drama the North West is blessed with some of the best scriptwriters of the present day. Jimmy McGovern, Paul Abbott, Danny Boyle, Peter Bowker. Chris tells me they all have one thing in common: they are all great listeners. And it is by listening to the real lives of the people who inhabit Merseyside, Lancashire and Cheshire that they are able to produce such great drama.

And what does the Salford-born actor make of the BBC's move to Salford? He smiles and says it's like it's coming home. Much of the best of British television has originated from the North of England and the BBC has been far too London-centric for years.

As I travel north on the M6 I think about some of the observations made by the different contributors over the two days and I realise that they were all relaying a similar message: that the North West has a long and successful history in television. One thing is certain, the new departments in Salford will not be starting from scratch. By going to London I have discovered the BBC really does have a Northern Soul.

Laurence Inwood is producer of Auntie's Northern Soul

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    Comment number 1.

    I'm trying to communicate a new concept; the few office blocks and studios on Salford Quays don't make a 'Mediacity'. No, Salford itself, all of Salford, is, in fact a 'media city'.
    When I sat down to write a novel about the BBC moving to Salford Quays, I found I didn't have much to say about the BBC: really, it's all about Salford. That's where media is being born and being made these days.


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