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Not so grim up north

Peter Salmon

Director, BBC Studios (formerly Director, England)

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If I had a pound every time someone cracked a joke about it being ‘grim’ up North - or that it’s always raining - while I might not make enough to buy my favourite football club, I am pretty sure it would keep me in hot dinners for a while. 

But when people claim that the programmes the BBC makes across the North of England are in various shades of grim, I’d happily forgo a hot meal just because it is simply not that black and white.

This criticism was most recently levelled at BBC One's brilliant saga The Village. Now recommissioned and written by BAFTA-winning writer Peter Moffat, it stars a stunning cast including Maxine Peake, John Simm, David Ryall and Juliet Stevenson. Charting the life of one Peak District community during some of the most turbulent times in recent history including war and hardship, The Village at its core is a story of family and of loyalty and love. The entire first series is still available on BBC iPlayer.

Of course this drama is only one view of life in the North. This weekend Doctor Who is set in 1890s Yorkshire, and features Diana Rigg and daughter Rachel Stirling in a Gothic melodrama specially written for this series by Mark Gatiss. Last Tango In Halifax, with its many BAFTA nominations and starring Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid, was a heart-warming story of love rekindled late in life and will return later this year. And Kay Mellor’s second series of The Syndicate masterfully spun that fantasy we all have of winning the lottery, into something really special.

And of course portraying life in the North goes beyond drama. Comedy is just as important and my favourite recently was from stand-up comedian Jason Cook, who took his own real life experience of growing up in the North East and penned his gentle but portrait-perfect comedy Hebburn. As well as starring roles for Chris Ramsey and Kimberley Nixon as the newly married couple, mum and dad were played by Gina McKee and Jim Moir with great turns by Lisa McGrillis and Pat Dunn as his sister and gran respectively. The series will also return later this year and there’s a Christmas special to look forward to as well. The community it portrays is tough, but the depiction is tender.

BBC Children’s, from its Salford base, has made Tracey Beaker and The Dumping Ground, breaking new ground by tackling the thorny issue of kids in care with both humour and subtlety and 4 O’Clock Club made school cool again. And for the youngest audiences, Bernard Cribbins is delighting pre-schoolers and parents alike in Old Jack’s Boat, set in picturesque North Yorkshire.

Once upon a time it was harder to get audiences in the North to come to BBC fiction. Somehow we lost the knack of appealing right across the nation and we certainly didn't capture the region in all it's glory and grit. Now our research shows that as many – if not more – people across the North of England are watching these and other programmes made in the North. Because we are getting it right - in range, tone, language and setting.

But it’s not only about portrayal and celebration on screen. It’s about getting out and about across the North and celebrating alongside the audience itself.

Just over two years ago, together with 10,000 revellers in their wedding finery, we brought ruined Kirkstall Abbey back to life with the award-winning Frankenstein’s Wedding … Live in Leeds. Last year we re-told the Easter story live on BBC One with The Preston Passion and this June, we are doing our bit to celebrate the centenary of Indian cinema with our unique music and dance fusion where East meets West, Bollywood Carmen. Culture, music, fun and community - key ingredients of Northern life.

The BBC isn’t alone in trying to capture every facet of life here in the North. ITV have been doing it well for decades. You don’t have to look further than Coronation Street or Emmerdale from these parts to see how skilfully it weaves together the everyday and commonplace with the darker side of life. Shameless on C4 certainly had its moments too.

It's about time that we got beyond the Northern myths. The dark satanic mills have gone and big bustling cities with metropolitan populations have replaced them - look at the Manchester International Festival this summer, one of the most sophisticated events in the European arts calendar. And Television – the stories we tell and the lives we portray - have to be about light and shade. Because at the end of the day, it makes for a richer, more satisfying experience.

That's it, I'm off - while the sun is still shining.


Peter Salmon is Director of BBC North.

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