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RTS Awards highlight need for new production fund

The North East version of the Oscars took place at the weekend. David Whetstone wonders if our creative industries are getting the support they deserve

The filming of 'Macbeth' on Bamburgh Beach in North Northumberland
The filming of 'Macbeth' on Bamburgh Beach in North Northumberland

When Tyne Tees TV first went on air, I have it on pretty good authority, a little old lady turned up at the front desk on Newcastle’s City Road and asked to see the horses.

Cue blank looks until she explained she was a fan of the Westerns that ITV regularly broadcast to her sitting room, via its regional studios.

It was the horses of the cowboys and Indians she wanted to meet, not John Wayne who in any case would probably have been busy over a pint in the Egypt Cottage next door.

Of course, there was no John Wayne. There were no horses. And now there are no Tyne Tees Studios on City Road. Which is a roundabout way of saying that the broadcast landscape has changed immeasurably since cowboys and Indians were prime time TV fare.

This was abundantly clear at the 27th awards of the Royal Television Society (North East and the Border) at the weekend where regional RTS chairman Graeme Thompson – who once ran those City Road Studios – invited us to celebrate another succesful year in which “production teams for network drama, documentaries and regional programmers are working alongside games producers, animators and interactive content producers in a thriving creative industries sector”.

There was an upbeat atmosphere: Champagne, broad smiles (especially on the faces of the winners) and eight big TV productions in the North East to celebrate.

Among these were Vera (judged Best Drama), Hebburn, The Paradise, Robson Green’s Tales From Northumberland and a swathe of programming for CBBC including the new Harriet’s Army, a drama about a Girl Guide and her pals who answered the equivalent of Kitchener’s call to arms during the First World War.

Producer Foz Allan (also the man behind CBBC’s Wolfblood and Tracy Beaker spin-off The Dumping Ground) said it was an original idea from screenwriter Guy Burt and would be shown in three 30-minute episodes.

Filming begins this week from a base at Gateshead’s Team Valley with period locations including the Beamish Museum and the Tanfield Railway.

But amid the infectious enthusiasm questions were raised. The demise of Sky Tyne and Wear was lamented and it was noted that The Paradise will not be re-commissioned. Fleetingly Graeme Thompson also referred to the challenges of being “surrounded by areas with multi-million-pound production funds – North West, Scotland, Yorkshire”.

In 2012 Screen Yorkshire was able to boast of a £15m production fund – £7.5m from Europe plus matched private sector money – to invest in creative content in Yorkshire and to lure projects from elsewhere. Creative Scotland, meanwhile, can offer funding awards for Scottish-based feature films or TV series of up to £300,000.

By contrast, Northern Film and Media, based in the North East, can offer sums of up to £1,500 for film, TV and digital media projects. Its equivalent full-time staff of 5.8 compares with the 20-plus it employed just a few years ago and its last production fund, which was worth about £2.5m and came from Europe via the now defunct One NorthEast, has been spent.

Among the projects it helped to bring here were the feature film A Song For Marion, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp, and the TV film United, a dramatisation of the Munich air disaster, with David Tennant.

It’s not all about money, of course. Those at Northern Film and Media will tell you that locations and local receptiveness are also key. It was a word in the right ear that brought The Paradise to County Durham and the recent Macbeth shoot with Michael Fassbender at Bamburgh, you can bet your bottom dollar, wasn’t set up there just because someone waved a cheque.

In the same way that British successes at the Oscars draw attention to the brilliance of our industry, high-profile film and TV projects promote a region to the benefit of all.

Those in the know on Saturday were suggesting that the influential people looking to distribute the latest funding crumbs from Europe seem more kindly disposed to traditional industries because they tend to comprise big factories with lots of jobs.

In the creative sector, jobs are here, there and everywhere. Yet as Graeme Thompson pointed out, the creative industries are growing fast, with jobs in film, TV, music and software increasing by 8.6% in recent years.

The number of awards categories dedicated to students struck me on Saturday. All were hotly contested by bright young things from Cumbria, Teesside, Northumbria and Sunderland universities. How many, I wondered, would eventually find work in the North East?

In the light of all the weekend’s glittering successes, both in the North East and Hollywood, isn’t this the moment to capitalise?

Perhaps the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, which is funded by the region’s seven local authorities and the Government to promote economic growth, should put all this stuff higher up its agenda.

That way, perhaps, we can build on recent successes, develop and nurture the talent we clearly have, prevent a media student brain drain and make this the region every aspiring film-maker or games creator or animator or screenwriter wants to work.

Maybe we could even see a 21st Century Western, with real horses, filmed on Bamburgh beach.

A final point. Creative England, the body set up by the Government to invest in and support the creative industries outside London, and which calls itself “a national organisation with strong local and regional links”, has offices in Salford, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Nottingham, Pinewood and Elstree. As so often in the North East, it’s up to us.

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David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
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Stuart Rayner
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