When Channel 4 launches its daytime current-affairs program “The Steph Show” this spring, it will mark a milestone in the U.K. broadcaster’s output.
Like most of the British film and TV industries, Channel 4 has been heavily London-centric. By contrast, “The Steph Show,” starring journalist and presenter Steph McGovern, was commissioned by the network’s new head of daytime, who is based in Glasgow, Scotland. It will be broadcast live from the city of Leeds, which lies about 200 miles north of London and is the home of Channel 4’s new national headquarters.
The program is emblematic of a broader move in the entertainment industry to shift production out of London, which has long hogged the industry’s attention, talent and resources. The goal: to spread the wealth and identify new stories and new voices from parts of the U.K., including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, that have historically been overshadowed by the British capital.
“[It’s] really about different ideas, different stories we perhaps wouldn’t have been able to tap into before, new on-screen talent that we will be better able to develop to get them ready to be a part of the channel and its output,” says Sinead Rocks, Channel 4’s managing director for the U.K.’s nations and regions.
It’s an effort that has taken on new urgency in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum, which has pointed up an increasing polarization of British society. Suddenly, the need to make the U.K.’s thriving entertainment industry more representative of the country as a whole, and not just a projection of the big beast of London in the south, has become a matter of practical concern instead of just a philosophical exercise.
“The Brexit referendum was a wake-up call to all broadcasters in the U.K. that you can’t think of the audience as one homogenized lump,” Rocks says. “We are a fractured society, we are a diverse society, and as a public service broadcaster, Channel 4 needs to reflect that full range of opinion.”
The move to diversify the entertainment industry geographically is backed by the British government and its various agencies. In the case of broadcasting, industry regulator Ofcom has tightened the rules governing quotas for both expenditure and program hours of productions made outside London. For the coming year, that’s 50% for the BBC, 35% for Channel 4 and ITV, and 10% for Channel 5.
An early mover was BBC, which has relocated 3,400 posts to Salford in England’s North-West. More than 50% of BBC staff are now based out of London, and the intention is that this will be reflected in the shows it airs and the talent it employs. “All broadcasters, and the BBC in particular because of the way that we are funded [through a license fee paid for by viewers], need to avail themselves of the total creative base across the U.K., the most diverse voices, and I passionately believe that if you have great stories that are true to a place, are authentic to that place, they will travel the world,” Ken MacQuarrie, BBC’s director, nations and regions, says.
New players and hubs are sprouting up around the U.K., with some producers finding that being far from London is a benefit, not a disadvantage. It works well for Warp Films, which recently produced Shane Meadows’ “The Virtues,” a hard-hitting series starring “The Irishman” actor Stephen Graham that was shot in Sheffield, in northeast England, where the company has been based since it was founded in 2002.
The lower rents in Sheffield allowed Warp to take over an old school as a production base, rehearsal space and editing suite. This enabled the production to have five months’ preparation instead of the typical 10 weeks, and facilitated the semi-improvised approach Meadows prefers. “If we’d had to make ‘Virtues’ elsewhere, it would not have had the space to breathe or the time to be creative,” says Mark Herbert, Warp’s co-CEO, adding: “Some of the best decisions I’ve made have been the riskier ones, and if I had a massive overhead — that you know you need in a London environment — then that might have been trickier to make some of the bolder decisions that helped shape the company.”
Herbert frequently travels to other cities to meet potential creative partners. “When you’re outside that London bubble, you tend to look elsewhere for content, stories and talent. Somehow you are more open to exploring, meeting talent, going to see regional theater, regional writers,” he says. “That has helped us find some of the talent and projects we’ve gotten to first.”
“The Brexit referendum was a wake-up call to all broadcasters in the U.K. … We are a fractured society, we are a diverse society, and as a public service broadcaster, Channel 4 needs to reflect that full range of opinion.”
Sinead Rocks, Channel 4
Past British global hits set in lesser-known parts of the country have included “Trainspotting” (Edinburgh), “The Full Monty” (Sheffield) and “Billy Elliot” (County Durham) on the big screen and “Poldark” (Cornwall) and “Peaky Blinders” (Birmingham) on TV. But many of those productions were conceived and ordered in London.
As part of its relocation, Channel 4 has moved some of its top commissioners from London to Leeds, including the head of drama and the head of sports. About 300 of the broadcaster’s 900 jobs will be based outside the British capital by the end of next year, including 250 in Leeds. (CEO Alex Mahon will continue to be based mostly in London, however.) Channel 4 says it intends not only to meet its Ofcom quota but to surpass it by spending 50% of its production budget outside London by 2023.
The success of the network’s “Derry Girls,” a comedy set in Northern Ireland in the 1990s against a backdrop of civil strife, demonstrates how a show made outside London can strengthen a broadcaster’s output. It gave Channel 4 its biggest comedy launch in 15 years. “It’s that kind of storytelling that we hope we’ll see more of when we’re fully embedded in these different communities,” Rocks says. “The likes of ‘Derry Girls’ will give commissioners confidence that having something with a very clear geographical setting doesn’t have to mean it is in any way parochial.”
Another rapidly developing creative hub is in South Wales, with an emphasis on drama series, which kicked off when then-BBC executives Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner decided to base production for the rebooted “Doctor Who” in Cardiff. In 2015, the duo set up production company Bad Wolf in the region, supported by a loan from the Welsh government. They’re producing “His Dark Materials” at their production facility there, Wolf Studios Wales, for the BBC and HBO.
The company continues to work closely with Welsh officials. One example: a training and education program it set up. As in other regions, the quality and depth of below-the-line staff is a potential brake on further growth. “We can’t train the crew quickly enough,” says Natasha Hale, Bad Wolf’s chief operating officer.
One of the aims of the various relocations has been to establish clusters of expertise around the country. The city of Bristol, in southwest England, is one of the world’s centers of the creation of wildlife and nature programming. As well as housing the BBC’s famed Natural History Unit, the city is home to production companies such as Silverback Films, whose “Our Planet” series for Netflix nabbed two Emmys.
According to Silverback co-founder Alastair Fothergill, who refers to Bristol as Green Hollywood, more than half of the world’s wildlife shows are produced in the city. His own company’s blue-chip natural history programs receive 80% of their funding from the international market, and Fothergill often travels to Los Angeles to meet with clients. “Our perspective is very, very global, and so whether [we are based in] Bristol or London, it’s a very small movement on a very large map,” he says.
It’s not just the creatives who contribute to the city’s ecosystems but ancillary services like post-production, graphics and facilities such as Bottle Yard Studios. “There’s a real sense of community here in Bristol. We help each other out, and we share talents, and we cooperate as much as we can,” Fothergill says.
The city is also home to world-famous Aardman Animations, the creators of “Wallace & Gromit” and “Shaun the Sheep”; and Plimsoll Prods., which makes wildlife documentary shows and other types of unscripted content. Channel 4 is planning to set up a small creative hub in Bristol and another in Glasgow.
Bad Wolf’s Hale applauds the shift from the traditional center of gravity of Britain’s film and TV industries. “The audience isn’t all in London, and the audience’s stories and experiences [in other parts of the U.K.] are different,” she says. “That needs to be represented properly.”
MacQuarrie underscores the importance of training. “When you are building outside of London it is not simply about the production base it is about having on hand a quality craft base that can sustain these productions. I would like to see more investment in the training of a craft base in the U.K.,” he says.