Channel 4 has officially opened a new base in Leeds, which it says will make it better able to reflect life across Britain. What difference will it make, and why is West Yorkshire currently the hot place for the TV industry?
Channel 4 will have around 250 of its 850-strong workforce in Leeds by next year, based in the nightclub that inspired The Kaiser Chiefs song I Predict A Riot.
Fifteen years on, the banner hanging from the Majestic’s facade announcing Channel 4’s arrival predicts a media revolution (which doesn’t have the same ring to it, granted).
The broadcaster’s partial relocation will not only give the traditional home of Emmerdale, Countdown, Jimmy’s and Fat Friends more screen time, but has already sparked a flurry of activity in the city’s TV and film industry.
Channel 4 will broadcast a new live daily lunchtime show from Leeds, and C4 News will regularly be co-presented from the city. The channel’s heads of drama and sport, plus other commissioning editors, are based there, as is a new Digital Creative Unit.
Meanwhile, a number of independent production companies have sprung up in the city, and their trade association Pact has opened its only out-of-London office, saying Channel 4’s move made it the “logical” place to be.
There are also plans for a major new film and TV studio, and the National Film and Television School is opening a Leeds branch in January.
Channel 4 is currently in a temporary office until its new “national headquarters” in the Majestic is finished next summer. Smaller “creative hubs” in Bristol and Glasgow, with around 20 staff in each, will officially open in the next two weeks. Another 500-odd will stay in London.
‘A broader range of stories’
“Ultimately, we want this to have an impact on screen,” says Sinead Rocks, C4’s managing director of nations and regions. “We want to be as reflective of life in the UK in its entirety as possible.
“If we have commissioners based in different parts of the country, who are rooted in different communities with different life experience, that’s going to give us access to a broader range of stories and different perspectives.”
Channel 4 chose Leeds over Birmingham and Greater Manchester – despite the latter being home of MediaCityUK, to where the BBC moved a number of departments eight years ago.
“Leeds took the top spot because it had a very young population and a very diverse population – both things that we want to try to tap into,” Rocks says. “There’s a very healthy digital creativity sector here. There’s also a reasonably strong independent production community here, and one that we think could actually grow further.”
Writer Kay Mellor’s production company Rollem has been making shows like Fat Friends and The Syndicate in Leeds for almost two decades. When the company started, it was a “solitary” presence, apart from ITV’s old regional outpost Yorkshire Television, she says.
Her home city has always been “slightly the poor relation” – but Channel 4’s move and developments like the planned studios and a new post-production facility are changing that, she believes. “It’s amazing that these things are happening. We are playing Manchester at their own game, and bigger and better.”
It all means staff are less likely to need to move to London to further their careers. “The very fact that Channel 4 is here means our students don’t necessarily have to leave Leeds to get a job in the media,” Mellor says. “It’s a growing industry here in Leeds, right on our doorstep. We won’t get that talent drain that we’ve experienced such a lot.”
The TV and film industry in Yorkshire had already established solid foundations thanks to people like Mellor and Screen Yorkshire. When a network of subsidised regional screen agencies was abolished in 2011, Screen Yorkshire was among the only survivors. The following year, it used £15m of European Union money to launch a fund to attract productions to the region.
The Yorkshire Content Fund has now invested in almost 50 films and TV shows, on the condition that they are at least partly filmed in the region. The first investment was in the first series of Peaky Blinders – meaning it was mostly filmed in Yorkshire rather than the show’s spiritual home of Birmingham.
In fact, after seeing Yorkshire steal a march on his native Birmingham, Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight last week announced a new screen agency to lure TV and film producers to the Midlands.
Yorkshire’s film and TV industries grew faster than anywhere else in the UK between 2009-2015, Screen Yorkshire has said. With Channel 4 also planning to increase the proportion of programmes it makes outside London from 35% to 50% – worth £250m a year – Screen Yorkshire chief executive Sally Joynson thinks Leeds is the obvious destination for production companies outside the capital.
The TV and film industries are booming in Britain – in fact, they helped prevent the country from going into recession this summer. “London is very busy, and studios are full,” Joynson says. “And that means that there is a great opportunity to get some of that production coming out of London by opening really great facilities that can compete with the very best in London, and a workforce that can compete with the very best in London.”
Filling ITV’s regional gap
Just after Channel 4’s announcement last year, Lime Pictures, which makes Hollyoaks and The Only Way Is Essex, announced a new Leeds-based non-scripted subsidiary called Wise Owl.
It is run by Mark Robinson, one of the few TV executives to have always been based in the north of England – although he says he has travelled the equivalent of twice around the world to pitch programmes to executives in London over the past two decades.
His office is walking distance from Channel 4’s new HQ. “There’s nothing like just nipping down the road to see somebody in Leeds, if you’re a production company in Leeds,” he says.
Robinson began his career at a time when ITV’s regional divisions, including Yorkshire TV, Tyne Tees in Newcastle and Granada in Manchester, were their own mini production powerhouses.
“You could do game shows, sports shows, studio entertainment shows, politics shows, you could do the news, and I learned my trade working on all those sort of shows in regional television,” he says. “Now if you’re 24, you haven’t got the option, because the regional ITV stations have been reduced on the whole to news satellites.”
Channel 4 might bring the amount of TV made in Leeds back to the levels of Yorkshire TV’s heyday. Robinson, who is currently making a series about the Tyne and Wear Metro for ITV, also hopes C4 is true to its word when it comes to making more shows in the north-eastern quarter of the country. “It’s a massive area full of stories. It’s often a part of the country that can get underrepresented on TV.”
Channel 4’s move should redress the balance in the age-old Manchester/Leeds rivalry, almost a decade after the opening of MediaCity, he believes.
“As a Leeds person myself through and through – and I loved working in Salford – I could see that the balance of power had very much shifted to west of the Pennines, and there was an awful lot of TV work in Salford and Manchester and less in Leeds.
“That hasn’t always been the case – Yorkshire Television used to be a massive broadcaster. There’s a feeling here for all companies that it’s our turn to shine, it’s our turn to be in the spotlight and to show what we can do.”