Beowulf may be Game of Thrones for North East; The distinctiveness of the North East lies behind the success of Vera and could make Beowulf a money-spinning hit. JULIAN BELLAMY, managing director of ITV Studios, spoke of his hopes for the regional TV industry when delivering the Royal Television Society North East and Border keynote lecture at Gateshead Old Town Hall. This is an edited version.
Forty-odd years ago my dad worked for tyne tees as a jobbing studio director in light entertainment. My older brother was born in Ashington and our family lived in Seaton delaval.
We stayed in the North East for three years before my dad was moved on to his next tour of directorial duty, but travel was a characteristic of my early life thanks to ItV... and 40 years on it still is, albeit with more jet lag.
It is interesting how much travelling I currently do. Not because there's anything inherently fascinating in my perpetual motion life, but because of what it says about the world of tV and what it means for regions such as the North East.
But first some context. I believe three things about tV.
one: the business is fundamentally in great shape, and for production companies like ItV Studios there are more opportunities then ever before to make great television.
two: at its core, this a talent business and top talent is more in demand, more commercial, more mobile than it's ever been - which means our job is attracting and working with that talent wherever it happens to be.
And thirdly: difference is now the new norm. It is the era of distinctive voices. The successful production company is the one that can find and nurture them.
These shifts herald a new relevance and a new importance for regions such as the North East.
time was when someone at ItV like me would sit in London and the world, a much smaller world, would come to me.
These days the action is elsewhere. In America, the Nordics, Israel and here in the UK it's often in non-metropolitan hubs, second or third cities, regional centres where there has been a conscious effort to use the media as a force for energetic regeneration - places such as Manchester, Leeds, Bristol and, I hope to a growing extent, Newcastle and the North East.
Although I spent a chunk of my tV life at C4 promoting regionalism, as commissioning editor for the Nations and regions, I probably counted myself among the cynics when plans were first mooted to relocate a sizeable chunk of the BBC to Salford.
We'd all watched previous BBC initiatives wither and die due to the relentless gravitational pull of London media-land.
And yet this time I've been proved Turn to Page 44 From Page 43 wrong. Media City in Salford is thriving, not just as a home of swathes of the BBC but as a self-sustaining, indeed burgeoning, home to substantial chunks of ITV schedule real estate.
Last year ITV Studios' daytime output from Manchester was 142 hours. This year it has tripled to 432 hours.
Last year there was no in-house drama coming from Manchester. This year we have two big series originated and produced there in Ray Winstone's Trials of Jimmy Rose and Midwinter of the Spirit.
ITV has 900 people working in Media City, contributing to a vibrant out-of-London production community.
In fact, I would argue ITV is a more accurate bell weather of the health of regional production than the BBC.
The BBC had to do what they did and spend big in the regions to justify a licence fee raised from the whole of the UK.
ITV doesn't. ITV is now largely able to do what suits ITV commercially. However, the last few years have taught us that our bread doesn't get buttered in London.
The wellspring of what we do, the reason we connect with audiences, comes from ITV's deep roots outside London. Obligation has morphed into opportunity.
For example, our much-talkedabout UK acquisition strategy is not just about growth, revenue and increased production hours.
It's also about teaming up with indies (independent production companies) who share our philosophy. So it's no surprise that some of those acquired companies have regional roots. For us at ITV regionality is increasingly seen as a key competitive advantage.
In the past ITV's regional roots would have been tangible - physical studios, outside broadcast capability, smart vans with regional logos. These days our regional roots lie in intangible assets: talent mainly - writing talent, acting talent, directing talent, producing talent.
And unlike the physical assets, what our new assets create is eminently transferable, locally sourced, globally attractive.
The single biggest thing that keeps me awake at night is talent: how to find it, how to work best with it and how to keep it in an increasingly global marketplace.
Take, for example, the scripted business. The international appetite for glossy new high-end drama has accelerated in the last few years.
In the US alone this year there have been 400 drama series launched.
What's interesting about this scripted explosion and the age of Netflix, Amazon and bold channel brands is that it's not about copycat programming or bland formulas.
As the British head of a US network recently put it, the era of least objectionable programming is dead. Now the game is more about a genuine search for the different, the distinctive. It's about individualism not homogenisation. It's about a particular point of view, a particular section of society, a particular place.
It's like the world is done with the general and the average and now it wants the specific and the original. And that's where very particular talent allied to a very special place comes in.
I think this is brilliantly illustrated by one of our new dramas, Jericho. Set in the Yorkshire Dales in the 1870s and starring Jessica Raine, we hope this will be one of the drama series of next year.
I could also cite other examples of great series like Home Fires, set in Cheshire. Or Cradle to Grave, Midwinter of the Spirit and The Trials of Jimmy Rose, all produced in Manchester.
But I'm very aware that when TV execs publicly cite success stories from 'The North' they often just end up talking about the North West, not the North East.
So I'll use our drama Vera as a prime example of the conjunction of talent and place.
Vera couldn't have happened without the novels of Ann Cleeves who has put down roots in the North East.
In a way, the landscape of Seaham, with its wide open skies and its unique mix of the wild and the post industrial, is as much a driver of plot as the characters Vera investigates.
In the series the landscape seems to do more than just reflect the inner life of the characters, it actually seems to motivate them for good or evil.
Consequently Vera doesn't fit into anyone's stereotype of how the world views Britain. There isn't a butler or maid in sight, yet such is the appetite for the authentic and the specific that Vera has found its enthusiastic international audience across 131 countries.
There was a time when American TV channels wouldn't have touched the everyday grim of Vera or its North East accents with a barge pole. Now it is relished for its uniqueness, its grounded specificity.
Brenda Blethyn claims that she developed the character of Vera bottom up from a pair of second-hand boots she bought 20 years ago for PS12 and which she feels sums up the no-nonsense detective.
Her series certainly stamps a significant economic footprint in the region - if nothing else because, like a lot of ITV Studios productions, we now make a conscious but admittedly self-interested effort to employ local TV and film talent on our productions.
In Vera's case, the series employs over 50 local people when shooting and uses over 40 local suppliers.
The current director is a local lad.
Jamie Childs grew up here, moved to London to direct ads and now has come back to do his first TV directing job.
One day, perhaps, talent like Jamie will be able to cut out the middle bit and just stay in the North. What is certain is that he has been hired to make the show more local, not less.
On a practical level, he will no doubt take the series to nooks and crannies that only someone from here would be aware of.
On a more indefinable level, he will infuse the series with a certain spirit, a feeling that can only come from one place and is exactly what gives Vera its uncompromising credibility.
It may surprise you that, because of these opportunities, this year ITV Studios made around two thirds of its drama outside London and the South East - and that doesn't include our soaps. Bear with me for this: 'Gaeo a wyrd swa hio scel!' Excuse the rustiness of my Anglo Saxon accent but it's a quote from the epic poem Beowulf: 'Fate goes ever as it must.' And Fate, together with huge help from local councils, film funds and a wealth of local talent, has led us to produce and reimagine Beowulf as a hugely ambitious 13-part drama series, based in a quarry in Weardale.
Even for a company the size of ITV Studios - and we are now the largest commercial producer in the UK - Beowulf is a big bet, a multi-million pound bet on an epic TV adventure.
And we aren't just betting on a fantastic script and a brilliant cast. We are betting on the North East itself. Not just its extraordinary beauty, but also the people up here who have the skill and the commitment to make our make-believe real, to realise our fantasy.
Last week I went to Cannes for MIPCOM (a global market for entertainment content) with the sole objective of persuading buyers from all around the world that they should buy Beowulf.
And when I say buy, I don't just mean pluck it offthe shelf and then hide this obscure foreign drama in a time slot only ever seen by insomniacs. I mean: choose Beowulf as their big launch for winter. This is a highend, brand-defining show that we hope will play across the world.
Game of Thrones is estimated to have brought almost PS90m directly and indirectly to the local Northern Irish economy. Doctor Who kickstarted a film and media industry in Wales which has seen a 52% increase in employment in the creative industries and is currently hosting another epic, The Bastard Executioner.
Will Beowulf do the same for the North East? Well, it remains to be seen whether Beowulf will take offand be transformative.
I also know that we in the TV industry are now streets ahead of where we used to be in terms of seeing the value in what we produce. When Heartbeat was filmed on the North York Moors the most exploitation of the show you were likely to find would be some nick-nacks in a souvenir shop in Whitby.
In contrast, high-end Game of Thrones gold jewellery is a big thing now with exclusive pieces going for hundreds of pounds, all made by the local jeweller in Ireland who makes the jewellery for the series.
Just as major drama series have gone more local, their audiences - and so their means of funding - have gone more global. We hope dollars, Euros, shekels and zlotys will pour into the North East to help keep making this ambitious project happen.
We are expanding the pool of talent in the region which has got to be good for everyone. Talent attracts talent and a cluster bomb of talent attracts commissions.
Take Shiver, our factual arm, which goes from strength to strength.
You could measure the success of a series such as Tales From Northumberland in a lot of ways: the audience of valuable Eastender refusniks who watch the show on ITV; the production fee it makes for ITV Studios; the contribution it makes to the 66 hours a year of network TV Shiver produce from the North; the effect it has on local tourism, what they call 'the Robson Greene effect'.
But you can also measure the success in terms of the talent the series has uncovered and developed: the GP and part-time photographer - found on Vimeo - who does the amazing timelapse photography for the series and is now expanding his hobby into a sideline business; the now-established drone company which does the sweeping aerial shots of Northumberland in all its glory; the series researcher who had never worked in the business before but is now well on her way to career in TV.
When compared to the might of Media City, it may seem like lowlevel stuff, but it's from these beginnings that a sustainable and expanding TV sector is growing.
As ITV goes global it opens up new connections for everyone.
Companies and broadcasters around the world are now awake to the quality of what can be produced in the UK. There is a real hunger for more, for the big idea set in the right location. It's a hunger that, big as we are, we can't fill alone. That's why we are open for all sorts of partnerships with all sorts of local indies and all sorts of local talent.
Time was when the watch words 'Think Global, Act Local' were all the rage. 'Act Local, Act Global' is now perhaps a better motto.
Brenda Blethyn, star of TV series Vera
Julian Bellamy, managing director of ITV Studios
Robson Green with Ben Burville, filming Tales From Northumberland
Kieran Bew as Beowulf
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|Publication:||The Journal (Newcastle, England)|
|Date:||Oct 24, 2015|
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