When playing the ninth Doctor Who, Salford’s Christopher Eccleston famously quipped: “Lots of planets have a North,” writes Alice Webb, the new director of BBC North.
The Doctor may have been right but there’s only one North that matters to me – the one in England on planet earth.
Chief Operating Officer of BBC North at the time – a chapter of my career that I look back on with immense pride. Alongside Peter Salmon, I helped lead the relocation of some of the BBC’s biggest departments like BBC Sport, BBC Children’s and BBC Radio 5 live to our new base – a move which by any measure has been hugely successful. So it is with even greater pride I take on the additional role of Director of BBC in the North, alongside my duties as Director of BBC Children’s.
We established a major base in Salford as part of a concerted effort to better serve audiences in the North, to better reflect the North in our content and to invest more money in the region with the aim of delivering an economic dividend and supporting the development of a world-class creative sector.
So, five years on, how have we done? Well our base in MediaCityUK is thriving. It’s developed a strong creative culture and a sense of purpose. There are 3,000 BBC staff at BBC North, producing around 35,000 hours of output a year across TV, Radio and the Red Button– watched by millions of people in the UK and across the world. Match of the Day, BBC Breakfast, Dragon’s Den, Songs of Praise, A Question of Sport, Blue Peter and the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra are just some of the famous BBC brands based in Salford.
BBC North is a centre of excellence for digital technology, home to half of all the BBC’s big digital products. Our digital teams, 650 staff in total, recently launched the BBC iPlayer Kids App. They’re now developing the new BBC Three mobile app not to mention gearing up for a massive summer of sport online.
Christopher Eccleston has long since left Doctor Who and the Tardis behind but earlier this year he was back on BBC One stealing the show as the cantankerous granddad in The A Word. It was filmed in the Lake District, part of our effort to get more northern content on network TV. A second series has just been commissioned.
Another hit earlier this year, the brilliant Happy Valley, is just one of a raft of dramas we’ve made in Yorkshire since 2011. That list includes Last Tango in Halifax, In The Club, An Inspector Calls, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Remember Me and The Syndicate.
In BBC Children’s, Wolfblood is made in Newcastle, which has become a significant focus of our production activity. CBBC’s other major returning drama series, The Dumping Ground, is now made in Morpeth.
At Easter, for the fourth year running, Children’s worked with the Northern Ballet to make a special dance version of The Tortoise and the Hare for CBeebies, filmed in Bradford and starring local children. We also recorded a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Liverpool Everyman as part of the BBC’s Shakespeare season. Later this summer, we’ll be filming The Worst Witch in Cheshire. Before the move north, BBC Children’s spent less than a million pounds a year in the region. Now we spend 40 times that figure.
So we’ve achieved a lot in five years but know there’s still more to do. At the start of this process, building BBC North was about logistics, getting the technology right, creating a new culture. But, now that BBC North is established as an integral part of the BBC and plays a major role in the northern economy, the challenges have changed.
My priorities will be building on our success and shouting about them inside and outside the BBC, establishing further relationships right across the region and ensuring our reach extends to every corner of the North. That’s my new focus and I can’t wait to get started.
Whatever Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor Who said, there’s only one North that counts.
Alice Webb is Director of BBC Children’s and Director of BBC North