Not long after I started work at Radio Times, a lifetime ago, shortly after the repeal of the Corn Laws, I was asked to write a piece about a new drama series called Our Friends in the North.
I was something of an exotic creature in those days, having myself just come down from The North, a bit like a snow leopard in clogs, though a snow leopard who pronounced “moors” with two syllables (all wrong, apparently) and who had never heard of goat’s cheese. Or “guurt’s cheese”, as I pronounced it. Again, wrong and very funny to this day, it seems. Just ask my colleague David Butcher. He finds it hilarious.
Anyway, this was the perfect meeting of writer and subject, I was from The North, so it was decided I could write about The North, or Our Friends in the North, what became Peter Flannery’s fondly remembered, benchmark saga about the lives of a group of Geordie pals.
Such presumptuous writer/subject “regionism” now strikes me as outrageous, but there you go, we did things differently back then when we made our own entertainment, whittling the internet out of Wensleydale cheese.
Of course the pretty bits of the north – the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors (two syllables!) – were already known worldwide thanks to All Creatures Great and Small and Heartbeat. But Our Friends was different, it was raw, unglamorous and urban, far, far away from the fudge-tin picturesqueness of soft Sunday-evening dramas. It was gritty, too, dealing with the local government bribery scandals involving politician T Dan Smith (known as “Mr Newcastle”) and architect John Poulson that rocked the North East during the early 1970s.
There are echoes of such heady days of regeneration and audacious, ultimately doomed, vision in this week’s Inspector George Gently (Wednesday BBC1), written by the very same Peter Flannery, where a developer with big ideas for the transformation of Newcastle is murdered.
But there’s more to it than that. In a much wider sense Gently is the perfect example, too, of a series that is set in the north and is filmed in the north, though Alan Hunter’s original books were based in Norfolk and early series were filmed in Northern Ireland. Now Gently is firmly rooted in Durham and Newcastle and it’s great to see actual Durham and actual Newcastle. Much of Wednesday’s episode is set around Newcastle’s Five Bridges (this was back in the 1960s, the number has increased since) and it does my heart good to see that some other bridges in some other city, probably down south, aren’t used as stand-ins.
These are great days for proper northern telly set in authentic locations, which I think is one of the longest-coming, most significant innovations I’ve seen in my television-watching career. The ITV thriller Safe House is set firmly in the Lake District with trips into Manchester, Peter Kay’s Car Share (BBC1) roams across Greater Manchester and No Offence, C4’s new Paul Abbott drama, is proudly, brashly, rudely centred in, yes, Manchester.
Giving viewers and licence-fee payers who don’t live in the south a stake in mass-market dramas is a duty and a requirement of drama commissioners and channel controllers. At last, television has lifted its gaze from London and the south. Last year’s Michael Palin ghost story Remember Me made Scarborough look sinister and fabulous, while the forthcoming BBC1 adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was filmed largely in York and Wakefield. ITV’s hit crime drama Vera is proudly set and filmed in Northumberland and Newcastle. And of course Last Tango in Halifax is actually filmed in Halifax and not Slough or Berkhamsted.
At last, television dramas have left London. Rejoice! And visit!
Alison Graham is TV editor of Radio Times