Sunday, 28 September 2014

Peaky Blinders: Birmingham grabs a slice of the London pie, with extreme violence. Oh, wait, that's fiction...

Concerned Birmingham License Fee payers arrive at Broadcasting House
in London for a friendly chat about the way their money is being spent

Red carpet capers

The BBC very nicely invited me to a Peaky Blinders preview last Sunday. It starts on BBC2 this week. Ripsnorting fun it was, too. The acting's top-notch; series 2 is a lot more violent and sweary than series 1. Even the Brummy accents are more accurate – they're not quite there, but they're better. 

Author Steven Knight has delivered a great story. It looks like he's given a lot of thought to the Birmingham-London relationship - never exactly a two-way affair of mutual love and respect. The show's going to make money for the Corporation and the London production company that made it, Tiger Aspect.

But, but, but...when the BBC and Tiger Aspect decided to make Peaky Blinders, I wonder - did they even think to base production offices in Birmingham? I could run through a list of invigorating BBC dramas all set in, and featuring, the regions. They were all made in the towns they portrayed. But not Peaky Blinders.

Plot spoiler alert

But the show itself is a winner. Posters are up to sell the series. Look, here's Cillian Murphy looking ominous and meaningful – and what a caption! 'London's For The Taking'. It doesn't take much to work out that his character, the unstoppable Thomas Shelby, is going to head down to the decadent fleshpots of the Smoke to mete out spectacular balletic violence and claim his slice of the pie. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I really like that idea. You may well agree once you've seen the first episode.

The BBC loves loves loves Birmingham, honest

Before the preview screened, we had speeches. You know, the Corporation really, really, honestly, really, does totally love Birmingham. What's more, jobs really, honestly, really, are coming back: 200 training jobs; a mysterious team of six digital hipsters somewhere down Fazeley Street cooking up unspecified brilliance; a 600-parter World War 1 radio drama series. And the usual reminders of existing output: the Drama Village, The Archers, Radio WM. 

All good, of course. Except that that modest output was in place two years ago, Home Front excepted. And most of the promised new teams have yet to arrive. What wasn't mentioned was that existing BBC teams in Birmingham are still facing further cuts. These may run up to 25% in some departments. One step forward, two steps back...

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm very happy that jobs, even if only vaguely connected with broadcasting, are on their way. It's not before time. But, in truth, not a lot has changed. So why is the region producing so little? I'll come to that. It's grim stuff. 

They do make tiny bits of Peaky Blinders in the region. Our hero was led through a warren of back streets by a local urchin in the very identifiable Black Country Museum. But even then, they didn't use any local talent. Instead, they brought in a freelance make-up team from Manchester instead of using local freelances. So the total spend was probably a few quid on meals and petrol to get people back home to Leeds or London.

So where is the work? And where is the money?

I learned this week that Birmingham based actors are now using friends' addresses in Manchester when applying for work at the the BBC in the North. It seems casting directors and producers are bypassing the Midlands in favour of talent closer to where they are based. This is all about the perceived viability of local talent pools, and I'll come back to that. 

2013 proportion of BBC license fees spent in region.
Figures from Campaign For Regional Broadcasting
The grisly core of it all is this: there is a vast and disproportionate amount of license fee funding flowing out from our region, the largest in terms of license fees paid, to be spent in London. Since I first wrote about this two years ago, the slice of license fees retained to be spent in the Midlands has shrunk, again, to less than nine percent. That's right, less than nine percent. This is far, far less that any of the other BBC Regions: it is derisively, contemptuously, insultingly small. 

So we Midlanders send around £830 million a year south. Interestingly, London license fee payers kick in about half of that. Once in London, Midlands money helps fund trifles like New Broadcasting House, expensive and failed IT systems, huge payoffs to sacked senior execs – thankfully now mainly in the past – and London-based companies who make shows like Peaky Blinders. 

This horrible funding imbalance was wrong when it was first flagged up. It's wrong now. It rankles. The BBC serves the nation, but dismisses and patronises its largest region while helping itself to that region's funding. And over the past twenty years, we have seen a hideous contraction in facilities and jobs across the whole of the Midlands, while every other BBC region has enjoyed significant investment.   

A problem that needs fixing

At least the BBC now grudgingly admits that broadcast centres across the Midlands have been woefully treated, Birmingham worst of all. That's good news. But there's a big problem: the damage has been done. It's seen as a done deal. Fixing it will be difficult. 

We all know that the BBC is under attack from an unsympathetic government and much of the London based UK press, which has much to gain. They will fill voids left by a diminished BBC with their own commercial activities.

But that doesn't absolve the BBC of responsibility to our region. Midlands talent and Midlands license fee payers deserve a steady, solid, well-planned resurgence in broadcast and production activity. That's the foundation. That's what's needed. 

How to set about it? Well, an affordable and realistic set of steps tied to a long-term plan would be good. Transparency would be good, too, but I think we can dream on there. It's worth noting that other people are stepping up the plate: here's Steven Knight talking about some exciting plans for production in the city. I can't tell you how refreshing this news is, after years and years of prevarication, dismissals, and bumbling incompetence elsewhere. Someone with industry nous has, at last. worked out that Birmingham is really well located, full of talent, and incredibly convenient to get to and from. 

What have we got to shout about? Talent. LOTS of it. 

We know that:

1       The West Midlands has a LOT going for it. To our shame, we don't shout about it. 
2       The West Midlands benefits from a young and inventive population. 
3       That population – I can't speak for the East Midlands or East Anglia – is pretty much the most diverse in the UK. 

I hear all this regularly from BBC executives when they do big up the region. There's much to celebrate. But, hey, I knew all that already. I've lived and worked in and from this region for most of my working life.

So let me add some more facts:

1       Our young and not so young population produces some of the most thrilling and refreshing music, dance, writing, video, indie film and theatre in the UK. It's never, ever, been better than right now. 
2       That output deserves to be supported and celebrated. 
3       We need those talent pools to ferment and grow across all sectors. The BBC can do this brilliantly when it wants to. It's at its best when multiple diverse talents inter-react and create. 

A wild and crazy idea: let's celebrate that talent 

If we take that as a starting point, an easy way - not the only way - to get the ball rolling would be to use radio. It's affordable and flexible. And the most popular and cost effective form of radio is music radio.

So here's a wild and crazy idea: why not place some nationally networked music shows in the region? I can't see any reason why not.

In Manchester, Marc Riley, Craig Charles, Radcliffe and Maconie and Mary Anne Hobbs deliver 31 hours a week for 6 music, as best as I can work out. There may be more, but the station is a trifle coy about telling us where the shows come from.

I'm not complaining about this. It's great. It means that presenters and production teams are based in that city, perfectly placed to spot new talent from the city; that's just what they do. Marc Riley does Manchester proud. And I'll bet you a pound to a penny that that local awareness at network level in Manchester leads to conversations with the local BBCLR Introducing teams. With that bridge built, career possibilities open right up. And the talent pool – remember that idea? - grows and develops.

None of that happens in the Midlands. Why not? There are brand-spanking new radio studios gathering dust in the Mailbox. There is raw material aplenty and presenting talent to burn across the region. Current and prospective staff are itching to develop their careers in their own region.

And, let me, once again, remind you: this region collects more money for the BBC than any other – 25% of all BBC licence fee income - and is by far the worst represented region in terms of broadcast output. It's time to start redressing the balance. It's not just fair, it's also the right thing to do.

Baby steps, huge rewards

So that's my modest, preliminary, just for starters proposal. I'm not even going to begin suggesting how this will be achieved; I expect the very idea will lead to howls of outrage and derision from Broadcasting House - the very people who should be implementing this kind of change. 

But if that nettle can be grasped, wouldn't it be good to see daytime weekday shows, in prime time, on both 6music and 1Xtra, and, hey, how about one edition of a week of Radio 3's Late Junction, all coming from the Mailbox? And can the Asian Network be encouraged to look beyond Bollywood and start championing some local creativity? While all that cooks up, it would be the right time for those Digbeth digital guerillas to surface with their hot new apps. I hope and pray they've got some stuff ready for music and video. 

I could go on, because it really shouldn't stop there. We need more than tinkering around the edges. A serious and proportionate share of Midlands license fee money spent back in the region would amount to north of £500 million a year. Think of the jobs and creativity that might unleash.

But kicking off with digital network radio shows and new digital creativity would be a terrific and cost-effective first step, and something to showcase. A start, a picking of low-hanging fruit. Set this up, and the door opens to the creative critical mass that makes the BBC so great. With it, the first tiny opportunities are opened to the next generation of broadcasters. And the BBC reaches out in a fresh way to its worst supported and most exploited region.

The possibilities are limitless, but it calls for a lot of goodwill and imagination from the powers that be. I remain to be convinced that that goodwill and imagination exists. 

But think about it, Auntie, please. There are riches for the taking. It would be nice to have an answer, too. Or do I have to send Mister Shelby and the boys round?

See also
I choose Birmingham interviews Steve Knight

See more posts on broadcasting on Radio To Go


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Neil Hillman said...

Brilliantly readable, erudite and accurate.

Mike Owen said...

Tough comments - very interesting. Will anyone take any notice? The staff dare not, methinks...