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AA Gill savages Salford (Read 5923 times)
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AA Gill savages Salford
Apr 11th, 2011, 9:50am
This is taken from The Sunday Times:

The great north run-in

As the BBC moves hundreds of employees to Salford, AA Gill and Rod Liddle get a guided tour of the new HQ from creative director, Alan Yentob
Published: 10 April 2011

Rod Liddle weaves his way through the grimly designed station concourse at Euston and points at a wall. “That was where I first lived in London, by those railings. Seven weeks I slept there.” He was 17 and had left home in Middlesbrough to be a runner for film companies in Soho. He pauses and slumps baggily, to reflect. Then he slips back into his rant: “We should be first class. I always travel first class.” As he puts the second-class ticket into his wallet I can’t help noticing the Labour Party membership card in the window where most people put photos of their wife and kids.

We’re joined by Alan Yentob, the BBC’s creative director. “We’re travelling second class aren’t we?” Yes, and our three tickets came to £700. “Good,” he says, “because I’m not allowed in first class.” On the way to the platform we meet an independent producer whom Alan and I both know. “Oh, are you going to Salford, too? I’ll see you on board,” he says. Well, actually, you won’t. We’re second class. “Really? Why? My advance ticket only cost £25.”

“You know,” says Alan, “even if I can get a cheap first-class ticket, I’m not allowed to take it. It sends the wrong signals, apparently. We must be seen to be travelling second class.”

All this is not just entitled whingeing. We are travelling to Salford to see where the BBC’s new northern headquarters is going to be. The BBC is going to have to fork out for this journey hundreds of times a week, ferrying guests, technicians and producers. In London its annual taxi bill is already £14m. That’s shrapnel compared to the cost of air, rail and cab fares to Salford.

The ticket conversation gets us through the Midlands. “We’re in the north now,” declares Rod, brightening up. How do you know? “That’s Derby over there.” Is that the border then? “Yes,” he says, with the certainty of a man who heard it from Disraeli. He’s like a cross between a sat nav and JB Priestley. Where the north is, exactly, is not a vacuous quiz-night question. Who is northern and whether there is a definable sensibility and a culture that is being ignored by broadcasting is at the heart of this expensive outreach. I think it’s a fool’s errand, a cultural cringe. Rod thinks it’s merely a start to the aesthetic cleansing of smug southern bastards. But isn’t this like deciding that Hollywood should move to Detroit? “Well, that mightn’t be such a bad idea,” says Alan, brightly.

We finally get to Manchester without being eaten by northerners who couldn’t locate the refreshment trolley. The first thing you notice about the Salford Quays project is that it could be anywhere. The train could have dropped us in a thousand places, on the edge of everywhere in the developed world. It is a big, capital plan, made by the architectural school of Stickle Bricks and Jenga; easy-build, statement blocks that lean against each other for a collective gravitas. It owes all its aesthetics to its size, and it wears a big label: MediaCityUK. There is the inevitable multi-functional people space; somewhere to hold impromptu world-music concerts, clog-dancing competitions and al fresco weather reports: “It’s lovely up north.” But now it’s a windy parking lot, inhabited by one tortoise-like street sweeper and a security guard with a mission statement on his back: “OurCity, YourCity, MediaCityUK.”

The new esplanade crunches with salt. Maybe it’s all that’s left of the salt-of-the-earth that was Salford. This was briefly a city of economic muscle, paid for by spinning cotton reels and a canal. Its decline began before the first world war. By the 1930s it could boast some of the worst slums in the nation. Since the second world war the population of Salford has melted away for better prospects, mostly to the south. MediaCity hasn’t been put here to tap into a flourishing culture. It’s here because nothing else is here. It’s cheap.

The BBC is making a huge mistake. This expensive outreach is a fool’s errand, a cultural cringe

A sprightly, skinny gent strides over. He has an angular face like a triangle of cheese that just ate a rat. “Hello, hello,” all round.

He greets Rod with a rehearsed surprise. He was once a radio reporter on the Today programme when Rod was a producer. Now he’s a flak-catcher, a journalist turned journalist-tamer. He’s here to show us round.

“There’s not a lot happening at the moment, but you’ll get a sense. I’m afraid there’s no filming.”

Rod comes with his own video-diarist, and blusters that seeing as this is a media city, the camera ought to feel at home. The minder replies that that’s the rules.

So Alan steps forward, all cool, like Clint in a plastic mac, and says in a quietly menacing voice: “I’m sure that doesn’t apply to the artistic director of the BBC.” The cheese turns hard, and with a snarling smile shoots back that this building isn’t owned by the BBC.

So, no camera it is. See, MediaCity is only rented. This is private enterprise, built for profit. Whether it brings masses of local jobs to the area is up to the landlords, not the director general. And already local cabbies tell us that they won’t be given a rank because the owners have done a deal with a Manchester mini-cab firm. The BBC may think it’s spreading the largesse of media employment to the black-and-white north, but MediaCity is here for the benefit of speculators.

The studios are big and empty, roughly painted breeze-block. They smell of newness and haste. Here is the hall for the BBC Philharmonic, a garage for light music, and the studio where A Question of Sport is being made. But this is not a state-of-the-art, cutting-edge, 21st-century creative hub. It’s a warehouse with microphones.

It isn’t just happening in Manchester. Alan Yentob’s own programme, Imagine, has been outsourced to Glasgow. He’s been encouraged to employ more Scottish directors. But almost every director in London is Scottish. “Ah, no, they have to be Scottish Scottish.” But what is the substantive difference between a Scotsman who has a house in London and one who has a house in Sterling? Does a Mancunian stop having a Manchester sensibility if he moves to Luton?

The great, smiley, southern patronage of regionalism is the official reason for this move. It is an overcompensating reaction to committee guilt. It mistakes geography for culture. Nobody will discuss how much this is all going to cost. It’s not just train fares and relocation grants, it’s duplicated infrastructure and bureaucracy. “It’s a good thing,” says Rod, “to get local voices.”

What he really means is to get fewer London voices. It’s about placating boiling regional resentment. They have a point. The capital gets to keep government, banking, the arts, broadcasting, movies, tourism and all the laughter and jollity and cash that goes with it. London is a city that is far too big for the country it squats in. It always has been. London doesn’t serve the nation, the nation feeds an insatiable London. The best, brightest, prettiest and most ambitious from every class, at the end of every regional school year, leave for the south and return only to bury their parents. London is the focus of resentment and jealousy. But it is also the most cosmopolitan, ethnically and culturally diverse city in the country. In exporting bits of broadcasting’s infrastructure, you don’t make a dressing-up cupboard for the unrepresented, you export a little ghetto of Soho.

There is another wilful misunderstanding about the nature of broadcasting in all this. Television and radio come off the wall in the living room, out of your laptop. Not from some bit of mud or concrete. Broadcasting is ethereal. Where does Dr Who come from? Well, Wales, now, actually. But does it matter? Regional diversity is expansive tokenism, a patronising, face-saving, botty-licking piece of displacement activity.

Salford is merely a rented set, a smoke-and-mirror for a drama that is really about the licence-fee revenue and political attrition, and the future of broadcasting. And that’s happening hundreds of miles from Salford. Out of 17,000 BBC employees, only 1,500 will move to MediaCity, and in 20 years, when they’ve finally decided where to put the Blue Peter garden, there aren’t going to be any 17-year-olds up from the East End, sleeping on MediaCity’s brand new electric railway station in the hope of breaking into the glittering world of public-service broadcasting.

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chris west
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Re: AA Gill savages Salford
Reply #1 - Apr 14th, 2011, 5:00pm
Very AA Gill, but for me the interesting bit is Rod Liddle's take on the Salford move, which appears opposite the AAG article. Worth a read, if only to imagine that Liddle is getting a bit Corporately nostalgic in his dotage.
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