New Quays Opens Door To New World ?
Excited young actresses, cynical old veterans of Granada and BBC's Oxford Road studios were as one, lost in a haze of wonderment as they were led around MediaCityUK, mouths agape.
The soon to be commissioned studios opened its doors for a sneak preview of its super facilities to a group of media professionals, myself included. We'd all attended an Independent Filmmakers seminar earlier at the swish Holiday Inn, and marched around the site eagerly taking in the pristine facilities.
All gathered, novice or veteran, could not fail to be impressed with this future tabernacle of talent. Media City hosts studios the size of a small cathedral that will soon facilitate children's productions such as Blue Peter, radio studios that would make Archers fans weep with joy, and a bespoke auditorium-come-studio for the eagerly awaited but rather expensive BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
As we passed through the heavy doors onto the sound stage the stalwart agent David Warwick turned to me and said: "It's marvellous what they have done here.
I remember this place when it was a right mess - did you know it then?"
`Oh yes' I replied `The last time I was around these parts I was handballing 56 pound bags of sugar out of stinking containers onto pallets for warehousing as casual labour.'
That was 30 years ago. What I didn't mention was the beauty and awe that I and many others recognised in the big ships discharging and loading the cargo that gave generations of Salfordians uncomplicated work. Hard, low skilled work, though much of it provided a simple reassurance that muscle power and sweat could provide a roof overhead and food in the pantry.
All this space was now filled with millions of pounds worth of rigging, lighting, audio and camera equipment that need a highly specialised and skilled workforce to operate it.
Soon the dead space will be humming with activity, producing programmes that will carry Made in Salford all round the globe, and harking back to a time forty years earlier when products made locally left the wharfs daily for all points on the compass overseas.
Just what the product will be remains to be seen. Television content has undergone a dumbing down of Titanic proportions in recent years, as exemplified by formatted reality programmes of the kind pioneered, developed and championed by Stephen Lambert.
Lambert is a seasoned creative producer, one of the true giants of television who, while at the BBC, produced an array of eclectic and interesting documentaries. After leaving the BBC he seemingly had a taste lobotomy and foisted on us the likes of Secret Millionaire and Wife Swap.
Mr. Lambert was the evening guest speaker at the Indy Club seminar that most of the tour party had earlier attended. I took the opportunity to ask him if he ever worried about the unintended consequences of his programmes. After all, the show's participants are put into wholly false and manufactured scenarios they would not otherwise find themselves in that have the potential for all manner of unpleasantness.
Who for example around Langworthy Road can forget the slippery Mr Chet Whyte, introduced courtesy of Lambert's former production company RDF to local residents as a poor builder down on his luck. After successfully deceiving the local community Whyte revealed himself as a `Secret Millionaire' who had come to spread joy in the neighbourhood by gifting locals with a few grand that he had presumably stashed down the side of his settee in his Nottinghamshire stately pile.
Pity that RDF forgot to tell the locals that Whyte had been a bankrupt with a string of dodgy companies and a change of name by way of a deed poll in his recent past. That might have alerted local builders and small suppliers to the fact that his multi million pound development of flats was not the copper bottomed investment Mr Whyte would have had everybody believe.
We here know the rest. Whyte was allowed to pull off a charm offensive and ingratiate himself to long suffering Langworthy residents as a sort of second coming. A kind of cross between John the Baptist and Alan Sugar, Whyte went into liquidation again just two years after the Secret Millionaire was transmitted, owing thousands to local tradesmen and workers.
Of course Mr Lambert did not concern himself with such trifles… "People are adults, they know what they are letting themselves in for when they take part in these programmes, we take time to explain what they are getting into."
Really? I wondered what might transpire if one of the participants in, say, Wife Swap, decides to take a kitchen knife to their mismatched temporary spouse. That might provide an interesting spin-off series, focusing on manipulative programme makers wriggling out of their moral responsibility.
Call me naive but I hope that the creative output that comes forth from Media City studios achieve high standards while maintaining a clearer moral imperative that will define a new chapter in programme making. Programmes such as Coronation Street, World in Action and University Challenge managed that two generations ago, establishing a noble reputation.
In two out of three cases these programmes continue to maintain large audiences without pandering to the lowest common denominator that constitutes much of the current slow motion car crash TV…
Photo by Jemma Cooper