Media Centre in Salford. Photo: Getty Images
By the time you read this, the BBC will have been broadcasting Breakfast from Salford for a month. How’s it doing? Have the predictions by the doom merchants who said that no one of any interest – no high-octane celebrities, no top politicians – would be willing to travel up north to appear on the show turned out to be true? Is that tumbleweed we spy blowing across its expansive sofas?
Not exactly. The sofas are (periodically) occupied. But the owners of the bums on these plump red cushions are hardly fascinating: a couple of blokes from the Welsh band Feeder; Julia Donaldson, the sweet but unexciting Children’s Laureate; Graham Gouldman of 10cc – come on, you remember them! – who popped in to tell Charlie Stayt and Louise Minchin the good news that his ageing band is still touring. Meanwhile, Stayt, Minchin and the other regular presenters, Bill Turnbull and Susanna Reid (the latter replaces the Salford refusenik Sian Williams), are spending ever more of their shifts with necks crazily twisted so as to address guests speaking to them from London via an awkwardly positioned screen.
The BBC should watch this: if it goes on too long, the corporation will have to add the cost of an osteopath’s bills to all the other expenses (it is rumoured to have spent more than £750,000 bringing in staff since the Salford site opened, a tab that can only rise, at least until a year is up, at which point – or so I gather from my spies – the relocation period ends and employees must pay their own train fares).
On paper, I’m pro-Salford. There is so much talent outside London, so much going on. It must be possible for licence-fee payers who live outside the capital to be more fairly represented by the service they fund. I understand neither staff’s reluctance to move north nor the BBC’s apparent willingness to accommodate this reluctance. Recently I met a BBC executive who commuted to London from Berkshire. Would he be going to Salford? No, he said, faintly appalled. Yes, if he moved, he could afford a bigger, nicer house and his commute would be vastly reduced; yes, Manchester has Selfridges, an orchestra, theatre and restaurants and is bordered on every side by beautiful countryside. Nevertheless, he was staying put. He muttered something about schools, as if Manchester – birthplace of Nicholas Hytner and Howard Jacobson – were a school-free zone.
Yet Breakfast is looking like a huge own goal right now. As Private Eye has noted, its agenda has narrowed. It feels like a local programme, not a national one. It reminds me of the Look North I watched growing up, only minus the reports of dastardly goings-on in Bradford’s Council Chambers (though if the producers become stretched, these may follow). The desperate efforts to spin out an already too-long interview. The slight air of embarrassment on the part of presenters who think – who know – they’re better than this (Turnbull, never animated at the best of times, looks actively bored). The features that you sense would never make it on to screen in London (a Coronation Street musical at the Manchester Arena; a stunt in the window of Lush cosmetics).
So, the problem remains. How to make the BBC less London-focused without also making it less good? And how to make best use of the shiny MediaCity? This seems straightforward to me. First, move a lot more radio north; on the wireless, you can’t tell where a guest is. Radio 5 Live, which also broadcasts from Salford, is as good as ever. Radio 2 could be next. Second, ensure that existing programmes make more regular forays out of London. It makes not one iota of difference – save to Kirsty Wark’s travel arrangements – that The Review Show is broadcast from Glasgow. But it would be transformative if, say, more of the theatre it featured were regional. Arts programmes will cover the opening of whizzy galleries such as the Hepworth Wakefield; only rarely do they return to review subsequent shows. Third, invest in regional television. As for Breakfast, politics and face-saving dictate that it won’t be returning south any time soon. Someone needs to get a grip on it. But I say: better a fabulous guest in London than a rubbish one in Salford. Reposition those enormo-screens, pronto.