Show Hide image

Our friends in the north

They don’t make television quite like this any more

Manchester, Television and the City: Ghosts of Winter Hill
Urbis, Manchester

In 2011, a substantial segment of the BBC will relocate to Salford Quays, a move about which some are said to be not too happy: Simon Mayo, the 5 Live presenter, described the charge north as a "logistical nightmare", and has since been provided with a London-based job on Radio 2 (a feeble decision; decent jobs in radio being thin on the ground elsewhere, Mayo might not have been quite so stubborn had his bosses been less flexible). Needless to say, I find this kind of reluctance, mass or otherwise, bewildering. Such people must have no sense of history or culture. A remedy, however, is at hand. Their managers should send them post haste to Urbis, in Manchester - yes, this will involve a train ride - where they can see a small but rather good exhibition called "Manchester, Television and the City: Ghosts of Winter Hill".

Urbis is a tall glass building with a weird, slow-moving internal lift that can only be operated by its staff. As I write, the venue is best described as a celebration of all things connected to city life, but in 2010 it will become the National Football Museum (a shame, I think: football museums, as even the biggest fan will admit, are always boring). "Ghosts of Winter Hill" - the title refers to the TV transmitter for the Granada region, which sits on Winter Hill in Lancashire - is on the top floor, and consists mostly of a series of period sitting rooms.

There is a 1950s room, with G-Plan furniture; a 1960s room with Arne Jacobsen Ant chairs; a 1970s room with swirling wallpaper; a 1980s room with a gargantuan black leather sofa; and a 1990s room straight out of the Ikea catalogue. The Noughties room, alas, is rather difficult to capture in one scant phrase, which probably tells us something about the decade itself, though I can't at this moment think quite what.

In each room is a historically correct television set, screening historically correct television programmes: it's a total feast for nostalgia freaks, though you need to be at least 40 to get the most out of it. But it is also more than that. What links all these shows is that they were made in the north-west, the vast majority by Granada Television, whose opening broadcast, on 3 May 1956, starred Arthur Askey and his reassuring horn-rimmed spectacles. I sat in front of these sets, each one screening a veritable embarrassment of riches - from A Family at War to The Jewel in the Crown through World in Action and Seven Up! - and suddenly I remembered: once upon a time, Granada was, if not the best commercial television company in the world, then certainly the bravest. What's more, it operated in a context of bolstering northern pride; the south was considered lucky to receive its offerings.

“I think that what Manchester sees today, London will see eventually," said its chairman, Sidney Bernstein, drily. In Bernstein's view, the north was rich in culture - in music, literature, theatre and newspapers - and thus, the perfect place to make television. I suppose someone at the BBC must still believe this. Mostly, however, the move to Salford seems to be motivated by a politically correct desire to prove to licence-fee-payers that the BBC is not entirely fixated with London in its instincts and its prejudices - a different thing altogether, in my view. Perhaps these people, too, should hotfoot it to Urbis.

Naturally, I'd be lying if I told you that everything you can watch at Urbis is pure gold. The 1968 sitcom Nearest and Dearest, in which Hylda Baker and Jimmy Jewel play warring siblings who work at a pickle factory, is about the least funny thing ever, and Ken Russell's 1978 aberration, Clouds of Glory, starring David Warner as William Wordsworth and Felicity Kendal as his sister, Dorothy, truly takes some beating in the embarrassment stakes (it looks like an advert for alpine milk chocolate gone terribly wrong). No one mourns Kick Off, the 1970s football show presented by Gerald Sinstadt and his luxuriant moustache.

But mostly I toured the various rooms with a look of regretful admiration stretched across my face. As Michael Apted, the director of Seven Up!, has put it, Granada's output was "dazzling to watch, for underneath [it] there was a powerful humanity and willingness to take on a social and civic responsibility which, in today's world . . . has vanished". You can see this sense of responsibility not only in his own work, beady and poignant, but in all sorts of other, more unexpected places, too: in the beautiful unfurling of Granada's 1981 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, a series so reverentially unhurried, I still credit it with eventually winning me, a girl from a Sheffield comprehensive school, a place at a certain university; in the stern and unflinching cadences of its 1967 film version of Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole ("I wonder how much longer us women'll take to learn that living and loving's all a damn swindle?"); and in the still missed World in Action, a strand so determined, it can be credited with helping to secure the release of the Birmingham Six, among other victories. (Think of Tonight, its feeble-minded successor - "Former Apprentice star Raef Bjayou investigates the rise of the discount store!" - and weep.)

I suppose it goes without saying that the old Granada had money to spend on programming; this was before Sky and digital and the fragmentation of advertising. But it wasn't all down to cash; in its earliest days, the company struggled financially. No, that it kept going and finally soared was thanks not only to the size of its chequebook, but to the sensibility that prevailed within: bolshie, self-righteous (in the right way), a touch anarchic. In its heyday, it was a topsy-turvy kind of a company - a place where, as Victoria Wood puts it, "the woman in charge of the mashed potatoes in the canteen was more intimidating than the executives".

I wish the BBC well with its move to the north; those who take up the lucrative inducements it is offering its employees to relocate may well find it a more exciting, more rigorous place than they thought. But will this have much effect on programming? I doubt it. There are some who would describe the BBC as self-righteous. But anarchic and bolshie it is not. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

“Manchester, Television and the City: Ghosts of Winter Hill" is at Urbis, Manchester, until April.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: one year on