Yorkshire, Yorkshire, everywhere! How Channel 5 won foreclosure gold | TV and radio


isn The Good Companions, his 1929 nationally acclaimed novel, JB Priestley starts high up on the Pennines – the “gnarled backbone of England”. Looking down on the curled up communities that make their living in a Yorkshire landscape both beautiful and gloomy, the author tells us: “At first the towns seem only a darker edge of the high moor, but now that you are closer, you see the host of tall chimneys, the rows and rows of little houses, built of blackening stone, which are like tiny sharp ridges on the hills. These windy moors, these dark echoing valleys, these factories and small stone houses, have spawned between them a race that has particular characteristics.From the literature of the Brontë and Priestley sisters to films such as This Sporting Life by Lindsay Anderson and Kes by Ken Loach, the pastoral beauty of Yorkshire, its industrial courage and its pugnacious spirit have proven fertile ground for artists in search of contrast and drama. But few would have predicted that Channel 5, formerly the stronghold of Richard Desmond, would become the modern heirs of this tradition.

Under Desmond, the channel resurrected Big Brother, highlighted US imports, and earned few points for artistic merit or originality. But in recent years, under new US ownership, there has been an attempt to assume a warmer identity, promoting “animated television with an emotional heart.” The result was a love affair with the Yorkshire of Heathcliffian proportions and the Royal Television Society’s Channel of the Year award for 2020.

Escape… Nicholas Ralph as veterinarian James Herriot in the remake of All Creatures Big and Small. Photography: Playground Television (UK) / Channel 5

What is it in Yorkshire? Ben Frow, the channel’s controller, told this summer’s Edinburgh Virtual Festival that the area has become “part of Channel 5’s DNA”. This is certainly the key to its floating visualization numbers. During the lockdown, the humble healing powers featured in The Yorkshire Vet, an actual version of All Creatures Great and Small, drew over 2 million viewers per episode. Our Yorkshire Farm, which follows the lives of two hill shepherds, Amanda and Clive Owen, topped the charts in August. On a summer Tuesday evening, more people watched the Owens, their eight children and 1,000 sheep working on one of Britain’s most remote plots of land than they agreed to admire DC Fleming’s work in Line of Duty.

The Yorkshire Steam Railway, which follows the seasonal ups and downs of a heritage line through the North York Moors, can count on exquisite scenery to attract viewers. And when former Deputy Premier and MP for Hull East, John Prescott, is hired to investigate the provenance and manufacture of Wensleydale cheese and Mowbray pork pies (made in Yorkshire), it is time to l ‘call it as it is: the land of God is high in the collective imagination.

The common thread is a fascination for ideas of vocation, culture, place and space. Amanda Owen’s journey, who left her urban professional life in Huddersfield to pursue a lifelong ambition to become a shepherdess, seems to have struck a chord in the national psyche. “Right now in particular,” says Daniel Pearl, editor-in-chief of Channel 5, “viewers were looking for shows about countryside and agriculture, about human resilience and also about an escape to natural beauty. Our Yorkshire shows have these qualities in abundance. Yorkshire is a large and extremely large county. It has a very clear identity and is proud of its heritage, countryside and people and is graced with some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.

Be the locomotive… The Yorkshire Steam Railway.

Be the locomotive… The Yorkshire Steam Railway. Photography: Channel 5

These qualities made it the most obvious example of a broader focus on locality and identity, paradoxically permitted by American owners. “Channel 5 has transformed beyond recognition in six years under ViacomCBS,” says Pearl, “moving from a channel that relied on American imports to one that looks and feels British. We mainly focus away from the London and South East media bubble, and we want our shows to be conceived, designed and watched by people living across the country.

This fall’s lavish and acclaimed reboot of All Creatures Great and Small, one of the most popular TV series of the ’70s and’ 80s, is the most impressive statement of intent to date. The first episode drew an audience of 3.3 million people, Channel 5’s highest level in five years, and the levels of attention, care and investment reflect a new sense of ambition.

Its popularity can in part be attributed to escapism, mixed with the simple and reassuring pleasures of nostalgia. The James Herriot books, on which the classic series was based, themselves turned to the pre-war valleys of the 1930s. But the show drew a younger and more affluent population to the channel. In times of upheaval or transition, what we want to escape, or look back, tells us something about our current concerns.

A hay bale of Wensleydale cheese in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Big cheese… Made in Yorkshire studied the provenance of Wensleydale cheese during its tour of the region. Photograph: John Morrison / Alamy

Sir Colin Callender, executive producer of All Creatures and CEO of production company Playground Entertainment, initially thought about remaking the program during the divisions and polarization that followed the 2016 Brexit referendum. “I felt very strongly that there was an audience hunger, ”he says,“ for a show that was entertaining and that would provide a bit of a respite from the feverish, complicated, ugly and messy times we live in. Themes of community, friendship and family are at the heart of the Herriot books and we thought the audience would embrace it. When Callender pitched the idea to Channel 5, he found that the editors had discussed the same idea the week before. “And that was before the Covid pandemic. Who knew then that it would be so opportune?

Sally Joynson is the Managing Director of Screen Yorkshire, established by the UK Film Council in 2002. Now an independent company championing film and television production in the region, SY co-funded the remake of All Creatures. “The impact of Channel 5 cannot be underestimated,” says Joynson. “They have found a great place with their Yorkshire programs. And millions of people are watching. ”

She identifies the appealing combination of “nature, landscape, people, villages, self-reliance” as the key. While Priestley and Loach focused on the harsh rhythms of industrial Yorkshire, Channel 5 found a niche in between with a utopian vision of community in the valleys and moors at a time when city life never seemed so good. precarious.

“The meaning of the relationship to land and place is really striking,” says Ben Vanstone, senior editor of All Creatures. “These people live off the land where they grew up, there is a sense of connection, which most of us don’t have these days. It goes against the modern idea that we can have whatever we want from anywhere, when we want. At Herriot, the world becomes very small but very, very important. And during the lockdown, something similar happened to all of our own worlds.

Nostalgia… the first episode of All Creatures Great and Small drew 3.3 million viewers; a black character will be introduced in the series.

Nostalgia… the first episode of All Creatures Great and Small drew 3.3 million viewers; a black character will be introduced in the series. Photograph: Playground Television / Channel 5

Not everyone is converted to this new pastoralism. There have been criticisms of Channel 5’s emphasis on “Yorkshire-heavy and white”. Frow admitted there was work to be done: “Sometimes when I’m talking to producers,” he told the Edinburgh festival, “they say that [Yorkshire] East very white. I say you have to go the extra mile. A subsequent episode of the current All Creatures series will feature a new storyline centered around the experience of a black character, and Callender says the second series will feature more of the same.

The difficult balance between authenticity and inclusiveness will be difficult to find. But the zeitgeist evolves in mysterious ways. Under the leadership of Argentine football intellectual Marcelo Bielsa, “Dirty” Leeds United has become the romantic hero of the Premier League. Last week – albeit virtually – the Labor Party held its annual conference in Yorkshire for the first time since 1967, when a man from Huddersfield, Harold Wilson, was in charge.


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