University of Sunderland is an institution that has not only kept pace with the rapidly-changing education and economic environment around it, but has almost always managed to set that pace as well.

Pushing the education envelope past its limits, it has taken on the mantle of city-saver, becoming a focus of the pride needed to drive forward so much vital change in so many places. There are examples all over the city, from the Riverside to the The Yard and Si King to the port, but for University of Sunderland Pro Vice-Chancellor Graeme Thompson, there is another pivotal moment that might have escaped the attention of many people – Netflix.

He tells me: “It’s a very small example but Fulwell 73, who are a big international production company, have their northern base in the David Puttnam Media Centre as part of the university.

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“They make a programme for Netflix called Sunderland ‘Til I Die which is a documentary about the rollercoaster of emotions that comes with supporting any football team. They are now in production for a third season, which means people from all over the world are seeing Sunderland through that programme – including Ryan Reynolds who decided to buy Wrexham as a result.

“What these viewers are seeing is an attractive city by the sea with real heart - and what they don't see is what the national news bulletins portray, which is the sort of rundown areas of Sunderland portraying it as a as a kind of down on its heels backwater.

“I think it was largely as a result of Brexit if I’m being honest because this city became the poster child for Brexit because they were first out of the traps when the vote was announced. So all the major broadcasters went out of their way to portray Sunderland as the turkey voting for Christmas and very deliberately showed the rundown area of the city whereas Netflix portrays the city as it is - and it is beautiful.

The Northern Echo: Students on the campusStudents on the campus (Image: Press release)

“It doesn't try to make the city look as though it's a post-industrial wasteland. It shows the nice housing areas, the beautiful beaches, the city centre and the people in a very affectionate and positive light.

“It's a tiny example but I do think that the people of Sunderland are starting to wake up to the fact that they are living and working in a city that's on the rise.”

There are driving forces at work here – organisations and individuals who seem to have peaked at the same time and are instinctively synchronised in their plans and aspirations. The university is a core element, providing the skills and the fully-formed character and passion that will make sure this is not a relatively short-term blip.

“It helps that we are one of the biggest employers and attract thousands of international students to study in Sunderland,” says Graeme, who is originally from South Shields and now lives near Thirsk.

“We partner with businesses through research and knowledge exchange on various projects and are aware of our economic impact through the development of our own campus, whether it's the establishment of the medical school, the building of new student accommodation or the investment we make in studios, laboratories and workshops.

“We try to make sure we are very good partners to work with not just within the city, but within the region, nationally and internationally. The fact that we've got campuses in Canary Wharf and Hong Kong and we are going to be working from the prison development in Northallerton is because people outside of Sunderland who for various reasons, don't want to study here can still work with us closer to home on subjects that are important to them.

We try to make sure we are very good partners to work with not just within the city, but within the region, nationally and internationally.

“We're aware that there's obviously a massive rural population in the vicinity of Northallerton, so we're talking to businesses and talking to schools and colleges about what kind of courses would be most appreciated in that area and I suspect it's going to be around business and Health Sciences.

“It is essential that organisations like ours can be agile in this way to build and grow the sort of relationships that make this such a popular destination for students. We bring back the alumni of the University on a regular basis for reunions and other events and they find the experience quite joyous because although they recognise some parts of it, they might then walk onto Keel Square and say, ‘Oh my goodness, I didn't remember it ever been like this!’, and then they might look in the Medical School and the Health Sciences Building, where maybe they studied pharmacy 20 years ago and see how much the equipment, the facilities, the buildings have changed beyond recognition.

The Northern Echo: University of SunderlandUniversity of Sunderland (Image: Press release)

“But that just shows how we move and grow with the times.”

So the attraction for him of moving into the Sunderland role is clear. Given his high-profile media background, he belonged in a position of influence were he could bring change and progress. But the route from Tyne Tees TV to Sunderland University could have taken another turn, as he explains:

“I had resigned as MD at Tyne Tees and Border TV and was having a coffee with a friend of mine who was working at Sunderland University and he said ‘what are you going to do?’ I told him they had already offered me some work as an exec producer on ITV, working out of London, so I would probably do that two or three days a week.

“Then in the afternoon, I got a phone call from a headhunter saying ‘do you know anybody that might be interested in becoming Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries at Sunderland University?

“When I asked what sort of person they were looking for he reeled off a few things, and I said, ‘Okay, I'll have a think and get back to you’.

“Then there was a pause on the end of the line before he said, ‘Would you be interested yourself? Have a think about it and I’ll send you the job spec.

“So they sent this thing through and I read it and I thought I'm not absolutely sure I'm the right fit for this. But over the phone the following morning, they asked me to come to London to talk to them and it became clear that they had made a massive investment in the media centre in Sunderland and wanted someone who could bring the faculty into working with industry as opposed to working as an academy. And I thought, well I could probably do that.

“Eight days after my coffee conversation I was being interviewed by the governors and on the Friday they offered me the job. So it started almost as a complete accident that I came here – and then I only ever thought of staying for four or five years to get the faculty up and running.”

The Northern Echo: Jeff Brown opens new audio facilities at the universityJeff Brown opens new audio facilities at the university (Image: Press release)

The importance of his role to what the University has become was rightly illuminated last year when he was made an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to cultural regeneration in the city. Even without his work at the University, his pedigree for the award is impeccable.

He was Founding Chair (2016-20) of Sunderland Culture, an organisation set up by the University, Sunderland City Council and the Sunderland MAC Trust to programme and develop the city’s arts venues, including the University-owned National Glass Centre and Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art.

He is also Chair of The Cultural Spring, a successful community arts project for Sunderland and South Tyneside launched in 2014 as part of Arts Council England’s Creative People and Places programme.

He also chairs the annual RTS Television Awards for the North East and Borders as well as the RTS Education Committee, which has provided bursaries and mentoring for more than 120 students from across the UK with ambitions to work in content production.

A trustee of the Customs House in South Shields and the North East and Yorkshire Film and Television Archive, Graeme is also a member of council for the Creative Industries Federation and for Arts Council North and is a board member for the North East Culture Partnership.

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When he received his MBE from Princess Anne at Windsor Castle, accompanied by his wife Aly who works in media and communications at Hambleton and Richmond Councils in North Yorkshire, Graeme said: “I am absolutely delighted that Sunderland’s pioneering work in culture-led regeneration has been recognised. It has been made possible as a result of a unique partnership. I’m honoured to have been singled out for this award but I share it with so many friends and colleagues who’ve worked over the past decade to re-imagine the city’s cultural landscape.”

Having the chance to spread the word about Sunderland’s changing landscape was too tempting, of course, so the Princess Royal is now fully briefed about the city.

“It is great recognition of the role that culture-led regeneration has played in the story of Sunderland, and I was lucky enough to be part of that so when I was receiving it, the Princess Royal said she had visited Sunderland a couple of times and then was asking about the city and I was telling her about the transformation that was happening. That was a great opportunity to have that kind of conversation.”

The fact that the city is getting this level of attention is a royal honour in itself. It's all about recognising achievements and driving forces and taking the time to applaud them and appreciate their role in Team Sunderland.