The North-East will vanish from network TV screens with the axing of Wire In The Blood.

Steve Pratt hears how the region’s broadcasters plan to deal with the crisis and bring production back to the area.

WHAT does the North-East mean to you? That was the question Tom Harvey, chief executive of Northern Film and Media, asked people in a London street recently in an impromptu survey.

Football was the obvious answer. After that came Cheryl Cole, Ant and Dec and Newcastle Brown. “They are our exports. Without our exports, we are not known,” says Harvey.

In two cases – Girls Aloud singer and X Factor judge Cole and the TV Geordie presenting duo – familiarity came through the entertainment industry, and TV in particular.

They could soon be the only representation of North-East life seen on the box. With the axing of the Robson Green series Wire In The Blood, no network TV is coming out of the region.

The area that produced such drama hits as Auf Wiedershen Pet, Byker Grove, Our Friends In The North and Darlington-filmed Harry has been blacked out by the TV commissioners.

The North-East is disappearing from our screens and with it, production jobs and valuable income for the local economy. Broadcasting professionals are having to move from the area to find work.

Northern Film and Media crew database has shrunk by a third in the past 18 months and more workers are likely to go because of the lack of production in view. Five years ago, film and TV production coming into the area to shoot was worth £30m. That’s down to £5m.

Harvey calls the lack of network TV coming out of the North-East “horrendous”. But opinions expressed at a meeting at Newcastle’s Live Theatre to discuss what to do showed that not only is there no quick solution, but also that people can’t agree on how best to proceed.

Is it a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? It could be too little, too late now that the cameras have stopped rolling on the region’s sole network show, Wire In The Blood.

Northern Film and Media, set up in 2002, was accused of failing the local industry as the North-East lost out to production developed in Wales, Scotland and the North-West. “We’re getting stuffed. Quality will always win through but there has to be an infrastructure, but so far that has massively failed,” says one producer. “We have missed the boat, we have to have new initiative, new vision.”

The agency has no production fund to invest in feature films, as other regional film agencies do, and its hands are tied on how the funding it does receive can be distributed.

The opening in a few years of the BBC’s new Manchester centre, the purpose-build Media City at Salford Quays, appears a mixed blessing.

The BBC seems to think Manchester is the North.

Location manager Gareth Williams recalls a recent meeting in the city where a BBC chief declared that this, the largest multi-media facility outside London, was good news for anyone within 100 miles of Salford.

Someone needs to tell Peter Salmon, the BBC North director, that Newcastle is 145 miles away.

Harvey reports that BBC director-general Mark Thompson and senior officials have been supportive of the worries of the North-East. Others doubt that those actually doing the commissioning are as enthusiastic about bringing production to this region.

The BBC is the main hope. Increasing centralisation means that ITV Tyne Tees is producing little more than local news magazines and the occasional series. The shift from analogue to digital, coupled with the collapse of advertising revenue in the recession, has made the situation more difficult.

The nature of TV means that programmes such as Wire In The Blood don’t carry on forever.

But new commissions are needed to fill the gap and the North-East is failing to win them.

Northern Film and Media suggests contacting MPs and putting pressure on them. Some are sceptical that a political answer is possible, despite news that it stopped the BBC moving production of Casualty from Bristol to Wales.

It may seem a lot of fuss about nothing. The loss of 100 or so jobs during a period when thousands are facing redundancy is a drop in the ocean. And what does it matter if the North- East disappears from our screens? Writer Michael Chaplin is in no doubt that regionality is important and that different accents need to be heard as part of the English culture.

He tells of pitching a project set in the North- East to a broadcaster. “This person said ‘it won’t be too cloth cappy, will it?’ And the person speaking was Scottish,” he recalls.

“One of the things in broadcasting at the moment is a whole lot of drama that has moved away from the representation of ordinary people in the UK. A lot is formula-driven. They might be very good programmes in their own right, and might be a temporary fad, but they don’t tell us anything about the lives of people in the UK at the present time.

“People like Mark Thompson will accept the argument in an intellectual sense but people on the ground making the decisions about what to commission are saying they hope it won’t be too Welsh or too cloth cappy. That’s a fundamental issue that has to be dealt with.”

He believes the balance has shifted too far one way and that audiences want to see something distinctive, something real.

Andrew Dixon, of the NewcastleGateshead Initiative, speaks of the image a TV or film production creates for the region, showing the culture of the place. Perhaps the solution is to carve a niche, like Bristol did with wildlife programmes and Casualty. Why not make the region a national centre for musical broadcasting, based around The Sage in Gateshead?

The Current State Of North-East Television Today, as the meeting was titled, is a drama that could run and run.