From the North / from the archive / issue 3

With all the hue and cry coming from the London based media about the BBC moving some of its operations to Salford many could be forgiven for thinking that Manchester and Salford are cultural wastelands. The bright young things of the BBC are being cast, it would seem, into a backward and primitive land with no hope of survival. This is, of course, absurd and perhaps those creating the fuss should be reminded that Manchester, for most of the 20th century, was home to not only nationally and sometimes internationally renowned TV production but, for a short time, a small but thriving film industry.

 1920's Manchester had a clutch of small but enthusiastic film production companies all keen to capitalise on the rapidly booming film industry. Companies would handle pretty much every aspect of film making and presentation, shooting the film , processing it themselves and distributing to the myriad of small cinemas cropping up around the region. Their enthusiasm to produce homegrown product was sadly not matched by any enthusiasm from audiences who showed a growing appetite for Hollywood productions and most of Manchester's small film producers disappeared. One that did survive was Mancunian films, set up by market trader James Blakeley in 1908 initially as movie rental business, acquiring rights to films and renting them to cinemas. James enlisted his sons Jim and John into the business and by the 1920's the three men had moved from just distributing films to actually making them.

It was John who handled directing duties and Mancunian Films inter war output was generally knockabout musical comedies with a couple of early appearances from George Formby, who later went on to become Britain's most popular film star. All the films were shot in London, something director John Blakeley grew increasingly frustrated with, and made on very limited budgets. They were universally hated by critics but northern audiences adored them, with their minimal plot, cheap laughs and uplifting musical numbers. Many Mancunian Films became vehicles for the wildly popular (in the north at least) Frank Randle and in some northern cinemas these cheap, daft films were often as popular as slick, expensive Hollywood films. Mancunian Films continued through the war and difficulties after the war in finding suitable studio space in London led to the company, in 1947, into buying a former Methodist Chapel on Dickenson Road in Rusholme and converting it to studios. The first film made there was Cup Tie Honeymoon and featured a young actress called Pat Pilkington, later wisely change her name to the more glamourous Pat Phoenix.

Mancunian Films carried on making films throughout the 1950's and 60's but it was facing a new challenge in the shape of television and although it would continue making films elsewhere, in 1954 it sold the Dickenson Road studios, rather prophetically, to the BBC.

Also in 1954 the newly created Independent Television Authority awarded Granada the contract to broadcast independent television to the North of England on Monday to Friday, with the weekend contract awarded to Associated British Corporation (ABC).  Granada at the time was primarily a cinema chain, headed up by the inimitable Sidney Bernstein. Bernstein was a wealthy media magnate but also a committed Socialist, so much so that he originally opposed the introduction of independent television because he was such a strong believer in public service broadcasting, a role and monopoly occupied by the BBC. Bernstein was, however, a pragmatic businessman and when granted an independent broadcasting licence decided to base his television operations in the north west, an area he had little or no attachment with,  mainly on the assumptions he would not only reach the largest concentration of people but also on rainfall charts that rightly or wrongly supposed people stay in the house a lot more in the north. Also, it theoretically meant his northern television operations would not leech custom away from his mainly southern based cinema chain.  His pragmatism also informed his choice of site for his nascent operations. He considered land at Kersal in Salford and around the Greengate area but plumped for a scruffy, unfashionable and consequently very cheap plot of land on Quay Street, an area previously dominated by Manchester's cattle market and abattoir. Despite the insalubrious surroundings Bernstein showed no reluctance in employing a well renowned architect to design his offices and studio complex and accepted a design which was distinctly modern, reflecting the modernity of the business in hand. The job was given to Ralph Tubbs, an architect who had previously worked with Erno Goldfinger and had sealed his reputation with his Dome of Discovery at The Festival of Britain. Bernstein, who was by all accounts a skilled draughtsman himself, took an active role in the design of his building spending a great deal of time preparing his own elevations and studying Tubbs’ plans in detail.

Granada House was one of the first buildings in the city to be constructed using the curtain wall method. The initial stage of construction was the low two-storey building on New Quay Street, with the larger eight-storey Granada House added later. The outer skin of the building is of light grey granite walls with the main facades glass, with their highly polished black gabbro sills, separated by white marble and grey limestone supports. High building standards have meant little or no renovation has been needed to the façade of the building, leaving the original outside fabric unaltered. 

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Meanwhile, just up the road on Peter Street, ABC Television had chosen a site for their offices. On the corner of Mount Street they built Television House. Now renamed and re clad it will hopefully not be resigned to a footnote in post war architectural history thanks to its association with the Reddish born architect, Norman Foster. Norman Foster's first job after after qualifying from Manchester School of Architecture was with the architects of Television House, Beardshaw and Partners, and it was the first building he worked in his short time there. Unlike Granada, who had a complex of offices and studios on one site, ABC took over the former Capitol cinema on Parrs Wood Road in Didsbury to house their studio facilities. ABC's output was decidedly populist with shows such as Opportunity Knocks and Armchair Theatre filmed at the Capitol Studios. ABC struggled to make any headway with just a weekend license and in 1968 they merged with Rediffusion to form Thames Television and closed down their Manchester operations.

For a while though Manchester could easily rival London for the quality and quantity of television being produced. The BBC famously started broadcasting Top of the Pops from their Dickenson Road studios and after their move to New Broadcasting House on Oxford Road the BBC produced a wide variety of material from Manchester from A Question of Sport to Songs of Praise. Its independent cousin Granada was also responsible for a wide variety of high quality productions. University Challenge and World in Action, Cracker and Prime Suspect, Jewel in the Crown and Brideshead Revisited were all produced by Granada and it almost goes with saying that the world's longest running TV soap opera, Coronation Street, is made by Granada.

Sadly the strong northern identity fostered by Bernstein, who insisted talent was either drawn from the north or those who were prepared to move to Manchester, has been undermined with the amalgamation of ITV regions into ITV plc. ITV of late has missed the OFCOM set target for 50% of its output to be produced outside London and whilst You've Been Framed is an excellent Granada produced show its unlikely something of the quality of Brideshead Revisited will be made by Granada today. Granada will soon be moving out of their Ralph Tubbs designed home in Manchester to a smaller and architecturally inane new building on the banks of the Ship Canal in Trafford. The fate of the Quay Street buildings is 'to be continued......'.

The BBC, however, are now seeking to reverse the creative brain drain to London by moving a small but significant proportion of their productions to Media City in Salford. The media landscape is changing out of all recognition and its unlikely an operation like Mancunian Films would work in  the 21st century and put Manchester back on the film making map. ITV no longer seems to have the will to produce high quality television anymore so it must be left up to the BBC to nurture and sustain the obvious talent we have in the north of England and lets us hope we are entering a new era of good quality film and television productions “From The North”.

© Eddy Rhead

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 3 'BOOM & BUST'.