The shameless success of northern TV drama

By Liam Allen
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

image captionOur Friends In The North followed four characters over 30 years

Shameless - Channel 4's Manchester-based series about the dysfunctional Gallagher clan - returns on Tuesday ahead of its 100th episode. But what makes northern TV dramas so popular?

Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff, Peter Flannery's Our Friends in the North, Jimmy McGovern's The Street, Paul Abbott's Clocking Off and Shameless.

All are Bafta-winning TV shows central to the evolution of British drama. And all co-star - in pivotal roles - the north of England.

image captionJohn Simm rose to prominence as a dramatic actor in Jimmy McGovern's The Lakes, first shown in 1997

Danny Brocklehurst, who in 2001 got his big break writing two episodes of factory drama Clocking Off, says it has been shown time and time again that "this is an area where a lot of excellent creative output has been generated".

"So has London, so have lots of other places but I do think there's something about the north," says the Mancunian screenwriter, whose recent BBC One three-parter Exile earned rave reviews.

"I grew up under Thatcher in the 80s, a bit of a crappy time for the north, especially Manchester and Liverpool.

"You have an attitude and a way of looking at the world that I think lends itself quite nicely to drama."

Brocklehurst, 40, who almost became an EastEnders scriptwriter, cites northern soaps including Coronation Street and the now-defunct Brookside - which launched the career of Jimmy McGovern - as rich sources of quality writers.

Scouser McGovern, who wrote for Liverpool soap Brookside from 1982 to 1988, went on to create shows including Manchester-based ITV drama Cracker - starring Robbie Coltrane - and The Street as well as 1996 Bafta-winning film Hillsborough.

image captionLesley Sharp starred with Philip Glenister, later Simm's Life On Mars co-star, in Clocking Off

John Simm, who rose to prominence as a dramatic actor in McGovern's 1997 series The Lakes, has said that "brilliant art, music and creativity comes from the north" adding "there's something in the water".

The 40-year-old star of shows including Life on Mars and Exile was born in Yorkshire and raised in Lancashire.

"Northernness probably makes for good TV drama because there are very good creative writers that come from there and that are making a big success for themselves," he told the BBC News website.

Actress Lesley Sharp who, like Simm, appeared in Clocking Off and was most recently seen in ITV's Sunday night hit Scott & Bailey says simply: "Great northern dramas are made by great northern writers.

"The dramas that we're talking about are written by the likes of Jimmy McGovern, Paul Abbott, Russell T Davies, Danny Brocklehurst, Sally Wainwright - they are fantastic writers."

image captionShameless character Frank Gallagher is played by David Threlfall in the UK and William H Macy in the US

One of those writers, Paul Abbott, says there is "a difference between northern and southern storytellers, but not for a second would I suggest this is based on talent differential".

He believes the "radius to broadcasting HQs" of southern writers means they are more likely to pander to perceptions of changing drama policies.

"Northern writers are double the radius away with less access or none at all to that drama pre-crime Cluedo," he adds.

They also benefit, he says, from it being "colder up here, less cluttered, and a bit hungrier".

"Writers not working from London can take longer developing their voice before they pitch up at the cattle-market."

Abbott's crowded upbringing in Burnley, Lancashire, where he and his siblings were brought up by an older sister, famously influenced his Channel 4 drama Shameless, set on the fictional Chatsworth estate.

The show, in its eighth series, is approaching its 100th episode which has been written by Abbott.

It was recently remade in the US with Fargo actor William H Macy in the role of Frank Gallagher, played by David Threlfall in the UK.

Abbott, who began his career as a writer on Coronation Street, says the soap's longevity means audiences have "a synthesised familiarity" with Northernness and "an expectation of decent quality from northern drama".

"I think that's a feeder for people feeling more comfy with Northernness because there is a laxness in the way people speak to each other," he adds.

Scott & Bailey writer Sally Wainwright, who was born and raised in West Yorkshire, is less easily drawn into the debate.

Wainwright, who created the Yorkshire-set 2009 ITV drama Unforgiven - winner of a Royal Television Society best drama serial award and a Bafta nomination - says: "I'm always a bit sceptical about the idea of northern drama.

"I don't write northern drama, I write what I write and I write in a northern accent because it's my accent and it's my vernacular.

"When I sit down and write, I don't think 'Ooh, I'll write some northern drama.' It's just drama."

The second half of Shameless series eight begins at 22:00 BST on Channel 4 on Tuesday night. The 100th episode will be shown on Saturday 27 September.

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