The QT

Tuesday 18 June 2024
18/06/2024

Lights… Camera… Alison!

As North East Screen prepares to submit its two-year report card, Sam Wonfor finds Alison Gwynn fizzing with optimism, big ideas and a solid business plan to make them happen
  • Partnership brings together all 12 of the North East’s local authorities and its three combined authorities to support the strategic development of the screen industry in the region
  • Multi-million investment, including £25m from the BBC, is a catalyst for ambitious expansion of facilities
  • Last year saw a 28% increase in filming in the region and a 40% increase in crew registered with North East Screen, from 385 to 641
Alison Gwynn, chief executive of North East Screen

The whiteboard in Alison Gwynn’s office offers a pretty straightforward message.

As far as the chief executive of North East Screen is concerned, film and TV production equals jobs and investment for the region, at the kind of levels which are not to be sniffed at.

And while I’m not going to betray the kindness of being allowed to finish my cuppa in her office after she’s left the building by revealing its contents, it’s safe to say the ambition to make the screen industry a significant player in the North East’s economic landscape is real.

“And totally doable,” according to the 55-year-old who has built a reputation as a game changer since joining what was a struggling Northern Film and Media in 2017 as director of partnerships and programmes and taking over as chief exec in 2020.

At the 2023 Royal Television Society Awards for the North East and Borders last February, you’d have struggled to find an acceptance speech in which a namecheck didn’t feature.

“Oh my god, it was like some sort of drinking game,” laughs Alison, who had already picked up an outstanding contribution award at the same event in 2022.

“I mean that was obviously a lovely thing, but it was years too early. We’ve only scratched the surface.”

That surface must have had quite the itch.

Alison with her Outstanding Contribution award at the 2022 RTS dinner

The past few years have seen Alison pull strings and knit together multi-million pound pots of money to lay fresh foundations for an exciting new era for the film and TV industry in the North East.

Following a couple of early doors pilot projects under the banner of Tees Valley Screen, in the autumn of 2021 the BBC announced a £25m commitment to invest in North East-based production companies and sector jobs over five years.

“Tim Davie announced the ‘nations and regions’ plan and we jumped on that really quickly — making the case that for relatively small investment, the BBC could ignite change here,” says Alison.

“They tasked me to bring together the region so they could talk to the North East as a whole.”

Step forward the North East Screen Industries Partnership (NESIP) — another five-year project which brings together all 12 of the North East’s local authorities and its three (current) combined authorities to oversee and support the strategic development of the screen industry in the region.

BBC’s Tim Davie in Gateshead announcing the NESIP with leaders of the region’s three combined authorities

“It’s not easy to get £11.4m out of local authorities, it’s public money and has to be spent well and deliver outputs… but we put a really solid business case together,” says Alison.

“The argument we were making wasn’t a creative one, it was an economic one… and the scale of the BBC’s commitment was enough to offer significant and sustainable change.”

“Fundamentally, the project delivers two things for local authorities: inward investment and the creation of well paid jobs. Everything else is gravy.”

The £11.4m included £3.8m for a North East Production Fund, which offers the final 20% of production budgets to get projects over the line.

“That’s the cherry on top of the cake,” says Alison. “But it comes with some pretty big caveats.

“They need to employ regional crew creatives, they need to have regional trainees, and for every pound of public money, they need to spend at least seven pounds in the region. So that’s a really good return on investment.”*

Alison Gwynn with some of the North East Screen Team in its Sunderland city centre HQ

*In 2022, the spend per £1 invested was already up to £8 and it looks set to be more than that when the 2023 figures are reported.

The bold new ambition needed a new name — and specifically a new acronym.

By the time Alison started at Northern Film and Media, the widely held industry view in the region was that its initials stood for No F***ing Money.

“When I joined,  there was four months of money in the bank,” she says. “NFM had lost 80% of its funding after the winding down of One North East and became known as an organisation who said ‘no’ after saying ‘yes’.”

Rebranding as North East Screen in 2022 signalled a fresh start and offered a loud klaxon that the region was open for business.

“The first few years were about development — setting out our stall and trying to get the industry’s attention… that landed very, very well, and now the productions are coming.”

Whether that’s homegrown factual series — and ratings winners — such as Robson Green’s Weekend Escapes; big ITV dramas like The Red King and (of course) the long-running and iconic detective series Vera; or a fully-fledged feature film like Jamie Childs’ recently released Jackdaw, the North East is demonstrating it’s a place the industry needs to take seriously.

And we haven’t even touched on the Fulwell project yet, or to give its Sunday name, Crown Work Studios — a joint venture between production company Fulwell 73 and Cain International which would see one of Europe’s largest film-making complexes being built on the banks of the River Wear.

Currently the region’s only large-scale production facility in the region is The Northern Studios in Hartlepool, which was made full use of by the aforementioned Jackdaw. 

And while there’s also exciting talk of Bafta and Oscar-nominated production company, Goldfinch, looking to Northumberland for a new studio development, the ambition of the Crown Work Studios project is on another level.

Offering 8,000 jobs and a cast iron opportunity to put the North East on the international film-making map, there are three phases to the Fulwell Cain collaboration, which is headed up by the former’s managing partner (and Sunderland lad), Leo Pearlman.

Government support is required to get phase one off the ground and — following confirmation that plans had been submitted for the £450m development a couple of days before — all ears had been on the Autumn budget for an announcement. It didn’t come.

A firm believer in positive manifestation as well as the solid business case put forward, Alison remains ‘very optimistic’ that the Spring statement will bring good news.

“My honest opinion is that with the Nissan announcement coming in November, I think it was  unlikely that you were going to have two huge Sunderland stories in one budget,” she says.

Fullwell 73’s Leo Pearlman

“All the conversations I’m having seem to be pointing in one direction. Whichever party you’re talking to, there is a huge amount of interest in what we’re doing in the North East in this sector.”

I wonder what a teenage Alison would think of her pivotal role in the changing fortunes of the North East’s film and TV makers. What did she want to be?

“I mean, that’s a really massive question. Change the world? Or just go clubbing…”

Or to Studio Five at Tyne Tees Television on a Friday teatime, where Channel Four music show The Tube was made.

“Ah we went all the time, it was incredible,” she says, recalling one particular memory with delight… and a side of cringe.

“I think it would have been 1984 when I was 15 — it’s one of my favourite stories. I was absolutely obsessed with Heaven 17… and then out comes what I thought was this old woman dressed in a shammy leather. I couldn’t believe it.

“Obviously, later I found out it was Tina Turner unveiling the next big stage of her career. But I was 15. I wasn’t aware of what she’d done before or who she was… but I can still say I saw her at The Tube.”

Tina shimmying ‘in her shammy’ on The Tube where a teenage Alison was in the crowd – and totally unplussed

After messing up her A-levels and deciding her shocking spelling meant English wasn’t for her (she’s since realised undiagnosed dyslexia was at play), Alison enrolled on a graphics course at South Tyneside College, where memories of playing pool at the pub opposite and the cafeteria’s cheese and onion pasties still raise a big smile.

After that came a post-grad in marketing and a decade working at Fairtrade organisation, Traidcraft before moving to the Centre for Life in Newcastle as head of marketing.

“I learned such a lot — it was a really inspiring business model… a visitor attraction that was financially supported by all these other revenue streams like a multi-storey car park and being a landlord in Times Square.

“I think probably from then on my little superpower, my skill moved away from marketing, and it moved into how can I make creative industry commercially viable?”

Alison in her office at North East Screen’s Sunderland offices (impressive whiteboard out of shot)

Next up was a 14-year stint at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, which Alison joined when they’d just secured the Ouseburn site, which would be its home.

“A month in, I realised I was pregnant,” she says. “Luckily, it was my third, so by that point you just strap them to your back and crack on, don’t you?”

By the time her youngest was a teenager, Alison was 48 and Seven Stories was onto its 36th exhibition.

“I lost my sister-in-law who was the same age as me and that was a moment of reckoning,” she says. “Don’t stay somewhere where you’re just coasting — do something.

“I decided I maybe had one big job left in me. That’s when I saw the job at NFM and thought, ‘I could do that’.”

Seven years on and you’d have to say she wasn’t wrong.

Spring 2024 sees the organisation embarking on some detailed evaluation, reporting back on the first two years of NESIP.

“We’re digging right into the detail of the impact of what’s been done,” she says. “But the top line stuff is that we’re over target with all our outputs and slightly under budget. 

“Crew is now 40-odd percent higher than it was two years ago.

“Now that’s obviously not all new people in the industry, but what it is, is people in the region, actually connecting with what’s going on and joining our database, and people coming home because they can see there’s work.

North East Screen stats 2022-2023

28% increase in filming in the region (and projections have that figure increasing again in 2024)

40% increase in crew registered with North East Screen, from 385 to 641 

88 days of paid trainees opportunities 

12 unscripted and scripted TV and digital commissions won by eight regional production companies

43% increase in new members of the North East Screen Crew Academy, which offers opportunities for those wanting to get into the industry

Seven trainees now graduated into paid crew roles.

35% increase in grant funding awarded 

“If we want to quadruple the workforce, there has to be that mix of providing skills and training opportunities for people starting out — but also attracting those with experience back to be part of the story.”

Step forward North East Screen’s chairman, Sunderland-born Oscar-winning producer David Parfitt who took up the role in March 2023.

Alison also points to production companies like Schnoobert, which was set up in 2022  by writer, director and comedian, Jason Cook — the man behind the popular murder comedy dramas starring Johnny Vegas and Sian Gibson.

So far, viewers have been treated to Murder on the Blackpool Express, Death on the Tyne, Dial M for Middlesbrough, Murder They Hope and Blood Actually.

Jason Cook (left) and his production outfit, Schnoobert was one of four companies recently selected to benefit from the BBC Small Indie Fund alongside Candle & Bell, MCC Media and Wander Films

“Jason is cooking on gas,” says Alison (it’s unclear if she meant the pun, but I’m taking it for my next Jason Cook interview). 

“He’s got a ridiculous amount of shows in development and has a real sense of the region’s voice and warmth. We’ve had decades of Covent Garden versions of our stories, we need to be shouting about our own.”

And with that, Alison is off to London to start her next mission — hooking more broadcasters in. 

The day after our meeting, she is sitting down with Sky. Meanwhile there’s serious talk of more ITV dramas moving in later this year.

“Once you put your stall out and once you say the region is open for business, the sector moves really quickly, and it’s coming big and faster than any of us would have predicted.

“If I had to bet on it, I’d bet on this year being a massive one.”

@samwonfor

Solomon Sheckman, born in North Shields in 1893, created the Newcastle-based Essoldo cinema chain and owned 160 picture houses when he died in 1963. The ES came from his wife Esther; SOL from himself and DO from his daughter Dorothy.

1 thought on “Lights… Camera… Alison!”

  1. Doing Great Alison – Sam’s Mam Andrea Wonfor would be proud the way you are keeping her NE Tradition vision for original, relevant and humane productions going..

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