When TV production company True North picked up the award for Best Independent Production Company at the Prolific North Awards in Manchester, the judges said it “stood out above all the others” after a “remarkable journey” over the last decade.
Remarkable indeed. A company launched from a back bedroom in 2001 with little more than a PC and a fax is now the biggest and fastest-growing indie outside London, with turnover exceeding £10m.
The journey began when three staff producers – Jess Fowle, Andrew Sheldon and Glyn Middleton – left Yorkshire Television and set up on their own. Since then, they’ve made an ever-increasing stream of mainly factual and reality programmes, such as Junior Vets for CBBC and The Valleys for MTV.
So just how does a Leeds-based production company make it in one of the UK’s most London-centric industries? After all, most of the companies that start up outside the capital end up there eventually – most recently Leeds-founded Crown and Owls.
“We’re kind of the last man standing on this side of the Pennines as far as factual programmes go,” said Andrew Sheldon.
“We set up in Leeds because that’s where we lived. We’re from the North, we ‘get’ the North and I think people in London think we have a slightly different take on things.”
And, he points out, in some ways location and distance don’t matter nearly as much as they used to.
“We work globally now. You think nothing of putting up a link for someone in Beijing or showing something to someone in Washington. Geography in a physical sense doesn’t matter any more,” he said.
“The biggest challenge for us is being in a very fast-moving, technically-driven industry where the world is constantly changing and getting smaller.
“The seismic change in the way we all consume video content means that there are so many opportunities. If you’re fleet-footed and adaptable, you have a chance.”
The world may indeed have shrunk since the advent of high-speed broadband, and location may matter less, but “face time” still counts. The directors spend a lot of time on the East Coast main line, travelling to London most weeks to maintain exposure to the people who buy their programmes.
“If you persist and make the breakthrough, then there is a lot to run at.
“If you had said five years ago we would be making films for Chinese television from a mill building in Holbeck, I would have laughed – but it’s happening!”
And all on solid foundations. It’s one of the apparent contradictions of the firm that the directors’ lack of financial know-how has stood it in good stead.
“In a funny way we’re a classic ‘Yorkshire’ business,” said Mr Sheldon.
“Because the three of us are from a creative and not a commercial background, we’ve always run things pretty conservatively.
“In the last few years we’ve managed to reverse the flow of people to Manchester a bit,” said Mr Sheldon. “Sometimes we have 20 people a day coming across the Pennines to Yorkshire, which we think is terrific. Last year, we got to 130 people across two sites and I thought ‘wow, things have changed beyond all recognition’.”