Steph's Packed Lunch: Why Channel 4 bosses need to prove their commitment to Yorkshire - Christa Ackroyd

It says on a multi-coloured poster in the corridor of a bright and breezy TV studio down at Leeds Dock ‘Steph’s Packed Lunch is a family.’

Well that family is about to be evicted. What’s more it appears no new family is about to move in any time soon.

Four years or more ago I wrote in this column with joy about Leeds becoming the new headquarters of Channel 4. I even suggested that part of its swanky new headquarters be named after my great pal Richard Whiteley, as I well remember the day he became the first voice on the station with ‘a brand new programme (Countdown) on a brand new channel’. It would have been a nice gesture. But it fell on deaf ears.

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No matter. I still heralded the national broadcaster’s decision to come to Leeds as a much needed fillip to television and its audiences in Yorkshire, particularly after so much emphasis over the preceding decades seemed to have been focussed towards Manchester, firstly with the acquisition by Granada of Yorkshire Television and then years later with the vast and burgeoning Northern broadcasting hub for the BBC and others that has become Media City. This was a victory for Yorkshire and I celebrated.

Steph's Packed Lunch has been cancelled after running on Channel 4 since 2020. Photo: PASteph's Packed Lunch has been cancelled after running on Channel 4 since 2020. Photo: PA
Steph's Packed Lunch has been cancelled after running on Channel 4 since 2020. Photo: PA

For months during the pandemic the old Majestic’s nightclub in City Square was shrouded in scaffolding with a huge tarpaulin proclaiming it as the new headquarters of the publicly funded TV station, using the words from a complaint or rather a backhanded compliment made when the broadcaster announced its decision to move North. ‘Didn’t Think Channel 4 knew there was life outside the M25’ it proclaimed. I laughed pleased that they obviously did. Well I am not laughing now.

The only live regular television show made by Channel 4 will, in a matter of a few weeks, be no more. And it was ours. Not from London, not from the other side of the Pennines but from the heart of Yorkshire. Once described proudly as it’s ‘flagship’ daily programme Channel 4 themselves said Steph’s Packed Lunch was important because it helped them ‘better serve audiences across the country and showcase voices and stories from across the Yorkshire region’.

So what’s changed? We haven’t. We are still here. So it can only be Channel 4’s thinking that that doesn’t matter any more. Or dare I suggest that they don’t need it any more. Which poses the question do they believe they don’t need us any more?

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I am the first to acknowledge the last few years have been tricky for all television stations. Firstly the pandemic slashed advertising revenue, then they have all had to face the brave new world of streaming services which means that on demand telly is becoming the norm for many of us.

There are only so many must watch programmes that demand our attention exactly when they are broadcast. Happy Valley did that.

And it was genius to make us wait week after week to view so creating those ‘water cooler’ moments which is a TV term which simply means it is what everyone is talking about in the office and elsewhere the following day. Strictly does it. So too to a lesser extent does Bake Off.

The rest we can watch when we like and often ‘on the bounce’ which means we can devour episode after episode all in one go if we so choose. Or simply record it for another day. But Steph’s Packed Lunch was never meant to be part of all that.

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It was a daily news magazine programme with a fresh new vibrancy that was intelligent, sometimes loud, sometimes brash, diverse and always entertaining. And more importantly it was ours. Remember what Channel 4 said about it bringing Yorkshire voices? Well it did.

The lunchmates were funny, opinionated and vibrant just like the area that bred them. The regulars like John Waite, Kate Bottley and Alan Johnson were never afraid to call a spade a shovel. Just like us. Steph herself could jump seamlessly from the biggest news stories of the day to the biggest load of nonsense and make the conversation appealing. Just like us.

It had the kind of formula that was unpredictable and entertaining. Just like us. Only it’s going. To be replaced with an emphasis on ‘digital’. Not that Channel 4 has come up any detail of any new programmes it will be spending its billion pound turnover on to replace it, wherever they are broadcast on whatever platform.

They merely say the money will be divided up between the ‘nations and regions’. The jury is out as to what those programmes or digital offerings will look like. Because they haven’t said.

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The cynic in me suggests another reason for the axing of the only national daily television programme to be broadcast from Yorkshire.

That while Channel 4 was arguing with the Government against privatisation, and I was with them on that, they needed it. Now they have won they don’t any more.

They can bleat on about how many staff work out of that shiny new headquarters. They can tell us they plan for even more to come and work in Yorkshire – ninety per cent of its London staff took redundancy rather than make the journey to Yorkshire. Their choice, we have enough talent here to fill the gaps.

But in winning their hard fought battle with the Government the paymasters made even greater concessions to the broadcaster than they could have ever hoped for.

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On the Government’s own website it announces greater freedoms for the channel including ‘the flexibility to make its own content’ instead of buying everything in. And how do they respond to those greater freedoms?

By axing it’s only live content less than a year later. Excuse me if I cynically suggest they don’t believe they need it any more.

Here is my advice to Channel 4 if they are still planning to do a Dick Whittington in reverse and remain dedicated to travelling from London to Yorkshire, turn again.

I know some of the young people who work on the show are devastated. You promised them they would be at the heart of your plans. Are they still? Do they all have jobs on your still to be revealed new shows?

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Sometimes you just have to put your mouth where your money is. And nothing shouted louder than Steph’s Packed lunch that Channel 4 meant what they said when they told us we were at the heart of their thinking. I urge them to think again.

Or at least come up with something on terrestrial television in its place. Any other course of action could simply be seen as paying lip service to an area which has been at the heart of a TV station’s well documented political battle for survival.

And it’s an area that doesn’t take kindly to being cast aside when it’s no longer useful. So to Channel 4 bosses may I remind them what it also says on that poster on the walls of their soon to be empty studios down at Leeds Dock.

‘We are a fun, informative, inclusive show, proudly based in the North. Our viewers are at the heart of everything we do’.

May I humbly suggest to the London based bosses at Channel 4 now is the time to prove it.