MEDIA CITY OF DREAMS-UK by Richard Hewett
It’s been over a year since I took up my post as Lecturer in Media Theory at the University of Salford, so I thought that this week I might say a little something about the gleaming edifice in which I now live and work: MediaCityUK. No, that’s not a typo; there is no space between ‘Media’ and ‘City’, and if you think there should be you are simply displaying your ignorance.
We who operate at the heart of the media know best.
The ‘UK’ (again: no space) is of course included in order to differentiate us from the numerous other MediaCities around the globe, such as MediaCityItalia, MediaCityDeutschland, and the forthcoming MediaCityDisney.
MCUK, as we call ourselves for convenience’s sake, is home not only to the University, but also houses the BBC and ITV studios, including Granada’s Coronation Street production facilities, plus the Lowry Theatre and exhibition space, and the Lowry Outlet shopping centre and cinema. Yes, J.S. Lowry is probably the most famous name to have come out of Salford, and they rather make the most of it. MCUK also hosts the Imperial War Museum North, famously designed by Daniel Libeskind, which predates much of the rest of the site, having opened in 2002.
Fig 1: The Imperial War Museum North; it will look fine when it’s finished.
However, it is undoubtedly the presence of Britain’s premier broadcast giants that attracts so many aspiring students to our shiny university portals – and who can blame them? We actually share our building with ITV, and while there is little chance of bumping into Ant and Dec in the Salfood café – which I personally find rather reassuring – there is a degree of crossover in terms of student work placements.
Granada of course has a long and rich history. The former Castlefield studios, now boarded up and protected by fearsome-looking spikes, were home not only to Corrie but also the wonderful Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes productions of the 1980s and early 1990s, and there even used to be a Hollywood-style studio tour. In my madder moments, I consider sneaking in and taking a peek at the Bonded Warehouse – formerly home to the 221B interiors.
The BBC also has a long-standing regional presence, its former New Broadcasting House offices on Oxford Road having now been demolished and replaced with a car park. However, it was back in 2004 that Auntie Beeb London made the decision to relocate to Salford – lock, stock and executive wine barrel – prompting the closure of dear old Television Centre three years ago. I imagine the original conversation went something like this:
BBC Executive 1: I say, you don’t think the Corporation (as we call it) has become a little, well… London-centric, do you?
BBC Executive 2: You mean, because we’re based down here in the capital city?
BBC Executive 1: Yes…
BBC Executive 2: Centre of government?
BBC Executive 1: Of course…
BBC Executive 2: And of commerce?
BBC Executive 1: Well, quite…
BBC Executive 2: Home also to the Royal Family, to whom we devote a disproportionate amount of news coverage?
BBC Executive 1: In a nutshell…
BBC Executive 2: And generally possessed of the most convenient transport connections to the rest of the country – should we for whatever reason ever wish to go there?
BBC Executive 1: Mmm…
BBC Executive 2: With Westfield shopping centre just around the corner?
BBC Executive 1: Indeed…
BBC Executive 2: And you think that, as the nation’s premier public service broadcaster, we might be better placed where?
BBC Executive 1: Salford.
BBC Executive 2: Salford?
BBC Executive 1: Salford.
BBC Executive 2: I see. The place where that Lowry chap used to knock out those depressing paintings of matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs?
BBC Executive 1: I think it’s pronounced ‘matchstick’, but yes, that’s the one…
BBC Executive 2: Cold, grey and damp for eleven months out of every twelve?
BBC Executive 1: Mm-hmm…
BBC Executive 2: And that’s in a good year.
BBC Executive 1: Yes…
BBC Executive 2: Right. And our new base would be accessible primarily by…?
BBC Executive 1: Tram.
BBC Executive 2: Ah! Interesting.
BBC Executive 1: Yes.
BBC Executive 2: Tram?
BBC Executive 1: Yes; it’s the coming thing, transport-wise.
BBC Executive 2: I see…
BBC Executive 1: Er…
BBC Executive 2: Yes?
BBC Executive 1: There’ll be a shopping centre, too…
BBC Executive 2: Oh! Excellent. Well, that all seems in order. Good. Let’s not be London-centric any longer, eh? The Corporation must go where it is most needed. From now on, let’s be…
BBC Executive 1: Salford-centric?
BBC Executive 2: Quite.
BBC Executive 1: Splendid.
BBC Executive 2: Marvellous.
BBC Executive 1: Yes. Yes, I have a very good feeling about this. Now, where did I put my sparking clogs?
It was probably a bit more involved than that, but you get the idea. Before too long, Breakfast and Blue Peter had upped sticks, the latter relocating its garden next to the tram stop (so much easier to vandalise than the old TVC plot). I often pop over in my lunch break to see Petra’s statue, and always marvel at what dainty feet Lesley Judd has. Other visible signs of the BBC brand, aside of their three buildings (Bridge House, Dock House and Quay House), include the permanent presence of what I believe is one of the Tweenies (I’m more of a Bagpuss man myself), and Pudsey the Bear, while a TARDIS Police Box prop and two Daleks can usually be seen outside the Audience Entrance – both of which I found very reassuring on my first day.
Fig 2: Parking is never a problem at MCUK. Unless you drive a car.
MCUK is home to a variety of productions, from Match of the Day to The Jeremy Kyle Show; a few weekends ago they recorded the sequel/re-make of Are You Being Served? up here, though unfortunately I was not able to attend. This is very good for the students, who get to see all kinds of stuff being made, and often secure themselves work experience placements. Another benefit of being at Salford is our famous ORAD screen, which – depending on who you talk to – is either the largest or the second largest in Europe. Now, until I came here I thought ORAD was the annoying computer in Blake’s 7, and he didn’t even have a screen – that was Zen – but it turns out that this is the device that makes it look as though Jeremy Vine is wandering past blocks of virtual votes when he gives the election results. It’s 3D motion-tracked Chromakey/Colour Separation Overlay for the twenty-first century – and ours is a biggun’.
However, it should be pointed out that none of us here at MCUK actually owns the buildings in which we operate. These are merely leased to us – the BBC, ITV, Salford, we’re all in the same boat – by the real proprietor and manager, the Peel Group. And I must say, they keep the place in tip-top condition. MCUK is one of the cleanest sites you will ever visit – in every sense; the local Council recently brought in a ban on ‘foul or abusive language,’ punishable by a £90 on-the-spot fine (£1000 if you’re convicted). Security is maintained by the PeelBots; uniformed cyborgs who patrol the grounds on two-wheeled electric scooters, to which the humanoid pilots are genetically fused before puberty. These man/machines are fearsomely efficient – so much so that the Weyland-Yutani Corporation recently expressed interest in acquiring them for their Bio-Weapons Division.
Fig 3: A PeelBot on the beat.
OK, I’m making some of this up – but MCUK really is a futuristic technological marvel. Peel have created a gleaming dream palace that is almost entirely automated. My apartment building (we’re not allowed to call them flats) has what I believe are called ‘intelligent’ lifts. Instead of waiting for one to arrive, getting inside, and pressing the number for your floor, you instead key in the floor number while still in the lobby, and wait for one of the two lifts in operation to debate which should have the honour of transporting you. This sometimes takes them several minutes to decide, and it can be rather frustrating to hear their disembodied voices (yes, they talk and everything) echoing endlessly from the lift shaft above (‘Floor twenty-two. Door opening. Door closing’).
Actually, I think most of my undergraduates are probably more intelligent than those lifts, and many are arguably better conversationalists.
What else? Given the close proximity of my intelligent home to the workplace (about ten metres; I hate commuting), I have taken up gym membership in order to combat the sedentary nature of my new lifestyle. So, those of you who have seen me at conferences and thought ‘I bet he works out’ now have the satisfaction of knowing you were right. And in a profession such as ours – so bereft of certainties – surely that is something to be cherished? Yes, a body like mine doesn’t happen by accident (not unless it’s a very serious accident), and I try to visit the local gym every day. I must confess that I do not ‘pump’ a huge amount of ‘iron’ (I researched the terminology thoroughly before joining), but spend a lot of time on cardiovascular workouts. Cardio (as we physical types call it) is basically walking or running on treadmills, and it focuses the mind wonderfully. Some of my greatest didactic inspirations have come while I was panting and sweating with physical effort – but that might be too much information for some of you. I also spend a lot of time on the cross trainer. Now, this is not an angry person in a tracksuit, barking at you to get down and give them fifty – though you can have one of these if you’re prepared to pay extra. No, a cross trainer is a machine with pedals and lots of handles, and it can reduce you to a matted perspiring mess in a matter of seconds.
I quite enjoy these daily exertions, but have thus far been unsuccessful in my attempts to persuade colleagues to join me. However, there’s usually somebody to chat to, if one is so inclined. A few weeks ago an elderly Mediterranean gentleman in a cerise top began complementing me in the changing room on the fact that I was ‘a beautiful man’ – and this before I even got my kit off.
Speaking of kit, I strongly recommend using a TARDIS rucksack instead of a branded gym bag. Due to the fact that it’s bigger on the inside, you can fit in a whole month’s change of clothes in one go – and it also gets you noticed. I typically do my evening food shop on the way back from my ‘workout’, and several of the chaps on the local supermarket registers are sci-fi enthusiasts. In addition to the TARDIS rucksack, they have also admired my Star Wars shopping bag (despite it bearing the brand of a rival supermarket), and in recent weeks I have got into quite involved conversations about whether Chris Chibnall is the right person to take over from Steven Moffat, or if The Force Awakens was any less disappointing in 3D.
Apologies to all those who were behind me in the queue.
Anyone who remembers my old blog about star-spotting in Muswell Hill might think I would be in seventh heaven here in the City of Media (UK), but in fact I have seen very few celebs in the year I’ve been here. I think Nicky Campbell might once have asked me the way out of the gym (though I could have been mistaken; I’m not very good on DJs), and I’ve definitely seen Meera Syal (once) and Glenda Jackson (twice). When he was still a regular on Coronation Street Craig Charles could often be seen outside the bar on the corner, but the rest of the cast keep themselves to themselves – and Mr Charles has now gone back up into space for the next (two) series of Red Dwarf.
OK, so there are times when I can’t decide whether MCUK is a gleaming dream factory or a New Brutalist designer wind tunnel. It’s probably a bit of both (it does get very windy in the winter), but the students thrive on it. For most, it’s like nowhere they’ve ever been before, and I must admit it is quite nice to bump into them outside working hours, scouting locations, or manhandling cameras and microphones (just so long as they don’t bug me about assessment feedback). Last Saturday I saw three of my third years in the communal gardens. Concerned that they might be about to bring the university into disrepute by doing something inappropriate with Petra, I asked what they were up to, and it transpired they were auditioning actors for their final project film.
Seeing them at work gave me a lovely warm glow of communal feeling – even though I’m not actually involved in the practice side of things.
So, if you’re ever passing Salford, don’t just keep on passing – why not pop along to the Media City of Dreams (UK)?
If you ask nicely, I might even show you my ORAD.
Dr Richard Hewett is Lecturer in Media Theory at the University of Salford’s School of Arts and Media. He has contributed articles to The Journal of British Cinema and Television, The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Critical Studies in Television and Adaptation. His book, The Changing Spaces of Television Acting, will be published by Manchester University Press later this year.
 Witty branding, no?
 Brian and Michael’s single of the name is probably my favourite novelty number one of the 1970s, after ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’.
 Lesley was the only one who opted to remove her shoes when they made the sunken garden imprints back in 1978; I always felt there was something of the flower child about her…
 One of my first years arrived late for a seminar last year, because he had just bumped into Jeremy outside and insisted on shaking his hand. I instructed him to go and wash immediately.
 No, of course I didn’t; I’m well aware that it was Orac. I’m a television historian, for goodness’ sake, adopting a voice for comic effect.
 See? I do actually know what I’m talking about.
 I refuse to call it A New Hope.
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