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Northern lights

Those BBC refuseniks will rue the day they passed up the chance to relocate to Salford, England’s new cultural capital, says William Cook

8 October 2011

5:00 PM

8 October 2011

5:00 PM

Those BBC refuseniks will rue the day they passed up the chance to relocate to Salford, England’s new cultural capital, says William Cook

Standing on the roof of Daniel Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum North, staring at the shiny new buildings down below, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Hamburg or Berlin. There’s the same futuristic skyline, the same glint of glass and metal. There’s even a sleek modern tram, snaking between the shops and cafés along the quay. But this isn’t a continental conurbation — this is Salford. The improbable renaissance of this unloved city sums up England’s biggest schism, not between black and white or rich and poor, but between north and south.

When the BBC chose Salford Quays as the site for its new Media City, you could hear the howls of protest all the way from Shepherd’s Bush to Notting Hill Gate. For a certain sort of telly exec, holed up in BBC TV Centre in White City, the idea of relocating anywhere north of Hampstead felt akin to internal exile in Siberia. Some declined to move, others needed coaxing. The ensuing debate divided the muesli-eating classes: in the red corner, as the press portrayed it, pampered producers and presenters whose cultural horizons stretched no further than the M25; in the blue corner, bitter hacks like me who could only dream of being paid to leave London for a city where a decent house costs half the price.

Eventually, some 700 BBC employees opted to move from London (just over half of those they asked). They’ll be joined by about 700 colleagues from BBC Manchester, just down the road. The vacant posts (about 1,000, making this the biggest relocation of its kind) have been filled by external applicants — no such qualms about Salford from hardened jobseekers outside the BBC’s west London bubble. There are nearly 1,000 BBC staff here already, and on 26 September the site went live when the first programme, Blue Peter, was broadcast from these state-of-the-art studios, to be followed by stalwarts such as Dragon’s Den, Mastermind and Match of the Day. By the time Breakfast News moves here next April, there’ll be nearly 2,500 employees, working on everything from children’s telly to Radio 5 Live.

So what about those metropolitan types who declined the BBC’s invitation (and financial inducements) to move north? Were they wise to turn down the chance to relocate to a TV factory on the edge of Manchester, which, for all its facilities, is still a brownfield site? Surely there’s more to life than work, and more to White City than Salford? Well, having lived round the corner from Television Centre for 20 years (and spent a few years working there), I’m delighted to report that I think they’ve made a big mistake.

When I was a teenager, travelling to Manchester in search of adolescent entertainment, Salford was rightly regarded as a bad joke. Right next door to lively Manchester, it felt forgotten and godforsaken — a place apart. Its status as a separate city felt like an awkward anomaly — a warning to naive tourists not to stray so far afield. The only reason you might end up here was if you lost your way en route to a football match in nearby (Tory) Trafford — Salford was socialist, of course.

From this post-industrial wilderness you had a clear view of Manchester United’s enormous stadium, Old Trafford, rising up above this bleak landscape like a spaceship on a lunar plain. Maybe it was these grim memories that informed the BBC’s London refuseniks — or maybe they’d seen too many kitchen-sink dramas. Either way, I bet they’d be amazed at how this benighted no-man’s-land has been transformed.

When I went back to Salford last year, for the first time in 20 years, I could hardly believe my eyes. Two decades ago, Salford’s docklands was a wasteland, a no-go area flattened by the Luftwaffe and the wrecker’s ball. By last year a new city had emerged from the rubble and this year it’s full of people: joggers, families, day trippers. A ferry chugs past, full of sightseers. There are swans and canoeists on the ship canal. So what on earth has happened? How did decrepit Salford make this change?

The unlikely catalyst for this regeneration was the Lowry, a vast arts centre on the waterfront, which toasted its tenth birthday last year. Most arts centres are dreary places, reeking of worthy discourse and state subsidy, but with its three theatres and three galleries, all staging challenging but popular work, the Lowry is a buzzy, energetic place. The current treat is an Andy Warhol exhibition, curated by the Lowry, but the jewel in its crown is the bequest that gave the Lowry its name. L.S. Lowry was a local lad, of course, and his paintings defined this cityscape: back-to-backs and mills and factories that have long since disappeared. It feels strange to wander round this huge display (more than 300 Lowrys, the world’s largest public collection) and marvel that the world outside which he captured on canvas has now vanished. Strange but rather fitting; Lowry found beauty in these dark satanic streets but he knew them far too well to be sentimental about them. Stepping out into the smogless sunlight, I suspect that Lowry would be glad to see the panorama he painted swept away.

The big surprise about the Lowry is the artist’s seascapes, not his cityscapes, and Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum, across the water, is another revelation. Like his Jewish Museum in Berlin, the building is as much sculpture as architecture — a disconcerting structure designed to echo the disorientation of modern warfare. It’s intensely evocative, inside and out, and the contents are extraordinary — both the permanent exhibition (featuring contemporary artefacts such as a suicide bomber’s car) and the special exhibitions (currently an absorbing survey of the war reporter’s changing craft). So different in appearance from its Edwardian prototype, Imperial War Museum North
has quickly become a museum in its own right.

These two museums are Salford’s main landmarks, but since my last visit lots of new institutions have arrived to fill in the gaps. Salford University is now in situ, in a smart new building called The Egg, and, in an ironic twist of social history (which surely would have tickled L.S. Lowry), ITV is building a new row of back-to-backs — the new set for Coronation Street. Yet the new Salford isn’t just a playground for students or TV producers. What makes it more than a media theme park is its no-nonsense northern air. There’s a Booths supermarket here, and a multiplex cinema, and a cut-price designer clothes outlet. If the Lowry Hotel (patronised by Kylie, Morrisey and Beyoncé) is too fancy for your tastes then the Holiday Inn and Premier Inn are both a short walk away. What makes Salford Quays more vibrant than London’s Docklands is that the culture here feels homegrown, not imported. Salford Lads Club gave The Smiths the cover for their greatest album, The Queen Is Dead, Manchester’s answer to Abbey Road. Just up the road, in Deansgate, is the site of the Haçienda, the nightclub that redefined pop music, just like the Cavern had in Liverpool a generation before.

On my way back into Manchester I stopped off at Ordsall Hall, a splendid Tudor manor house that encapsulates Salford’s many ups and downs. A mansion, then a working men’s club and finally a free museum, it’s a stately home surrounded by council estates — a sign of how far Salford has come, and how far it still has to travel. Salford is still a tough old place, and for any Londoner it’s a challenge, but I suspect some of those BBC staff who decided to stay in London may come to rue the day they passed up the chance to make a new home in England’s new cultural capital.

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