The BBC has been accused of “abandoning” Birmingham by removing almost all of its television and radio shows from what was once its biggest production hub outside London.
On 12 August staff at BBC Birmingham’s Mailbox headquarters are due to stage a symbolic “silent protest” over what is seen by campaigners and media unions as a betrayal of licence fee payers in the Midlands.
The demonstration coincides with the removal from Birmingham to London’s Broadcasting House of presenter Bobby Friction’s drive time show on BBC Asian Network, a station founded in Birmingham and Leicester. The relocation is the latest in a series of setbacks for BBC Birmingham, which has been stripped of popular TV shows Coast, Countryfile and Hairy Bikers and lost prestigious BBC Radio 4 shows You and Yours, Farming Today and Costing the Earth.
Only The Archers, the Radio 4 Great War drama Home Front and two less prominent Asian Network shows continue to be made for the national network at the Mailbox, which opened to great fanfare in 2004 as the replacement for BBC Pebble Mill, its iconic studios in the south of Birmingham.
For 33 years, Pebble Mill, which was opened by Princess Anne as the UK’s first purpose built broadcasting centre, was a familiar location to millions of BBC viewers as the backdrop for programmes such as The Clothes Show and Pebble Mill At One. Despite the BBC’s recent strategy to move production out of the capital, Birmingham has been overlooked in favour of other cities, notably Salford, Glasgow, Bristol and Cardiff.
The BBC rejected the notion that it was turning its back on the second city and said Birmingham had been chosen to host its centre of excellence for skills and training. It will also be home to the BBC's Diversity Unit.
Keith Murray, BBC representative for the National Union of Journalists, said: “The Mailbox is a shell of its former self. Five years ago it was vibrant and shows were being made for BBC1 and Radio 4. Now there are studios that are unused and row upon row of empty desks. The BBC does not appear to have pride in its Birmingham operation anymore.”
Many believe that the Mailbox, a multi-purpose centre that includes a cinema and branches of Harvey Nichols and Nando’s, was an inappropriate location for the BBC to locate a broadcast production hub. Its future use by the BBC appears to be focused on training and human resources.
The BBC operates a “drama village” from the Selly Oak campus of the University of Birmingham where it makes the TV soap Doctors and period drama Father Brown. The drama Peaky Blinders - which is Birmingham-themed but filmed in Merseyside and Yorkshire - returns shortly to BBC1, while Lenny Henry’s new autobiographical show Danny and the Human Zoo is being filmed in nearby Dudley.
But the Campaign for Regional Broadcasting Midlands (CRBM) has calculated that £940m a year is contributed annually by the region’s licence fee payers and that the outlay is not being represented in the BBC’s output.
Luke Crawley, Assistant General Secretary of broadcast union Bectu, said: “Birmingham is the biggest city outside London but the BBC doesn’t seem to want to make programmes there.”
Just over 18 months ago the BBC appointed Tommy Nagra to raise the profile of BBC Birmingham. He told Birmingham City Council’s culture scrutiny committee: “It is one of the biggest frustrations for me, people think we have stopped making programmes in Birmingham. We have got a lot of work to do on that front.”
When Mr Nagra left the job a year later to return home to Manchester he told the Birmingham Post: “I think it is job done for me.” The BBC is moving its BBC Academy training unit to Birmingham and its head, Joe Godwin, has also taken Mr Nagra’s former role.
Mr Godwin said that despite recent efficiency savings the BBC was investing more in the Midlands. “The BBC is now spending twice as much in the Midlands as we were two years ago - £125m by the end of this financial year. We’re currently advertising 100 new jobs based in Birmingham as part of our plan to move 300 jobs to the city.”
Straight out of Brum
Hit BBC2 series was relocated from The Mailbox in Birmingham, first to Bristol and then to the growing production base at Cardiff.
Long-running BBC1 rural affairs show moved from The Mailbox to the highly-regarded Natural History Unit at BBC Bristol.
BBC Radio’s principal rural show, moved from Birmingham to Bristol.
Also quit Birmingham for Bristol, where the BBC is also grouping food-based radio and TV shows.
The Bobby Friction Show
Drive time show on Asian Network, moved from Birmingham to the BBC’s Broadcasting House headquartersReuse content