Is it really that ‘grim up North’?

Gemma Powell discusses the lack of positive Northern representation on TV.

Gemma Powell
17th August 2020
Credit: IMDb
The North­-South divide is still prevalent in British society, and this divide is perhaps at its greatest within the media. Whilst representation of the North has improved slightly, British television in 2020 still lacks a diverse range of characters that reflects the variety of people from the depths of Yorkshire up to the Scottish border.

It must be acknowledged that minor improvements have been made in representing the North. Breakfast television and drive time radio shows have seen an increasing number of regional accents, a particular favourite of mine being Steph McGovern on BBC Breakfast. However, not everyone enjoys her North East accent in the early morning, as a slurry of twitter hate begins every time she appears.

Another favourite Northern representation of mine is Ackley Bridge. This school-based drama sees two very different communities come together in a fictional West Yorkshire mill town and resolve their differences over time. It was the first time I had seen someone of Asian ethnic background with a broad Yorkshire accent on television, which is completely astounding when so many people like this exist and could easily be my parent’s neighbours. Not everyone will agree that this was a good programme, as it perhaps exaggerated the racial divide within one particular community, but the fact that white northerners did not occupy more than 50% of the screen time made this feel like an improvement in terms of representation.

Credit: IMDb

Why are television companies so desperate to make the North look like it is violent, dangerous and riddled with criminals?

Credit: IMDb

On the other hand, there are still enormous problems with the way the North is represented on our screens. Quite a lot of Northern dramas are crime dramas, with Happy Valley and Vera being two very different ways of discussing crime but still perpetuating the stereotype of the North’s grim nature. Vera, set right in the heart of the North East, often includes stunning landscapes of Newcastle and Gateshead quayside, including aerial shots of the Millennium bridge. The very same television show chose to shoot in Jesmond in 2018 and portrayed it as some sort of dangerous slum. Jesmond is a very safe middle-class student area and Newcastle as a city has a much lower crime rate than the average British city. So why are television companies so desperate to make the North look like it is violent, dangerous and riddled with criminals?

Moreover, the working classes are hit harder with this ‘grim’ stereotype than anyone else. Most portrayals of working-class life are through a middle-class spectator lens, making a voyeuristic spectacle for our TV screens. Programmes like Benefits Street, whose second series was set in Stockton-on-Tees, and The Great British Benefits Handout in Liverpool make northerners appear to be lazy scroungers when even people with the most polished CVs can struggle for a job in these areas due to systemic issues out of their control.

Although some improvements have been made in intersectional Northern representations, the odd show with a few northerners of colour does not meet every individual’s needs or represent their situation. There are only a handful of shows with disabled northerners or LGBTQ+ northerners, some of which are heavily clichéd with minimal character development or a lack of prominence on screen.

Shows with greater intersectionality that focus on important social themes would display the valuable diversity and beauty that exists within the North

In the new millennium, Queer as Folk portrayed the ups and downs of gay life in Manchester with many different characters with varying personalities. It was controversial at its time of release for including Nathan, a 15-year-old character. The inclusion of a teenage gay character raised the eyebrows of the Mary Whitehouses, but supported young gay northern teens with their sexuality when they may not have been accepted in their home environments.

Credit: IMDb

Whilst obviously this show and its views are obviously of its time, it is disappointing that nothing has been produced since in the same vein. A modern take on Queer as Folk could delve into the world of transgender and non-binary people and leave a new generation of queer northerners feeling represented and supported by the content on their television screens. As a proud Northerner, shows with greater intersectionality that focus on important social themes like this would display the valuable diversity and beauty that exists within the North.

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