With sales of shows to 160 countries, True North is now one of the UK's top TV production companies making programmes such as Panorama and Cutting Edge. Not bad for a business started with three people, two chairs and one pokey Leeds bedroom. Arts editor Rod McPhee reports
FROM the plush surroundings of his minimal offices Andrew Sheldon enjoys an undisturbed view of the church where his parents were married and the south Leeds suburb where he was born and raised.
It's a defining split image of a city. True North's recently acquired home is in the metropolitan media hub of the new Holbeck urban village, just spitting distance from old-school Holbeck where Sheldon grazed his knees as a nipper.
And it's a contrast echoing his company's rise from the ashes of 20th Century TV production. The industry is now entering a whole new era as a result of changes in government media legislation and the contraction of regional independent television, namely the purge of Yorkshire Television's studios.
Sheldon, who started out as a teenage hack on the Yorkshire Evening Post three decades ago, actually met his co-directors Glyn Middleton and Jess Fowle while they worked as documentary producers at YTV in the 1990s.
As a result the trio now boast the equivalent of 50 years local media experience, hence the apt True North name. And the fact that they know their stuff – as well as the region – is part of the reason why they're now one of the most in-demand programme makers in Britain.
From making just one show in their first year back in 2001 they now annually produce over 200, many scooping TV awards.
"We feel very positive about the way the future's shaping up," says Sheldon. "Even though there has naturally been a huge focus on the decline of the local TV industry and as a whole there's been this contraction by ITV back into London.
"In some ways we are the legacy of YTV but we're also very different from the way the industry was back in the 1990s – we're much more of a 21st Century operation."
But in what way? Well, due to new legislation in the Noughties the big broadcasters are required to outsource the creation of 25 per cent of TV shows beyond the conventional limits of London.
There's now far richer pickings to be had and Sheldon, Fowle and Middleton have not only benefited from this they've capitalised on it. On top of the one-off documentaries they've secured several commission for popular TV series, such as Animal 24:7, Sunday Life and Animal Rescue Squad, which offer a more consistent source of work and income.
Most independent TV production companies are made up of just a few individuals with staff and resources which fluctuate wildly depending on sporadic commissions.
But True North have invested heavily in the business over the last eight years and have a strong base with around 70 freelance staff and a highly equipped workplace which, since they moved into Marshall's Mill last month, is now permanent.
Middleton says: "Because of the numbers of people we have we can offer something to the people commissioning us which other companies can't. I can't think of another production company like us anywhere between London and Edinburgh."
Fowle adds: "And since we have all the equipment and resources instantly ready and available for use we can just turn something around in a matter of hours if needs be. Whereas other smaller operations have to start looking at hiring editing suites, cameras and other equipment."
Sheldon: "But at the same time we're also a relatively small company which means that you don't have all the beaurocracy of big broadcasting organisations – if a decision has to be made the three of us just sit down and make it between us, plus of course we don't have the pressure of big business behind us telling us we need to make lots of money all the time."
Changes in the law have also meant that production companies like True North retain the rights to what they make which has seen them make a killing selling their creations overseas.
Middleton says: "We market them around the world, everywhere from Mozambique to Russia, China to Thailand. If you go abroad you're very likely to see one of our shows – I've even been travelling on a plane and turned on the in-flight entertainment system and seen one of our programmes on there.
"In 2004, for example we made a documentary about the murder of PC Ian Broadhurst" (the Leeds policeman gunned down in the street) "And sold that onto CBS which is one of the top four TV networks in America.
"And the money we got from that alone meant we could actually go off and spend a year working on devising new ideas and concepts. So we realised quite early on that the international market would be a huge part of the business."
But perhaps the biggest factor in their success has been the advent of technology which no longer requires TV production to be quite so London-centric – or even UK-centric.
The internet has negated the need for producers and commissioners to rely on travelling and the postal service to view footage and completed programmes. This was always a hurdle for regionally produced TV even before the advent of the digital age.
Fowle says: "You could almost hear it in a commissioning editor's voice down in London: 'Oh god! Does that mean I'm going to have to come all the way up to Leeds to see the finished product?'"
Sheldon added: "To them it was like the end of the map and what you find with TV production is that there's this kind of pipe where talent runs down from the north of England into the capital.
"Which is why there's virtually no TV production up in a big city like Newcastle and it has traditionally drained southwards. But that's changing now, I mean, we have something like 15 or 20 people travelling north every day from Manchester because of the work we do here."
Middleton says: "With True North we wanted to say: 'We're here and Yorkshire has a proud history of making TV and we can make it of an equal if not higher quality than anyone in London can. That's a great message to send out.
"But it goes beyond that too. Earlier this year we made a programme directly commissioned by the National Geographic Channel in Washington. And because of technology it means they know they can watch it online before accepting it, so we're not really restrained by global never mind regional boundaries anymore."
But True North aren't merely a business which just happen to be in Leeds. With their local experience and contacts they are viewed by commissioners as being a preferred choice to put together TV shows if they pertain to the north of England.
One of their most prestigious was last year's Panorama profile on Karen Matthews. Entitled Shannon: The Mother of All Lies the documentary was an obvious choice for the company who were right on the doorstep of the story.
And because they've gained a credible reputation they frequently gain exclusive access to officials and organisations that 'outside' producers wouldn't be granted.
But the regional benefits don't end there. Vast swathes of the BBC are due to relocate to Manchester in 2012 – Radio 5, Children's and Sport – and far from sucking the life out of the north, the Beeb insist its
benefits will ripple outwards.
So True North are open to the idea that companies like themselves might well be called upon to add to the mix and contribute towards the programme making of the BBC more than they are now.
"It might mean us diversifying even more," says Middleton. "Can I see us doing something like Children's TV, for example? Well, considering
we started out making the kind of hard news documentaries we
did and now find ourselves doing everything from natural history
to lifestyle programmes then I guess anything is possible.
"I genuinely view the future, whatever changes occur, positively. I really don't see True North having any long-term limitations at all.
Although we will have to adapt. Considering we did start off in my bedroom with two chairs and one computer I still get a little bit scared looking down into this big new office filled with all this equipment and people."
Sheldon says: "We were a little bit scared going into Glyn's bedroom."
"It was his spare bedroom," adds Fowle.