In ten years, Andrew Sheldon, Jess Fowle and Glyn Middleton have built up Leeds-based True North in to one of the largest indies outside London. Here's how they did it.
The original inhabitants of the converted 18th century mill where True North is based would no doubt find it hard to grasp what is now created in the building.
The Leeds indie makes TV shows for all the key UK broadcasters, and exports them to 210 countries. Built in the early days of the industrial revolution, the mill has floor to ceiling arched windows and now hums to the work of TV production teams, working on features, docs, reality shows and kids series such as MTV’s The Valleys, C4’s Compare Your Life, CBBC’s Junior Vets and Nat Geo’s Bloody Tales of the Tower. There’s also a full post production wing in the building, home to 19 Avid edit suites.
The scale of the operation is impressive, all the more so when you consider that True North was set up in 2002 in a spare bedroom by three colleagues from Yorkshire Television’s documentary department – Jess Fowle, Andrew Sheldon and Glyn Middleton.
At the time, Yorkshire TV was caught up in the turmoil at ITV, and with ever decreasing opportunities internally, the trio set out on their own, determined to create work for themselves in Leeds. “We wanted to make a wider range of programmes than YTV could offer. But there wasn’t enough scale in the existing Yorkshire indies to provide a broad enough range of work for the three of us. So we decided to do it ourselves,” recalls Fowle.
True North’s growth since then is particularly notable given its Leeds location, where it is the only sizeable indie and is miles from London, the base for most TV commissioners, companies and talent. Indeed, on paper, Leeds looks a very challenging location for an indie. During True North’s lifetime, ITV has dramatically scaled back its once mighty regional base in the city, while rival city Manchester is, for most broadcasters, now synonymous with production in the North.
Yet Sheldon, Fowle and Middleton have made it work. In recent weeks, True North has taken on its first md, former BBC and Pathe executive Marc Allen, to bring extra commercial experience to the company. It’s also opened a Manchester office, to tap into the talent in the city. And it runs a big production office in Cardiff, the base for production of The Valleys.
True North’s first ever commission was ITV doc The Lottery Liar, which they won on the back of making singles for the network. It helped put the company on the map. Other commissions proved vital in the early days, notably Crimefighters which ran for five series and provided a steady income stream thanks to international sales. But Sheldon points to one particular commission – Animal 24:7 for BBC Daytime – as crucially important. They pitched the idea in 2005 to BBC head of daytime, Jay Hunt (now chief creative officer at C4), and walked out of the room with an order for 20 episodes. The show went on to run for eight series, running to 160 episodes – and more than £1m in secondary sales. “It really was a key turning point – we were able to hire in staff and build up the infrastructure of the company, and get some real momentum” he says.
More recently, True North hired The Only Way Is Essex producer Fiona O’Sullivan to lead a push into factual entertainment, features and formats. She has duly delivered with MTV commission The Valleys. “We’ve been seen as a factual series and documentary company. So it’s great to be seen doing cheeky noisy shows like The Valleys – it means True North can surprise people with what it does,” says Fowle.
Other key hires include head of production Carol McKenzie, who came from ITV factual; exec producer Liz McLeod, who has been expanding the company into international markets; Jo Haddock, and the former series producer on Wife Swap; and Marc Allen as md. Middleton says: “Those extra people make True North a very different proposition. We now have a lot of programme making experience in a lot of different genres.” Sheldon adds: “There’s a tipping point for an indie when you realise that if you don’t come to the office, the operation keeps going. The company has a life beyond the founders’.
Certainly, True North now has the infrastructure and experience to rank as an indie that’s a trusted supplier of complex series. It might lack visibility with London commissioning editors – who will do viewings by ftp rather than popping into the office. But its regional base can be turned to its advantage too. “We’re very happy that we’re from the North, but it absolutely doesn’t define us. We can give broadcasters the northern stories that nobody else can get access to,” says Sheldon, citing shows like Back From The Dead: The John Darwin Story, made for ITV and Panorama special Shannon: The Mother Of All Lies. Middleton adds: “The fact is that we are not in that melting pot of other indies in London. So we have forged our own way of doing things – and people seem to like it.”
Andrew Sheldon: A journalist with a 20 year career in TV, Sheldon is primarily responsible for current affairs, docs and daytime shows at True North. His credits include One Life: Getting Away with Murder, Real Story: Death of a Policeman, Animal 24:7 and Sunday Life.
Jess Fowle: Started in TV as an ITV trainee, working at TV-am, Central and Yorkshire TV. At True North, she’s focused on features, formats and childrens shows like My Mums Used to be Men, My Fake Baby and Animal Rescue Squad.
Glyn Middleton: Began his career on the First Tuesday doc strand and was deputy editor of current affairs series 3D. Middleton looks after distribution, secondary rights and international business. His exec producer credits include Jon Venables: What Went Wrong, Churchill’s German Army and Killer Couples.