An Interview with Mark O’Brien, Producer and Presenter for Made In Leeds
Mark O’Brien is a producer and presenter for Made in Leeds, the local TV station that is taking the city by storm. The station covers local stories, promotes home-grown talent, and keeps the people of Leeds entertained. It has already had quite an impact on the city, growing much faster than anticipated; the station has been on air for just three months and already pulls in the viewing figures they were aiming for in year three. With almost half a million viewers tuning in each week, Made in Leeds is officially on the up and up. Robin Styles visited the Made in Leeds TV studios and spoke to Mark about the station, his experiences filming in the city, and some exciting upcoming projects.
TSOTA: Mark, you present ‘The Book-It List’ on Made in Leeds. What have you got coming up on tonight’s show?
MB: Tonight we’ve got a feature on the Leeds Print Festival, which is based at Munroe House. My grandma used to work there actually when it was Austin Reed back in the day so I love that building, I’ve got an affinity for that building. We’re also doing a couple of bits about the Super Bowl and where you can go in town this weekend to watch it. And then we’ve got this bit of film material, you’ll probably end up seeing it a stupid amount as we have a habit of repeating things we really like. It’s called ‘Signs you’re made in Leeds’. We did some filming down at Asda house and there is a shot of me over the water saying ‘You know you’re made in Leeds if you know this isn’t a supermarket. It may look like it is from a distance but actually it’s Asda House.’ Things like that, things you’d know if you grew up here. I’m looking forward to tonight’s show as it’s out and about. We are always trying to balance that. The thing about having a studio and a set is that it’s sustainable. You can do a good job in there time and time again. We have three automatic cameras there linked up to a gallery, we’ve got a talkback system so that the presenter can be given instruction on what to do next. We sometimes joke, because of the way that we did things in the first weeks; we call this proper telly because this is how it should be. When we started out we weren’t quite ready in there so it would be the case of just one camera, sometimes the presenter holding an iPad beneath the camera with the script on.
TSOTA: Yes, I was going to ask you if that was a stylistic choice, because in some of the shows you have these shots where you’re getting ready and then it cuts to the next camera where it seems all set up. It’s like its being made, like you are aware of it being made.
MB: I wish it was that metaphysical in its production. But actually I look back at some of the things we did in the first few weeks and I’m well aware of how much we’ve improved, and how much we can still improve. The studio already makes a big difference, I’m really happy with it. It’s made a huge difference to how we make shows and put them together. It makes my life easier as well. I make no bones about it, I found it tough in the first few weeks after the launch; we were scrambling day after day to fill time. There were things that we did wrong, crises that came to us, sometimes obstacles that were put in our way. There must have been a good dozen times between launch and Christmas that I said openly, ‘you know what, I’m gonna quit.’
TSOTA: So it was a really stressful time?
MB: Yeah, it was tough, but to be honest I don’t think it should be any other way. I’d be worried if it wasn’t like that. I’d be worried if it wasn’t stressful. It should be challenging, and on a day like this when we get these figures out, and I get notifications from the Made in Leeds twitter on my phone, and I hear what people say, and they’re saying ‘wow, that’s impressive.’ Given how tough it’s been, it’s impressive. My granddad was a joiner for forty, fifty odd years, he had a much tougher job than I do, but we do put our heart and soul into what we do here, I believe that everyone here puts their heart and soul into it. This is the kind of reward that we deserve.
TSOTA: One of the things that comes across is this real engagement with Leeds, and a real belief in Leeds, and it’s also made for the people of Leeds. Have you had a lot of reaction from people and do you hear from viewers?
MB: A huge amount. The sheer number of emails that I get from people who want to be on the shows means that we’re doing the right thing. If people didn’t want to be on it I’d be worried. And when we’re out and about on the streets, people know about Made in Leeds for one thing. Yesterday I was out filming the Super Bowl stuff; I went out for a few hours with the cameraman and we have these Made in Leeds signs on our mics so you can see the logo, and you hear people walking around going ‘oh, it’s Made in Leeds.’ Some people came up to say ‘I know you, you’re doing fantastic. Just wanna say I’m watching the station and you’re doing really well.’ Then there was one guy who came up and said ‘Made in Leeds? Fucking shite channel pal. Sorry pal, but you know…’ But again, I’d be worried if it were anything else.
TSOTA: At least you know you’re reaching people…
MB: Exactly. When I was younger I used to be quite sensitive and now I’ve gone the other way, I’m a bit too thick-skinned so I find it quite funny. I tweet about it when people say things like that. I might start this as a hashtag, I’ve been using #overheardonlocation. Any time there’s any shit or abuse, I want to put that up because I find it funny. I think there is something genuinely Leeds about that. Radio Leeds, when they first started in 1968, they got that. They’d gone out and got these vox pops from people around Yorkshire ahead of the show and this one guy had said ‘Radio Leeds? It’s a bloody waste of time’. And they started with that, those were the first words they broadcast. It’s more genuine. If my show was more like The One Show, which is a really – I don’t want to be harsh but I’m gonna be – it’s a quite self-satisfied, quite middle class show. Even though neither of the main presenters are southern it still has a rather London focused, south-east focused feel about it, which I think is really not the way we do things here.
TSOTA: And there is that sense at the moment that Leeds is on the up.
MB: It really is. Three people in this building come in from Manchester or Salford every day. That’s changing the tide. Leeds has always had a bit of a chip on its shoulder about Manchester and London. It’s an accident of history that Manchester has become this kind of broadcasting capital of the north. Granada TV, when they started in the fifties, had a franchise for the whole of the north of England and they could have put that anywhere, but chose Manchester. I think you can see a clear line from that to BBC North being in Salford. And now Leeds is the headquarters of Made Television Ltd., which is the biggest local television company in the country, and the fact that it’s here is quite a big deal. It’s going to take time to see how that goes. The way I see it going in the future is that more independent producers will start up, will see the opportunities.
TSOTA: One thing that I think Leeds has over Manchester and London is a sense of cohesion, that it is one place.
MB: Yes, and it still has a very large potential catchment area too. If Yorkshire was an independent state I don’t think we’d do too badly really, there is enough of a mix of industry, and of life, and if Leeds is the capital of all that – obviously I wouldn’t tell people in Bradford that Leeds is the capital –but if Leeds draws a lot of the talent from around Yorkshire then it’s already doing quite well.
TSOTA: And what projects have you got coming up on the station?
MB: Well, we have a big plan for February across the network to focus on homelessness, so all the local stations have an individual charity that they are working with to put together a program. In Leeds we’re working with Simon on the Streets. They do interesting work, and they do a ‘sleep out’ which they normally do in September where they get business people, community people, anyone who wants to get involved, to raise money by sleeping rough for the night. It’s all quite sanitary, there’s a part of you that feels it’s a bit token, but I’ve heard from people who say they felt like that at first but once it gets to 3am and its freezing cold, it’s actually…even that is tough. Before we bed down for the night, we also have to get together in groups and go around the city centre and find bedding, cardboard, what we can in the bins, to keep us warm and safe. They normally do it in September when it’s a bit warmer, so this time they’re doing it in February, and it will be freezing. And the whole show is only going to be half an hour but we all want to put a lot of time and effort into it, and to look at the experience of homelessness, and issues around begging in Leeds. The sheer fact that we can do that, that I can go from having an idea to doing it, it’s powerful. We can do so much and if we as a team treat it that way and recognise that power, and the rest of the city recognises that, we can do so much.
TSOTA: And that does feel like quite a big problem in Leeds; you see quite a lot of homelessness.
MB: Yeah, It’s an interesting one. This show is going to be experiential but a bit political as well. I’m in a good position because I don’t necessarily have the same pressures on me to maintain the same relationships with the politicians as the news team do, so I can be a bit bolder. Leeds City Council do a rough sleeper count and according to their recent figures it is two, two rough sleepers in Leeds. And this is because it excludes so many things, such as people in temporary accommodation. It’s interesting and we’ll explore it in our show because the council have an interest in promoting Leeds and giving an impression to the world outside, and even to ourselves, that this is not a problem, so that it is pushed away to one side. It is a much bigger problem that we see, and there are people on the streets with stories, with real potential.
TSOTA: There is this amazing plaque down by the river, under the bridge that leads to Leeds dock, like the heritage signs, and it says ‘Vicky’ 1958-2007 Gifted Poet & Rough Sleeper, spent her nights here from 2005-2007.
MB: That was a campaign by Simon on the Streets, it’s the same charity. They did that a couple of years ago. They do great work raising awareness, so I think it’s going to be a really good thing we’ll do with them. What I’m hoping to do is turn this segment into a monthly special and take a lead on dealing with or tackling another issue, shows that investigate, that are not just news reports but are more emotive and challenging.
TSOTA: I read your piece in The Guardian that was about the history of independent broadcasting in the north. Do you see Made in Leeds as a continuation of this tradition?
MB: I do, I really do. It’s got the potential to be, and already we have very talented people writing material from the streets of Leeds. We’re already showing comedies and dramas made by Leeds people. Make it Plumb is a prime example of this. It’s a sitcom set in a building trade by a really great guy called Andy Dorree. He wrote it. The story is that he was a joiner and 5 or 6 years ago he was watching a primetime national TV sitcom on BBC1 and he said to his girlfriend, ‘This is rubbish’. She challenged him to do better and he took a writing pad to the loo with him and started writing a script based on his experiences in the building trade. We supported him in putting a full pilot together; they got sponsorship from Partners Brewery, and that was broadcast over the Christmas period. It’s a Leeds sitcom somewhat in the mould of Shameless, it’s not a cheesy 70s style thing. It’s real working man’s comedy. At Made in Leeds we’ve got some fantastic people who are going to do really good things, people who are on the team now, the journalists, the producers, the presenters, everybody. And there’s the hot bed of talent around the area as well that are coming here and making programs. I see us very much as a new Granada TV, a new Yorkshire TV because they did great things, and continue to do great things. We’re very much in their mould.
TSOTA: I’ve enjoyed the unplugged show and the quality of the artists is impressive.
MB: This is the thing, you don’t need to go far to find a lot of talent here. And this is the showcase that they’ve been begging for. There are plenty of newspapers and websites in the city but TV is another level. The reach is phenomenal and it goes straight to people’s homes. We have to be modest about it, because we’re just facilitating it. The talent is here, we’re just the guys that put it out there.
TSOTA: And one last question – you’ll probably have seen a couple of weeks ago about Jeremy Clarkson tweeting ‘What happened to Leeds? It looks like New York’, and I wondered what you thought about the comparison?
MB: I think New York is the new Leeds. You know, I love New York, I love Leeds, I see certain similarities, I do. Wherever I go I see Leeds in other places. I think it’s a bit like when you’re in love with somebody and you leave them you see them in everything. I worked in Iceland for a few months and I saw parallels with Leeds and Yorkshire, and people talk about the beauty of Iceland but I came back thinking ‘I prefer Yorkshire, I think there is nowhere that matches the beauty of Yorkshire’. I still want to go all over the world but I find myself returning here, and I’m generally at my most creative here. There are lots of similarities. I wouldn’t big it up too much, we’re different places, but if I had to make a choice right now between working on local TV in Leeds or local TV in New York I’d choose here. New York has been covered, Leeds is more interesting. New York is in every movie, well not every movie, but there aren’t enough films about Leeds. And the first ever film was in Leeds, that’s just one of the many stories I’d like to tell.
You can follow Made in Leeds @ www.madeinleeds.tv
It broadcasts on Sky Guide 117, Virgin Media 159, and Freeview 8
You can follow Mark @MarkOBrienEsq
For more information about the work of Simon on the Streets visit http://simononthestreets.co.uk