Tech in the North

Search anything and hit enter

“we can create a kind of collaborative magic,” — dawn paine, creative england

“we can create a kind of collaborative magic,” — dawn paine, creative england


Thick white slashes of the title typography carve up the low-contrast dark of the film’s opening frames; scene: a terraced street at night, Liverpool 1982, three years of Thatcher’s Britain and it’s late and there’s no moon to illuminate the nightlife. Only streetlights, and some glows from windows where standard lamps and televisions persist within.

The opening theme gives way to a street recording of the uneasy after-midnight peace; peace, ‘cept for the argument behind single-glazing at no.22; the revving engine, here and there, of a seductive Cortina; the rattle of a bin lid pawed percussively by foxes, dogs, cats; who knows.

And a rapid mechanical clattering, a disorienting plastic sound that’s hard to locate among the bricks but that, as the camera pans and zooms to an upper storey, mid-terrace, house front, we realise emanates from a bedroom, where we expect (from experience) must reside a local enigma of some kind. For this is a familiar northern cinematic trope: from the fifties til forever, the outcast artist disturbs quiet factory-crowding streets with their typewriter’s blunder, their guitar’s baleful caw, or just the pump and odour of hairspray applied to vigorously nonconforming hair.

Expect the next sound on the soundtrack, a harsh call that breaks the night’s reconciliation, a mother or neighbour demanding the social exile in their garret respects the nearby harmony, and quits that bloody racket and goes to bloody bed. Where, beneath the sheets, a bitter soul tries recovery with tape recordings of the John Peel show crammed into a Walkman, headphones jammed into their ears, into their life, gummed up and stuck here.

Dawn Paine, for it was she, was not writing a novel, or playing guitar. This was 1982, and the medium of her release from the oppressing Liverpool around her was a plastic brown box, a bit smaller than a shoebox, plugged into a portable TV: a Commodore 64 computer, into the circuits of which she could load other worlds from cassette tapes, and be any kind of winner she wanted.

“I mightn’t look like it,” Dawn tells us, as we talk in Creative England’s offices at Media City in Salford, where Dawn is Creative England’s Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer. “But I’m a hardcore gamer. Of all the sectors I’ve worked across in my career, games is the one that is closest to my heart, for a number of different reasons.”

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

Dawn has worked in her career for some of the biggest names in gaming, not only in the UK but worldwide: Psygnosis, Sony, Atari, Infogrames, Nintendo; as well as Universal Pictures, where she was Vice President of Marketing. At Creative England she continues to work in the games industry, but now she’s supporting it across the country, outside London, along with the technology, film and television sectors, bringing money and opportunities to businesses, large and small, that are vital to the UK economy.

“Games are an absolutely essential ingredient of our country’s creativity,” says Dawn. “The creative industries in the UK are worth over £87 billion per year, and video games are a key driver of that economic impact. Games in the UK were also a key global driver of the start of the games industry as a whole.

“That dates back to the early eighties, when one of the only good things the Thatcher era brought was the introduction of BBC Micro computers into schools, while at the commercial end we had Clive Sinclair bringing out the ZX81 and Spectrum; so we can pre-date the UK games industry back to 1980-81.

“Which makes me feel horribly old, as there I was back in 1981, 82, 83, spending a misspent youth as a female gamer playing games like Daley Thompson’s Decathlon and The Hobbit on my C64, up til 2am, unbeknownst to my parents. So gaming has always been a little bit in my blood.”

The north is also in Dawn’s blood, along with those kitchen sink tropes of creativity in northern working class cities; that we’re unfair to call tropes, because they’re part of a lexicon of artistic expression that, with city by city variations of tone and dialect, helped provincial people understand their own lives, and shed that provincial tag that always identified them in terms of proximity to London. The north had different character, and different art; character and art the metropolis could never have.

Creative England’s work continues what in the twentieth century were radical moves but now feel like traditions, most naturally in television and film where it has backed films like 45 Years, and Jawbone; a micro-budget series of films made with the BBC called iFeatures; and Netflix’s projected sixty episode life of Queen Elizabeth II, The Crown. But the technology and games sectors also have a heritage that goes back further than many people at first remember — those early eighties days spent hammering the keys on a C64 or ZX Spectrum — and have in common with film and television a sensibility that transcends medium.

“There’s a really interesting question around what that special ingredient is in northern creativity,” says Dawn. “And how you might define that.

“I personally think that in the north, whether through an advertising agency or creative agency, a film maker or entrepreneur setting up their own company, there is a deep rooted cutting edge, a slight punkiness, to what defines northern creativity. There’s almost a lyricism in places like Liverpool, through to a more industrial, harder edge to creativity that you find in cities such as Manchester.

“It’s difficult to stereotype the whole northern region, and it would be ridiculous to do that, but I think there are definitely idiosyncrasies across each of the different cities.

“In terms of north and south, I think there is personally for me a bit more edginess in terms of the north’s creative offering, possibly a groundedness that comes through in the kind of creativity you’re likely to see in the north. I think it’s just part of our DNA; sometimes I think it’s because lots of people in northern cities will have been brought up with working class backgrounds. You have to think quite creatively when you haven’t got as much money — necessity is the mother of invention — and I think a lot of those historical socio-economic factors have got their role to play in terms of why the north and its cities have had incredible overdelivery in terms of output, from the turn of the last century when we had Lowry, through to Alan Bleasdale, Ian Curtis, Danny Boyle, the list could go on and on. There is definitely something within the fabric of northern culture that is a driver of what sets our particular brand of creativity apart from what you might see in the rest of the country.”

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

In the mid-1990s Dawn was present in Liverpool for one of the milestone moments in northern cultural creativity, when Psygnosis were bringing together Liverpool’s best games coding talent with The Designer’s Republic of Sheffield and the rave culture gone mega in the north’s warehouse clubs, to launch Sony’s new PlayStation with a different kind of game: Wipeout.

“Around the mid-nineties I wanted to do something creative, something much more to do with the games scene, and I was fortunate enough to start working at Psygnosis when it was a wholly owned subsidiary of Sony PlayStation. That was an incredible period of time, when the UK was starting to spin into its Cool Brittania period, and for me personally that was the only time in my life when I had a two year period of being remotely cool.

“What I thought was amazing about Psygnosis at the time was it was so cutting edge; it was right at the vanguard of popular culture, and thinking about how dance music culture could be fused into the creative process around video games. Working in a studio that had such seminal output as Wipeout was just an incredible experience, and the whole era of Cream and rave culture was still incredibly powerful; and what Psygnosis were doing was really fusing all those different types of creativity together to create something much more than the sum of the individual parts. That was an incredible time for me personally, being part of such an explosion of almost unfettered creativity.”

Alan Bleasdale and Ian Curtis, Psygnosis and Cream; they might seem curious citations when you consider Creative England’s work with, say, video gaming or data-driven technology companies, but part of what makes Creative England’s work so valuable is their willingness to look beyond the obvious, and to think analytically about where things are happening, what things happen there, and what needs to be done to make things happen better.

“One of the really important things we do is look at what the underlying factors are that drive creativity and tech across the regions,” says Dawn. “Quite recently we published a report in conjunction with Nesta, called The Geography of Creativity in the UK, a really extensive and rigorous report that looked at really defining and segmenting the country into different creative cities and clusters. There were forty-seven creative clusters identified, with a huge number in the north.

“Tried and tested ‘famous’ creative cities were clearly within that report, so you had Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle; but what was really interesting was the emergence of what we’re calling creative conurbations, that are not as big as those other cities, but where there are some really interesting emerging trends starting to come places you might not expect.

“So Warrington and Wigan, in the north-west, is a top-five creative cluster, and that’s interesting in the sense that I’m not sure Warrington and Wigan would roll off your tongue as names of creative kinds of places. But what we’re seeing in the north-west is an explosion of companies that are fusing creativity and technology to do interesting things. A large amount of ecommerce is starting to happen, a lot of that coming out of Warrington, and I think that’s something really interesting that absolutely chimes with us, about how creativity can come from anywhere and talent can come from anywhere.

“One of the things we’ve found in terms of how new creative clusters start to happen is that there is usually a confluence of factors that are driving it. It’s not usually just pure coincidence. It will sometimes be to do with academic or cultural heritage, that might drive why a certain industry starts to flourish in a certain place, and great universities will often trigger certain types of companies being based in a particular region.

“In terms of why there’s such a massive opportunity for businesses to flourish in the north, there’s the whole quality of life argument, and the cost of living argument; the cost of doing business is so much cheaper than what you’re able to access down south. In some respects it’s actually a bit of a no-brainer. But what we think is still incredibly important is that there’s still so much more of a story to be told, and for us to really shine a light on those businesses and make people aware of these new, upcoming creative clusters. People in London might not have the foggiest about what Warrington or Wigan have to offer, and it’s part of Creative England’s job to really show who all those northern stars are.”

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

The importance of that illumination is that, while the north and regions outside London might be full of people and businesses taking innovative, creative risks, it’s difficult to take those ideas to the next level because of a scarcity of investors and businesses willing to match that risk with funding; outside the hyped up gameplay of London, at least. Creative England push risk lovers together; the funding they provide can be like paying for a match-making dinner date for two people you know will hit it off.

“It’s really important to us that we can nurture and develop talent, and reach out to it through our programmes that enable people to get funding, support and development that, without organisations like Creative England, they might not be able to access.

“I think we all know that in the entrepreneurial space, and in the creative and technology space, it can be quite difficult for new businesses to find that first funding, because they might be deemed too risky for traditional banks. That’s where organisations like ours come into play, because we’re all about trying to support innovative, interesting businesses that have got creative ideas, about how through telling their story and generating investment and support we can help some of those businesses scale up.”

The interactions with scale are where some of the most interesting things can happen, where big ideas from small businesses can be developed through contact with big businesses that need big ideas, no matter the size of the business having them. What’s got to happen is for chances to be taken on meeting.

“Creative England are ourselves almost a slightly scaled up version of a startup,” says Dawn. “We’re small but we definitely punch above our weight, and we’re continually looking at ways to build commercial relationships.

“We want to connect small companies to big companies, and we’re working with more and more big companies to create more commercial programmes that will enable us to invest more and more, and be able to really promote inward investment.

“There’s a huge opportunity in the north for businesses that are northern based, whether they’re fully-formed organisations for the UK, or UK outposts of global companies, to absolutely be leveraging and accessing all the talent in the regions.

“Something that we’re really passionate about is connecting small businesses and even individuals to really big organisations and corporations, because sometimes by linking the big guys and the small guys, through that collaboration, that interaction of agility and speed of tech and startups and creatives, with all of the scale and power of those big organisations, can create an alchemy, a kind of collaborative magic by bringing those two quite different forces together.

“We’re brokering quite a lot of those relationships at the moment. In the game space we work with Microsoft, and we have a programme that’s been running for three years called Greenshoots that runs across the regions and enables Xbox to find new and emerging British games development talent, and enables us as Creative England to find and invest in new world-class games companies right across the country.

“Another example was an initiative we ran with Disney where we ran a challenge and connected them to a games development company in Liverpool called Citrus Suite, who beat a whole load of other companies and have since been prototyping their technology within Disney. It’s a really brilliant example, an 8-10 person Liverpudlian games company working on gamification for a healthy living app for Disney, and we believe there is a huge untapped opportunity for much more of that to be happening.”

Disney are a name that underlines the global opportunity that exists now, regardless of where you’re based, if you can take the risks required to get to that level.

“We took Citrus Suite over to the world’s biggest global advertising conference at Cannes Lions earlier this year to present and showcase their work to brands and companies all over the world.

“We would always advocate for any company we’re supporting to be as ambitious as they possibly can. We want to see a rigour, a commerciality and a strong business plan, but for any business now, with the digital landscape we’re in, there are no geographical boundaries anymore for where you should be positioning yourself. I think some of the cities across the north are so well established now in the global arena that there really is no barrier to trying to access more global markets.”

That would have felt like an unrealisable dream to young Dawn, hammering the keys on her C64 in the Liverpool of 1982; that computer was a self-contained system, its only inputs a tape machine for software on cassette, and Dawn’s hands on a keyboard and joystick; its only outputs were the screen and speakers, illuminating the 2am room and disturbing the neighbours up and down the silent street. It was hard to imagine any way out of those four walls, no matter how far into the screen worlds Dawn stared.

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca

Some of that urge to create has moved from bedrooms to offices and industrial estates now, or to schools and coffee shops between, because you don’t need to plug a brown 8-bit box into your TV anymore; as long as somewhere around you there is a connection to the internet then around you is a connection to the future, and a connection to the realisation of a hard-won idea. The ideas haven’t changed, the character hasn’t changed, but the backdrop could change, and be anything. Virtual reality, perhaps.

“I live in Liverpool, I work in Manchester, and I spend my life constantly on a train travelling around the northern powerhouse,” says Dawn — and from her, that phrase sounds real. “It’s interesting to compare and contrast and see how it’s evolved over the last fifteen years.

“One of the really exciting parts of it is the tangible sense of possibility that I think now exists in those cities when, particularly growing up in the 1970s in Liverpool, I’m not sure you would have necessarily felt it was a city of possibility.

“But absolutely now there is a vibrancy and energy, a sense of connectivity, a sense of community I think that permeates the culture of all those different northern cities. Through creative businesses, tech businesses, all the hubs and cities and clusters that are forming, it’s enabling more and more collaboration and allowing more and more interesting conversations to happen between companies, and I think there’s a groundswell of opportunities that I think is really exciting.

“One of the things we can start to think about and explore is what the possibilities are in terms of even more unity within the burgeoning north. There are some very established identities that exist and have always existed within those cities but, in a digitally connected world, we’re all closer than we’ve ever realised. So there’s more opportunity for collaboration to be going on across different cities and regions because we share mutual challenges and a mutual approach to creativity that I think unifies us. Just because I’m from Liverpool doesn’t mean the only other place I could work is London, and increasingly a career can mean being based in multiple places across the north, rather than only where you happen to come from.”

Dawn’s career in the games industry did take her to London, and closer to the centre of gaming than she can have imagined from in front of a C64’s two bluetone startup screen. ‘READY’ it used to say, waiting for you to make something happen. Now Dawn’s back in the north-west she’s even closer to fulfilling the potential implied by that simple command, and helping plenty more people fulfil it with her: READY. Or was it a question?

“I’m delighted to be based in the north-west again,” says Dawn. “I spent the early part of my career in the north, but found that to develop, at that point in time fifteen years ago, the only opportunities for a creative, reasonably senior marketing person were down south. So I relocated and lived just outside London for fifteen years or so.

“But after meeting Creative England and seeing what the opportunity was, and really reappraising how vibrant the north really is right now, I made the decision to relocate back up here. And it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, in terms of quality of life, and having a creative, interesting career; spending my time talking to entrepreneurs, film makers, games makers; and being part of a community that is really trying to make a difference in people’s creative lives. It’s the dream job, really. And I would heartily advocate that, where possible, people do explore any opportunity to be based in the north, and to be based around one of those vibrant creative cities or clusters. Because you’ll be inspired by the people you’re around every day.” ••