A region built on TV spot

December 22, 2006

The North East of England has a strongly recognisable regional identity as one of the country's cradles of Christianity, an industrial heartland and the inspiration for gritty television dramas such as Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, Our Friends in the North and Spender , writes Olga Wojtas.

But an investigation by historians in five northeastern universities - Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria, Sunderland and Teesside - has concluded that North East England appears to be a television invention, and is less than 50 years old.

Diana Newton, director of the North East History Institute based at Teesside University, is among the team conducting a major study of the region's past. The five-year project is backed by £866,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

The researchers have concluded that a North East regional identity did not emerge until after the middle of the 20th century. The turning point was the arrival of the independent television company Tyne Tees, which assured viewers in 1959 that it would serve "a region with a culture, a tradition and a way of life entirely its own". The "North East" first appeared in weather reports in the 1870s to distinguish it from the area west of the Pennines, Dr Newton said. At about the same time, various employers' associations in shipbuilding, engineering and iron-making called themselves "north east federations".

But there are few other records referring to the region as it is now known.

"We've been very thorough, very systematic. I would suggest that it's highly unlikely that we're going to find anything else," Dr Newton said.

"Even in the early 20th century, the differences and distinctions between Northumberland and Durham were quite marked."

Dr Newton said the image of a North East region became current during the bid for devolved government. "The rhetoric of the 'yes' campaign emphasised the longevity of the North East. But we've found no evidence for this."

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