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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

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Ex-Border TV presenters focused on Cumbria's quirks

It’s a swish, stylish boardroom I’m guided into: white walls; big white table; tall windows flooding the room with light and white flowers lined up along the sill in their vases.

Brilliant Trees Media photo
John Harkins and Susanna Bocaccio

We could be in London with a view of a park or teeming streetlife; or the new MediaCity in Manchester with a view of the canal.

But we’re not. Instead, we’ve a view of TK Maxx through one window and Cumberland Building Society framed in the other.

We’re in Cumbria – Carlisle city centre to be precise.

In the headquarters of a TV company that has made a name producing quirky, characterful and entertaining documentaries and series about the county and the people who live and work here.

Brilliant Trees Media was set up by former Border TV presenters John Harkins and Susanna Boccaccio working from their kitchen table with one computer and one camera in 2007.

They quickly moved out to an office in Warwick Bridge, but have been based in the city centre for the past year.

“It is great here, being in the middle of the town with the market and Cranstons and TK Maxx handy!” says Susanna with a 1,000 watt beam.

Susanna, 45, is immaculately dressed in black and white blouse and smart black skirt, bubbly and smiley, a natural in front of the camera.

John is more reserved, though he regularly breaks into a broad grin.

Both are thrilled – and a little relieved that their new series Rookie Builders is finally finished and is being broadcast on ITV4.

“We have been under massive pressure to finish the series,” says John.

“It is the first one we have filmed in high definition and it is the first one we have edited ourselves, we’ve done everything.

“It has been a bit like turning an oil tanker, but in a good way.”

It’s all a far cry from their days at Border TV.

The couple met in 1997 while working in the newsroom, presenting and producing documentaries and continuity programmes such as The Nitty and Gritty Club which gave teenager Helen Skelton her first taste of presenting.

Watch Helen Skelton on The Nitty and Gritty Club. Article continues below...


They made Home Grown with Annette Gibbons, Raw Chefs, Medics and other programmes which were picked up by other ITV regions.

“I really do miss Border,” smiles John. “It was great and I look back really fondly on it.”

“It was a wonderful place,” nods Susanna.

“It was relatively small and you were allowed the chance to produce, direct and present, we were given some fantastic opportunities, it was great.”

Workington lad John left St Joseph’s School for a media and journalism degree at Hull university.

His first wages were earned as a newsreader for CFM before moving to Border to take Susanna’s job.

Blackpool-born Susanna had studied ballet in London, before returning to her home town to teach dance.

She started presenting shows on a local radio station, then moved to Border but left after a short while to work on the TV station UK Gold.

When that folded, she returned to Border and found herself sat opposite John.

The couple married in Blackpool in 2000 with sticks of the Blackpool rock bearing both their names.

“I’ve still got some in the loft!” laughs John.

He left Border to work on a series of programmes for other ITV companies and the couple set up Brilliant Trees Media in 2007.

“ITV was shrinking and delving into different areas and we wanted to stay in Cumbria, make programmes and capitalise on where we are in this brilliant place,” says John.

“I thought ‘we have got to do something here, I don’t want to shut the door and put the closed sign up’.”

The name of their company comes from the title of a David Sylvian album from 1984 that they both loved.

“Also, in this business, you need a name that stands out and is eye-catching, and there were also some lovely trees through the window in Warwick Bridge.

“The only problem is that sometimes people think we’re a dairy firm called Brilliant Cheese!”

They produced shows such as Kings of the Road, an eight-part series following Eddie Stobart bosses Andrew Tinkler and William Stobart for a year and Cumbria’s Atomic Pioneers which was part of a series titled A History of the World.

Both picked up major awards which got them noticed by a TV industry squarely based in London.

But staying in Cumbria is a vital part of the business for them both.

“When we talk to Channel 4 or the BBC they are keen to hear our voice,” says Susanna.

The move to MediaCity in Salford, near Manchester, by some of the BBC’s biggest TV and radio departments could open up new doors and lead to more work for Brilliant Trees Media.

“That is as close as the industry is ever going to get to us,” says John.

“I don’t know if it will mean more work, I would like to think so. We have made lots of contacts with the BBC and they know us because we are here – would that have happened if we had been based in London?

“I would like to keep it here and have an office in Manchester,” grins John.

“I’m proud we’re working from here, it was our choice,” adds Susanna.

“Broadcasters always say ‘what can you tell us about your part of the world that we don’t know?’ and the only way you can do that is to be part of it.”

The two complement each other with their different skills: John says the wife is great at coming up with ideas and she repays the compliment by praising her husband’s technical and writing skills.

While they do the bulk of the work, they call in freelance cameramen and editors as they are needed.

They have already made TV stars of medics and truckers and are set to do the same for a group of young apprentice builders.

Rookie Builders is an ITV4 documentary series following a team of 17 to 27-year-olds who were challenged to build a house on budget, on time and with no mistakes.

Filmed on a Story construction site at Magellan Park in Kells, Whitehaven, it’s not so much Auf Wiedersehen Pet as Alreet Marra? and looks set to make stars of Boyband, Smithy and possibly even Steve...

Thankfully, the bleep machine isn’t in overdrive and subtitles aren’t needed (just) but there is a sense of pride that they have made a programme about local folk.

John smiles and says: “There’s a fabulous moment where Steve is driving the van, Smoke On The Water is playing in the background and he leans out and shouts ‘alreet Marra!’

“It’s great!”

As well as the documentaries, they also make TV ads for local companies, internet campaigns for companies and corporate films.

They relax by running around after their children, Oscar, five, and Isabella, eight – “they have a better social life than we have!” – and family walks in the fells.

But home time is precious for a couple who run their own business.

We were supposed to have chatted last week, but John had to dash to London to finalise the Rookie Builders series.

In the midst of producing the new programme they have moved house and are still settling into their new home of two weeks near Brampton.

Susanna says: “We were in the pub last Saturday and John had just drunk half a pint when his phone went and he had to come back here!”

John drops his smile as he says: “If there is a problem I would rather know about it straight away.”

The couple enjoy watching telly, but Susanna admits: “Most people switch off by watching telly, but it’s what we do!”

Unsurprisingly, their favourite shows are documentary or observational shows.

“I love The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den, big shows like that,” says Susanna, while John picks out BBC2 and BBC4 as his favourite stations.

He still occasionally plays guitar with a band called Hipsters. There’ll be a rare get-together for his 40th birthday later this year.

Rookie Builders may be done and dusted, but the couple are hoping to hear soon on whether they have the go-ahead for a major documentary.

“We have one big project which, if it comes off, it will be really exciting, with a big name presenter, based locally and filmed here,” says Susanna.

“We can’t say anything more, but it is exclusive to Cumbria.”

Rookie Builders is broadcast on ITV4 on Tuesday evening and repeated on Saturdays.

To watch Helen Skelton host the Nitty and Gritty Club, go to our website www.cumberland news.co.uk

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