Last week I went back to Yorkshire. It was the funeral of Barbara Bird, the mother of an old friend of ours – David Beckett, who the best man at our wedding, so we’ve known each other for a long time and, Barbara, we’ve known nearly as long. Barbara was always a vibrant character and was one of those mums that when we arrived at their house late at night, having had too much to drink, she would always be able to rustle up something to eat and beer to wash it down. This was in the 1960s and life was very different.
Still there was then, as now, a North-South divide. It was however very different to the one that exists today.
The North was the industrial heartland of England and jobs were plentiful. The divide wasn’t so much about finance, it was about grit, about earthiness and a general attitude to life. There was an air of aspiration – if you saw a Rolls Royce drive by, and there were plenty around in the North during that time, you believed one day you would own one. Jealousy wasn’t really prevalent, but ambition was.
So what happened? Simply the manufacturing disappeared, with it went pride and for some inexplicable reason, councils took it as an excuse to destroy city centres, and this was long before Amazon, out of town shopping outlets or exorbitant parking charges. This was something totally different, this was a total disregard of cultural heritage, almost a need to annihilate it.
Bradford, where I was born, was full of magnificent Victorian buildings, the crowning glory being the Town Hall, now retitled City Hall, which was built in the 1870s and has, thank god, survived. But lots of others haven’t survived. Kirkgate Market, an indoor market which was completed in May 1878 was demolished in the early 1970s and replaced by supposedly a modern smarter building – if you ever go to Bradford you can make up your own mind. Also in the same area were Rawson Market and John Street market. By the 1930s 23 acres were occupied by these markets, which offered literally hundreds of stalls from which small family businesses plied their trade. These were not huge conglomerates, which dominate the shopping centres these days and are bailing out faster than rats from a sinking ship. These traders were part of an aspirational Britain, whose needs were suddenly considered to be inconsequential – and now we’re wondering what happened to our city centres.
But it’s not just the Victorian buildings that have fallen foul of consecutive Bradford councils, there was the amazing New Victoria cine-variety theatre. It had over 3000 seats, a huge stage, a moving platform that could deliver an entire orchestra from the back of the stage to the front, a Wurlitzer organ on a rising platform, a ball room and a restaurant. When it opened in 1930, it was the third largest cinema in Britain, as well as been the first cinema in the UK to be purpose-built for talkies. By the time I was aware of the building it had changed its name to the Gaumont, but it still functioned as a both a cinema and variety house, only the variety had changed over the years. I not only saw some fantastic films there, it was the place I saw The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Cliff Richard, Ike and Tina Turner and many, many more. Its interior was hacked about by cinema and bingo chains, until it was eventually shut completely at the end of the 1990s. Anywhere else in the world there would be a Blue Plaque, a museum and a historic experience. Can you imagine if it were in the USA, there’d be a theme park? Shame on those responsible.
When people talk about the government not doing anything about our City and Town Centres, I would first lay the blame at the door of the local councils. What were they thinking? What are they thinking?
I grew up with all this amazing architecture not only the ones I’ve mentioned, but there were others that were demolished like Collinson’s Café, Swan Arcade and The Mechanics Institute. Luckily some still remain like the famous Wool Exchange and the amazing Salts Mill. If you’ve never seen Salts Mill it’s worth a visit, just five miles outside the centre of Bradford in Saltaire, the village Titus Salts created for his workers. Check out its history. Not all miller owners were evil slave drivers.
But what successive councils did was obliterate the city’s character. Bradford might have been a bit down and dirty, but that was its heart … that was its soul. It was born out of the woollen mills and that could never be ignored or turned into some poor imitation of Milton Keynes. In fact it should have been celebrated.
It was that industrialised environment, throughout the North – Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire etc – that produced some of greatest post war literature; literature that inspired me then, and I aspire to now.
There was Barnsley born John Arden, who gave the world the terrific play Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance, Stan Barstow, born near Wakefield – AKind of Loving. I had the pleasure of meeting Stan Barstow once at Yorkshire Television in Leeds, when I was acting in his TV series A Cost of Loving– loved doing it. And of course, there was Bradford born John Braine, actually born in the very centre of Bradford, whose first novel was Room At The Top. Alan Sillitoe born Nottingham – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, David Storey born in Wakefield – This Sporting Lifeand Keith Waterhouse born in Leeds – Billy Liar. If you haven’t read any of these books or plays, then I recommend you do. They’re all about a world we’ve moved on from, but they are also about a world that shaped what happens today. These were the ‘angry young men’ who were commenting about the disappointment and frustrations of living in post war Britain.
As a writer I’ve never felt that being judgemental about society was part of my job. I don’t want to be preachy, telling people what to think, I just want to tell good stories, but if those stories are set in a real world, then sometimes it’s impossible not to comment. And the beauty of early days EastEnders was it was a commentary about that period in the 80s, whilst at the same time being entertaining. Any observation you have about a society has to be organic. Commenting on society can’t be stuck on, if it is, it just becomes worthy and vomit making – and we’ve all seen plenty of that. A short while ago I was talking to a producer about writing on a show, this is one of the BBC’s flagship shows, and I was informed that if I did write on the show then the script had to impart some worthwhile message. I don’t know, and I doubt I ever will, but those ‘angry young men’ writers I’ve mentioned, I don’t believe started with the intention of getting a across some message. They wanted to tell a good story; those stories just so happened to reflect the time they lived in.
I’ll never forget reading the opening of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Sillitoe’s description of Arthur Seaton downing eleven pints and seven gins and ending up unconscious at the bottom of the stairs of The White Horse Club. It was captivating in a way I’d never known before. Ever since I’ve always looked for ways to start TV dramas, plays, books – whatever, that hopefully hooks the viewer or reader in to such an extent they have to find out what happens next. It doesn’t have to be a death or an explosion, it just has to be gripping. Grab that audience.
Do I wish I’d been part of that ‘angry young man’ movement, too right? It feels like a perfect fit, but because I wasn’t then I have to believe that every generation of writers has to have its own voice. It may not be as strident as those 50s and 60s writers, but it must be as heartfelt.