Daytime TV: A class apart

The politics of the North-South divide gave material for many gritty novels of the 1960s, says Gary Day

September 23, 2010

Until 1960, the North of England was an undiscovered country. That, at any rate, was the view of Andrew Martin in his intriguing film, 1960: The Year of the North (BBC Four, Tuesday 14 September, 9pm). Of course, it was only Southerners who didn't know the North existed. Northerners had the place mapped before the Vikings arrived. What was it, then, about that year that catapulted the North into the national consciousness?

John Bulmer, a photographer, said that travelling North was akin to visiting New Guinea. Now that Britain was losing its empire, it was time to explore the dark continent of home. Certainly the inhabitants were portrayed in a manner similar to the natives of Africa and India: backward and buffoonish. At first, anyway. Think of George Formby. But later there was a genuine attempt to convey Northern life in all its grey, gritty, rain-sodden reality.

David Storey's This Sporting Life (1963) was a paradigm. Its anti-hero, Frank Machin, is gauche and brutal but he also represents a rootedness lacking in the rest of society. Such images of the Northern male were used to beef up a bloodless consumer culture, but they also provoked a feminist response.

Dr Tracy Hargreaves of the University of Leeds opined that Liz, the main female character in Billy Liar, is an early example of feminist rebellion because she discards that badge of Northern womanhood, the headscarf, and tosses her hair in a carefree way. An action that reminded me of a thousand shampoo adverts more than a blow for female liberation. A more convincing instance of nascent feminism, spotted by Tracy, was that Liz makes it to London while Billy misses the train.

Mr Martin's answer to the question of why the North became all the rage was money. Ah, so that's why Southerners took an interest in the region. They saw a chance to profit from the newly enriched Northern working class, yes? No, that is not what he meant at all. The high wages enjoyed by factory workers gave the North a new pride and self-confidence. The inhabitants could now afford to buy televisions, just like them posh folk down in London. Isn't civilisation a wonderful thing?

But as Arthur Seaton, the anti-hero of Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), declared, people may have more things but they're "dead from the neck upwards". They got consumerism but lost their culture. A history of political protest degenerated into a hire purchase agreement. That view received its most considered and poignant expression in Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy (1957), a work that inspired the novelist Stan Barstow.

Barstow spoke movingly of street life in his native Yorkshire. Then, the term was synonymous with community, but now it's the setting for gang war. Old film showed a busy scene: children climbing railings, girls skipping, boys playing football, women gossiping, men poring over the sporting pages and everyone popping in and out of each other's houses. Tony Warren sought to capture that neighbourliness in Coronation Street, first aired on 9 December 1960. He insisted, on the grounds of authenticity, that only Northern actors be used. He must have been hopping mad when he saw Corrie: The Road to Coronation Street (BBC Four, Thursday 16 September, 9pm) because Southern actors were used to portray their Northern counterparts. Jessie Wallace as Pat Phoenix? Please.

Warren was from Lancashire, Barstow and Hoggart were from Yorkshire and Sillitoe was from Nottingham - which some may say is not the North at all. If the programme had a fault, it was the failure to distinguish between different areas of the North. Yorkshire, for example, which is where I come from, has a better accent, better views, better food and, really, better everything compared with what you find in Lancashire.

But we can forgive Mr Martin such omissions because you can pack only so much into an hour. Even less if Ray Gosling is one of your talking heads. He spoke so slowly, his hair fell asleep. It gradually sank from pointing straight up to lying flat on his head. But what he said was true. That the old class politics between the North and the South was displaced on to the internal conflicts of the working class itself, between father and son, between office and shop floor, between those in the old terraces and those on the new estates and between those whose amusements were communal and those who withdrew to the privacy of their own homes.

The Pope popped over to see us. He held a mass in Westminster Abbey (Papal Mass from Westminster Cathedral, BBC Two, Saturday 18 September, 9.40am). Monsignor Mark Langham said the Pope would incense the altar. Why not? He seems to have incensed everyone else.

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