I can just imagine the frantic scurrying among London’s elite media circles – you know the type, they watch only box sets and think houmous is food – when it was announced the Tour de France would start in Yorkshire.
“Yorkshire? Where’s that? Is it in England? Do they have roads there? Electricity? Mains water? Don’t people still walk in front of motor cars carrying lamps? Don’t they call everyone ‘love’? Don’t old men rumble down hills in tin baths?” You get the picture.
Of course, Yorkshire people, wherever in the world they may be, knew it would be the most wonderful spectacle in the world’s finest countryside and a terrific boost to its tourism industry. As it turned out, roughly 2.5 million people lined the route (a good chunk of them members of my family), shrieking and cheering. It was lovely, and for a native like me in reluctant exile, all a bit lump-in-the-throat.
But TV news, particularly the BBC, was taken aback, not least by Yorkshire’s witty reaction. It was baffled in the face of dyed sheep and painted llamas, Yorkshire village pubs with their names changed from The Black Horse to Le Cheval Noir and the sheer, voluble joie de vivre of its inhabitants. Where were the dour people saying, “Ee bah gum, there’s nowt so queer as folk”? BBC Breakfast’s Jenny Hill looked terrified on the Saturday morning, her rictus expression fixed as gleeful spectators packed into Leeds city centre combusted around her.
It was all great fun, of course, but there was an omnipresent patrician seam running through most of the coverage, an “Ah bless, aren’t Yorkshire people sweet? Haven’t they done well? Good for them” sort of head-patting. I think Last of the Summer Wine shares a lot of the blame for this (see tin bath comment above). To many metropolitan minds Yorkshire is a foreign country where cheerfully decrepit geezers get into scrapes as battleaxe women bark and brass bands parp away in the background.
Or it’s inevitably bound up in idealised TV fictional versions harking back to the days of All Creatures Great and Small (albeit stories based on the memoirs of vet James Herriot) through to Heartbeat, Where the Heart Is and their ilk. Or flat-caps-and-misery historical northern dramas like The Village, and The Mill, which starts again on Channel 4 this Sunday. Only the recent Happy Valley even attempted to show the grit in the contemporary oyster, with its withering depiction of social deprivation and drug use amid the glorious natural splendour.
Yorkshire specifically and the north in general are still seen as “other”, however hard the BBC might try to suggest otherwise, despite its recruitment of presenters with regional accents on TV and radio (North Tyneside-born Stephanie McGovern on BBC Breakfast, Radio 4’s Liverpudlian Winifred Ronbinson, its huge investment in Salford and the northern (Birkenhead) background of director-general Tony Hally.
The Tour de France amplified the noise that always surrounds any kind of chirpy/ good news stories that come from the north; it’s a region no one should expect too much of, so any achievement of any kind deserves a bit of encouragement, just so long as they know their place and don’t get any big ideas.
Alan Bennett pinpointed this exactly in his diaries, when he recounts being described as “this flaxen-haired Yorkshire lad” (he was probably at least in his late 50s at this point) in a newspaper feature. Does anyone ever call Harold Pinter “this East End boy”, he wondered? No, of course not.
Similarly when Le Tour hurtled through London, I didn’t hear anyone say, “Cor blimey, strike a light guv’nor, look at all of these bleedin’ bikes,” because clichés don’t dwell in the south, only the north, by gum.
I suppose this could all be dismissed as harmless but it’s not. It fixes false pictures in too many heads. It’s time to stop. Is that all right, ducks?
A programme worth our tears
Emotions on TV can be cheap: just think of all of those reality-show contestants wailing because their “dreams” are shattered. So what! Who cares? But sometimes emotions are so real you’re stopped in your tracks.
Long Lost Family (Mon 9pm ITV), which quite rightly won this year’s best feature Bafta, does this to me every week. Hearts are actually healed, right in front of us, as mothers are reunited with children they’d given up for adoption, and siblings find one another after decades of searching. Long Lost Family (with Nicky Campbell) succeeds brilliantly because it calls to the need that dwells in us all — the need for a family.