Saturday 15 June 1996. A complicated day to be a member of these islands’ extended family. For a start, it was the day England beat Scotland at football at Euro 96, their first meeting for seven years. The 108th match between the two sides was, as always, an emotional encounter. Earlier, in Manchester, in a violent outburst of another ancient grudge, the Provisional IRA continued its final mainland bombing campaign with a powerful blast outside the city’s Arndale Centre that injured more than 200 people. At issue were the multi-party peace talks, which at that stage excluded Sinn Féin.
It’s a day just dripping with symbolism – so it’s surprising that it’s taken 18 years for someone to place it at the centre of a TV drama. What’s less surprising is that when Peter Bowker (Eric & Ernie, Desperate Romantics, Occupation) depicted the bombing in From There to Here – his new three-part family drama covering four years in the damaged city – they cast Bernard Hill as one of the leads.
Hill, 69, might as well have Pennine rock in his bones; at times it sounds as if millstone grit is rasping in his throat. Born into a mining family in Blackley, about five miles north of Manchester city centre, Hill came to acting in his 20s and broke through playing Yosser Hughes in Alan Bleasdale’s 1982 series Boys from the Blackstuff. Although he went on to a film career, playing Captain Edward Smith in Titanic and Theoden in The Lord of the Rings – and now lives near Lowestoft – he’s as near a personification of the city as you’re likely to meet outside of a Stone Roses reunion.
In From There to Here he plays tough patriarch Samuel Cotton, who runs the family confectionery business. As the drama opens, he’s sitting down to watch the football in a city-centre hotel with his sons – respectable Daniel (Philip Glenister) and streetwise Robbo (Steven Mackintosh). The blast that engulfs them changes the family as dramatically as it changed the city centre.
Hill has an uncompromising – and surprising – view of the bombing. “I think when the bomb went off, a lot of people, including myself, were disappointed that the IRA didn’t do a more complete job.” He gives a wry grin. “The Arndale was a hated monument to greed from the first cracked tile they put on the wall of the first dodgy brickwork that they built in the basement. It was an eyesore, it changed the structure of the centre of Manchester, and it just wasn’t pleasant. Disappointment was the strongest emotion. There was no kind of anger.
“This was in the days when terrorists gave due and proper warning so the area could be cleared – thankfully no one was killed. Two-thirds of Manchester people are of Irish descent anyway. They’d be bombing their own.
Although no one died, the damage was estimated at more than £1 billion. Surely those whose property had been destroyed felt outraged? He pauses. “You have to understand Manchester at that time,” he says carefully. “I’d imagine their first thought was, as with most other things, ‘How can I make some money out of this?’” His light Mancunian accent deepens.
“‘What did I leave in that shop? Well, there was all those diamonds… I’d just bought a Modigliani and it was there, now it’s gone.’” He laughs. “It’s like most people’s household insurance claims – ‘it splashed paint on my Porsche. I had to sell it immediately at a great loss and you owe me for that’. People weren’t gleeful – but certainly somewhere, not far below the surface, people were quite happy it happened.”
This dark cynicism is disconcerting – and he can feel me wavering. “Look, Manchester always was a dirty, dangerous town,” he explains. “They can build whatever they like out of whatever material – beautiful glass, stainless steel – but you’ve still got to come out on the pavement and the pavement’s full of crap. We’ve got most of it in the series, I have to say. There are loads of recognisable people, events, locations, everything. We’ve even got a fake Hacienda club – in the drama, my son Robbo’s involved in a nightclub and there’s all kinds of stuff going on with that. The only thing we don’t touch on is Moss Side and their arguments with Cheetham Hill.” He laughs, darkly. “You’d have to get permission – it’s not just the jihadists who issue fatwas.”
Which all seems grim and slightly scary – but
there’s nothing grim or scary about Hill. He’s
funny, smart and thoughtful, happy discussing political theory, theatre and the Champions League. As a dyed-red Manchester United supporter, he’s regretting his club’s poor season, made worse by the fact that Cotton is a Manchester City fan. When he got the part, Hill feared they’d ask him to wear the blue shirt.
“They had various blue items set aside, but I hid them,” he confesses. “I got away with that. I tried to make Peter – who’s United as well, mind – link Cotton’s Tory values with his support for City, but he wouldn’t have it.” He gives a theatrical sigh. “That’s the core of the family problem, I suppose – they stay together because of the differences.”
On the upside, he tells me, they filmed a good few scenes in Manchester’s Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls factory. “They still make sweets the old way,” he says, excited. “They have these hot table where they mix glucose and flavours into a gloopy fluid, then they fold it over and over till it’s all mixed in and feed it into a tube, where it’s slice into sweets. It’s not quite Charlie & the Chocolate Factory – but you can’t quite believe it’s still made the way it was when I was a kid.”
Filming elsewhere in the city, however, he found little else remains the same – for good or bad. Hill’s father was a miner who joined the Navy during the war, developed lung disease and had to have a lung removed. He remembers a childhood with an undercurrent of poverty that’s almost like Charlie Bucket’s in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory – living with his grandmother in her two- bedroom flat and sleeping in the same bed as his parents.
By the time he was cast as Yosser, Hill’s political sympathies were firm. The role, he confesses, almost drove him insane, but he still wishes there were more shows like it now.
“There’s not the literary/political movements there used to be – there isn’t that kind of protest any more,” he sighs. “Everyone’s become softer and far more accepting – every time there’s rebellion, it gets slapped down. There’s no allowance for real protest – it’s almost a police state.”
Then he pushes the thought from his mind. “It’s the choices you make, I supposed.” He gives a quick smile. “I mean, my character is a father of two sons – one he adores and the other one he thinks is a t***. It’s because one stayed within the family and the other went his own way. The tragedy stems from that. But what can you do?
“Someone once said to me, ‘There’s only three forces in your body: your head, your stomach and your balls.’ He was talking about acting, but it’s true of life. You want to know the secret of a happy life? Do your best to let your head have more than 5 per cent of the vote. That would make this world – and even Manchester – a more peaceful place.”
See From There to Here tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1