The King of Warsaw – All 4

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This is something different.  It’s in Polish with English subtitles, so requires a lot of concentration, but it’s interesting.  It’s a crime drama set in Warsaw in 1937, and the protagonist is Jakub Szapiro, a Jewish boxer and member of an organised crime gang, whose aim is to become head of the gang – and therefore be the “King of Warsaw”.   It’s set against a background of clashes, some violent, some just psychological, between right-wing groups and left-wing groups, Catholics and Jews, and secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews.   Meanwhile, a young lad from the ultra-Orthodox community aims to join a gang after the murder of his father.   And Jakub’s wife wants to emigrate to what was then British Mandate Palestine, but Jakub feels that Warsaw is his city and can’t bear the thought of leaving it.

The first episode was really just setting the scene, but it looks promising.  Warsaw was such a mixture of cultures and factions at the time.  And it’s the same issue as with Peaky Blinders – members of a community which is marginalised, but not isolated and set apart by religion, may well be drawn to organised crime.  And at what point do you feel that you’re actually a stranger in your own city, as well as being a stranger from the Establishment?   Without going too far into the unpleasant scenes before the Cup Final, feeling estranged from the Establishment usually leads to a stronger sense of regional identity, and that seems to be what’s happened with Jakub Szapiro – but his wife can see that they’d be safer away from Warsaw, rather than trying to rule it.

A promising start.

Kicking Off: the Rise and Fall of the Super League – BBC 2

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This was a rather puerile documentary.  I really didn’t need to see pictures of toilet flushes or cartoons of Popeye, and I’m not sure what Edith Piaf singing “Je ne regrette rien” was supposed to have to do with anything.   Sky’s documentary on the same subject made most of the same points, but in a rather more sensible way.

However, there were two points which neither programme made.  For one thing, there are now a lot more UEFA member states/national associations, and therefore a lot more leagues requiring places in European competitions, than there used to be.  Eleven of the former Soviet states are UEFA members, and there are now seven members in place of the former Yugoslavia and two in place of the former Czechoslovakia.  That’s seventeen extra leagues.  It’s rather a lot, really.   For another thing, people keep messing about with sports.  When I were a lass and dinosaurs roamed the earth, the rugby league season ran parallel with the football season, cricketers wore white and no-one had ever heard of T20 (and don’t get me started on the IPL), and doubles matches in tennis were the best of three full sets, five full sets for men’s doubles in Grand Slam events.  People tinker with sports.  Let’s just thank goodness that the mad idea of making football matches shorter, which was actually mentioned in this programme, has never been seriously considered.

So what did it say?  Well, pretty much what the Sky documentary said – and Sky a) got in first and b) said it all much better.  In the good old days, football clubs were owned by local business people.  Then Silvio Berlusconi got involved.   Then the Champions League came along.  Then new owners, often state-linked organisations from the Middle East, came along, and, rather like The Gilded Age, suddenly we’d got the old aristocracy (United, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan) being challenged by the nouveaux riches (led by City and Paris St Germain).   A lot of the traditional big clubs had got into a lot of debt, and then along came Covid and made all the financial problems umpteen times worse.

As the Sky documentary did, this very much put the blame on the Spanish and Italian clubs involved, especially Real Madrid.  And added a nasty little dig suggesting that United were somehow in league with 10 Downing Street – could we just lose this silly conspiracy theory, please?!   And then made the point that it was English fans who killed the idea off … possibly with a little help from the Government, after Boris threatened to kill it off by legislation.  Well, if Parliament could abolish purgatory, as it did in Henry VIII’s time, it could certainly do away with the Super League.  But it never came to that.  The English clubs pulled out, and the idea collapsed.

One suggestion which this programme made, which I don’t think Sky’s did, was that the cack-handed way in which it was all dealt with was because the owners concerned had all inherited their money, and didn’t have a clue about how the world really worked.  This is an old, old story when it comes to old money versus nouveaux riches.  But I don’t think that the argument works here.   OK, we’re now on to the second generation of Glazers at Old Trafford, and the Agnelli family have been big shots in Turin for decades.   But the driving force behind this was Florentino Perez of Real Madrid, and he worked his way up, in Franco’s Spain.  How someone who’s made such a success in business could have made such a mess of this is an interesting question, but the BBC didn’t ask it.  Maybe he’s just too used to getting what he wants.

Is he going to get it anyway?  Remember that song by The Adventures of Stevie V?  Did they ever even record another song, BTW?!  Money talks, mmm, mmm, money talks. Dirty cash I want you, dirty cash I need you, ooh. It does look as if the idea of admitting some clubs based on their historic records, however poorly they’ve done in the season concerned, will go ahead anyway.Well, given what a bloody awful season United have had, this sounds like good news for us.  But it’s wrong.

I think what we could really do with is some more input from abroad.  Everyone in England seems to agree that this is wrong.  But what do people in Spain and Italy think?

And whose word is going to count, in the end?   Unfortunately, this story isn’t over yet.   We’ve won the battle, but have we won the war?

 

 

 

 

Beatrix: The Queen Who Gave Up The Crown – Channel 5

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This is a very promising move from Channel 5.  We’ve had some excellent programmes on the recent history of the British Royal Family, but, whilst I understand that it was difficult to film new material during lockdown, there really is only so much you can say about the Abdication, the Margaret-Townsend affair and the War of the Waleses.  Some programmes about the Continental royal families would be extremely welcome.  The title of the programme was rather silly, because it made it sound as if Beatrix did something like Edward VIII did, rather than abdicating at the age of 75 after a 33-year reign, but the actual substance of the programme was very interesting.

The Netherlands is a fascinating country, because historically it’s very puritanical but also very liberal, and very tolerant but with strong extremist elements on several different sides, and we saw how Beatrix – and it was lovely to see her looking so well at the memorial service for Prince Philip – had to steer her way through that.  She met with protests on her wedding day, because she was marrying a German, and protests on the day of her investiture, because of concerns over the Dutch Royal Family’s wealth, and she also had to deal with her husband’s long battle with depression and the death of one of her sons.   She was initially seen as being very aloof, but later as being very warm – the ongoing conflict between a royal family retaining its mystique whilst at the same time being seen as relevant and accessible.  And she’s been a lot more outspoken about politics than most royals have been.

I do love the way that orange is the Dutch national colour,and that that’s because of the House of Orange-Nassau (er, even if Orange itself is actually in France).   I suppose that green’s the colour of the Republic of Ireland, but there isn’t a national colour of England or the UK, and it’d be nice if there was.  But never mind!

All in all, this was very good, and I’m hoping that we might see some more programmes about the Continental royals.   There’s certainly plenty of material to go at.

 

 

Pilgrimage: the road to the Scottish Isles – BBC 2

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Whatever your personal religious or spiritual beliefs, there’s something very special about travelling to a place which holds significance for you, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have the health and time to make that journey on foot. Well, mostly on foot: this year’s pilgrimage takes in parts of the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, so, as the land bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland has never got past the vague discussions stage, some of it will obviously *not* be made on foot.  Anyway, boats, buses, feet, whatever, it’s good to see the BBC 2 Pilgrimage programme back, after a year’s break due to the pandemic.

This year, our pilgrims are sticking close to home – heading for the Scottish holy island of Iona, home of Iona Abbey, founded by St Columba in the 6h century AD. BTW, why are some saints’ names in common usage but others aren’t.   How many people do you know who are called George, Andrew or David?   Now, how many people do you know who are called Columba, Ninian or Bede?   Hmm.

Unlike the previous Pilgrimage programmes, this one isn’t following a traditional pilgrimage route.  There is no Camino de St Columba.  Instead, they’re visiting various sites associated with Columba’s life.  Er, using navigation apps on their phones.  And, presumably in the interests of inclusivity – that’s a comment, not a criticism – the emphasis is being put on each participant’s personal “religious journey”.

Incidentally, I always say that I’m a Victorian, but, when it comes to “spiritual” issues, I’m actually very medieval – I look for omens in anything and everything.  The Victorians would have been horrified by that!

An interesting point was made, by Scarlett Moffatt, about religious people being seen as uncool.  I remember there being quite a bit of discussion on this subject in terms of soap opera characters, some years ago.  It was pointed out that the religious characters in soap operas were always old ladies, notably Emily Bishop in Coronation Street, Dot Cotton in EastEnders and Edna Birch in Emmerdale.  Not that old ladies are uncool, but you get the idea.  And I think the scriptwriters took the point, because we suddenly started to get religious teenagers – Sophie Webster in Coronation Street, Bobby Beale in EastEnders and Amelia Spencer in Emmerdale.  Even so, if you were asked to pick which one of the group most identified with formal religion, you probably wouldn’t have picked the young reality TV star.  Just a thought!

We also, with the group visiting Derry/Londonderry, heard quite a bit about the Troubles and the efforts that have been made to bring different religious communities together, including an interview with a lady whose husband was murdered by the IRA, and who now works for peace and reconciliation in tandem with a lady who was formerly a member of the IRA.

That had nothing to do with St Columba, but it had a lot to do with our lives today.   This is an unusual year: it’s quite common for Passover and Easter to coincide, but it’s unusual for Passover, Easter and Ramadan all to coincide, which is happening this year.  Both Easters – Good Friday by the Gregorian calendar coincides with the first day of Passover, Good Friday by the Julian calendar coincides with the penultimate day of Passover, and Ramadan runs through all of it.   I know that there are fears that this could lead to a wave of violence in the Middle East, but hopefully it won’t, and anyone marking any of these festivals (OK, I know that Ramadan isn’t a festival as such,  but I couldn’t think of an appropriate noun to include all three!), or just enjoying the long weekend, will be able to do so in peace … and make the most of it, after two successive springs mucked up by Covid.  If anyone’s read this, thank you, and all the best.

Gentleman Jack (series 2) – BBC 1

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Hooray!   Finally, we’re back to having some decent “period drama” to watch on a Sunday evening.  Other than sport, Sunday evening TV has been dire for weeks.  So welcome back, Anne Lister and Ann Walker, and Shibden Hall.

This must be an extremely demanding role for Suranne Jones, because Anne Lister is in practically every scene.  And she spends half those scenes striding about very energetically, in between corresponding with her ex, dealing with her business affairs, managing her household, catching up with her relatives, dealing with Ann’s relatives and actually spending some time with Ann!

Even when she’s taking time out from all of that, she’s addressing the viewer.  That’s a reminder that this is an adaptation of Anne Lister’s diaries – and another result of that is that some of the other characters sometimes seem a bit caricatured, because we’re seeing them through Anne’s eyes, not in a more balanced, rounded way.  Having said that, a lot of Dickensian characters and even some of Austen’s characters are deliberately caricatured, so it’s something that doesn’t seem out of place in a drama set in the 19th century.

It would have been nice to see more about Ann Walker, though.  Anne Lister seemed to be very comfortable in her own skin, even if other people weren’t always very comfortable with her personality and behaviour, but Ann Walker suffered badly from depression and anxiety.   It’s thought that that was partly because, unlike Anne Lister, she found it a struggle to reconcile her faith and her sexuality, and that’s something which it might have been interesting for the series to explore, especially with all the talk at the moment about the upset caused by conversion therapy.

However, it’s just great to have a decent period drama in the Sunday 9pm slot again, at last, and particularly great that it’s a northern drama – OK, it’s Yorkshire and not Lancashire or the Lakes 🙂 , but Rievaulx Abbey looked mighty fine in the scenes set there, and it’s always good to see the hard-working, world-leading 19th century industrial north on screen – and that it’s female-led.   And there’ve even been stories of people saying that the first series helped them to accept themselves.  No-one’s even making a huge big deal of the fact that this is a series about a same sex relationship: the comments mainly seem to be about Anne’s constant striding (she really does do a lot of striding!) and the locations used for filming.

It’s not exactly relaxing watching, because Anne is on the go practically all the time!   Even the Rievaulx Abbey sketching party scene was a bit hectic, because Anne was striding about whilst the others were sketching!   But I wasn’t bored for a single moment, and nothing about it was unconvincing either.  A really good hour’s TV.  Welcome back, Gentleman Jack!

Thatcher and Reagan: A Very Special Relationship – BBC 2

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Those of us who grew up in the 1980s saw the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev (who comes from a village near the Russo-Ukrainian border, brought glasnost to the old USSR and must be absolutely devastated at what’s going on at the moment), Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa bestriding the world stage (I like that expression).  Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and to some extent Helmut Kohl were also part of that.

Going back into history, you find, to name but a few, Churchill, Disraeli, Gladstone, Bismarck, Metternich, Louis XIV, Elizabeth I, Charles the Bold, Henry V, Saladin, William the Conqueror, Harald Hardrada, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great … on and on and on.  Where are all the world leaders now?!   That new German Chancellor’s so anonymous that I can only remember his name because it makes me think of the snowman in Frozen, and the rest of them aren’t much better.   And how is banning Russian players from Wimbledon supposed to help anyone?  Maybe that’s why everyone’s so into Zelenskyy, because he actually *has* got something about him.

Anyway.  Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were obviously both quite controversial figures at home, but this programme wasn’t about that; and I was impressed that the BBC, which often seems to forget that it’s supposed to be politically neutral, respected that – and focused on the relationship between the two, which was what it said on the tin.

We even got some Freudian-type stuff about how Ronald liked Maggie because strong women reminded him on his mother, and how Maggie liked Ronald because she was keen on glamorous, powerful men.  That does rather make one wonder how she ended up with Denis, who was many things but certainly not glamorous, but never mind.

It’s rather frightening how dated the video shots from the ’80s and early ’90s look now, but I’m trying not to think about that.  I’m still trying to process the fact that the Miami Open was won by someone who was born in 2003, and that the defeated finalist was someone whose dad I remember as a young teenage pro.  And how on earth is Brooklyn Beckham old enough to get married, when surely it was only five minutes ago that he was an adorable toddler kicking a ball round the pitch at Old Trafford after we won the league in, er, the year 2000?  Oh, and, speaking of the ’80s and early ’90s, remember the Berlin Wall coming in November 1989, Nelson Mandela being released from prison in February 1990, and those precious few months of thinking that we’d finally reached an age of peace?   It all went kaput when Iraq invaded Kuwait in July 1990, before The Scorpions had even released “Wind of Change”, but it was nice whilst it lasted.

This first episode really was quite interesting, because there was so much about that personal bond and what helped them to form it, and how Mrs Thatcher (as she was then) coped with being a woman in a man’s world.  I’m not sure that we needed quite so much psycho-analysis about the significance of her handbag, though.  Why are people so obsessed with the Queen’s handbag and Maggie Thatcher’s handbag?!   They should see the contents of mine – talk about everything but the kitchen sink.

I wish we could get back to a point where Anglo-American relations are as close as they were then, but we don’t seem to have had another pair of leaders who’ve got on so well.  Blair and Clinton, to some extent, but both of them were very narcissistic and I don’t think that they worked together anything like as well as Thatcher and Reagan did.

Also, even with the Gulf Wars, there wasn’t the sense of the common enemy that there was in the days of the Cold War.  I never really got the Cold War, TBH.  OK, it was coming to an end by the time I was old enough to understand much about it, but I think it was because people were always talking about “the Russians”, rather than “the communists” of “the Soviets”.  I like Russia.  Not easy then and not easy at the moment, but all that Russians-as-baddies stuff has never worked for me.  But it did for Thatcher and Reagan … until Gorbachev came along, and we’ll hear more about that next week.

A lot of this was about the issue of American nuclear weapons being based in Britain, and in Western Europe, and how Thatcher and Reagan worked very closely together on that, but we also saw them having their differences over trade issues, and over the lack of overt  American support for Britain during the Falklands War.

All in all, I thought it was very well-presented.  Too many BBC programmes these days take a very biased political viewpoint, and or try to make the issues of the past about the issues of today, like that ridiculous programme in 2017 which tried to make out that the Reformation was somehow linked to Brexit, or that Simon Schama programme which tried to link William Blake to Darth Vader.  This one did what it was meant to do, and it did it rather well.

 

Goodbye, Holby City

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  Well, goodbye Holby City.  It’s been 23 years, and over 1,000 episodes … and I’ve watched pretty much all of them.  It was nice to see some old faces making cameo appearances in the final few episodes, although there were so many others whom I’d like to have seen – Chrissie Williams, Nick Jordan and Anton Meyer, to name but a few, and it might have been appropriate to have seen Frieda Petrenko, whom I *think* is the only Ukrainian character ever to have a long-running part in a British drama series.  A lot of characters have come and gone over the years.  So many of them have been killed off that it’s a wonder that anyone applies to work at Holby City Hospital!   To be fair, the scriptwriters did acknowledge that, by showing the junior doctors being horrified at how few of the previous winners of the Junior Doctor Award were still alive!

It was sad to see Jac Naylor killed off in the final episode, but the media have been quick to point out that this was all highly symbolic, killing off such a central character as the series itself was killed off.   And at least some of the other characters were given happy endings, and the final episode concluded with a bit of a verbal love letter to the NHS.

The story is that Holby City‘s been axed as part of a “levelling up” programme.  Well, normally I’d be delighted to see anything in the north – Waterloo Road‘s coming back, and it’s back being filmed in Rochdale – being given priority over anything filmed in London, but Holby City isn’t really a London thing.  Holby’s based on Bristol, after all.  And it doesn’t really identify with any one community.  Characters come from all over the UK and sometimes beyond – it’s amazing the range of accents you seem to find in the hospital on any one day!   And it’s always included characters representing different communities, without making a big virtue-signalling deal of it.

And it’s never really “jumped the shark”.  I think there was plenty of life left in it.  It’s covered all sorts of storylines over the years, both in terms of medical storylines and in terms of the characters’ personal lives, but it was still coming out with fresh plots, and I’m very sorry that the BBC’s decided to axe it … especially as it’s being replaced in the schedules by Masterchef, which, with all due respect to it, is hardly high-quality drama.  But anyway.  Goodbye, Holby City.  Thanks for the memories, and you will be missed.

Super Greed: the Fight for Football – Sky Documentaries

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This morning, before the Spring Statement, Sky News sent a reporter to Bury Market, to interview some of the people who run the food bank at Radcliffe.  Our region was very badly hit by the pandemic, and we’d had more than our fair share of socio-economic problems even before it.  And, in April 2021, with all that going on, when we were just starting to emerge from Covid restrictions after being under them for longer than any other part of the country, United and City signed up for the proposed Super League.  Liverpool too.  It was absolutely shameful.  For all the clubs. How on earth did the owners get it so wrong?  And it was the owners: the players and the managers more or less said that they were as disgusted as the fans were.  Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wasn’t even told about it until after the news had made its way into the press.

It was a bit ironic that this programme was made by Sky, given that it was Sky Sports who enabled the set-up of the Premier League.  But the Premier League’s not a closed shop.  It’s competitive.  There’s promotion and relegation.  And, yes, it’s been dominated by a small number of clubs, but Blackburn won the title in its second year, and Leicester won the title in 2016.  Relatively small clubs (no offence intended) such as Bournemouth and Huddersfield Town have played in the Premier League.  And the money doesn’t all go to the Premier League clubs.   It makes its way down, throughout the English game – although even that didn’t stop Bury going out of business in August 2019, nor Bolton Wanderers, founder members of the Football League in 1888, from very nearly following them.

Even the talk by one of the reporters on this programme of “the traditional Big Six” was nonsense.  What tradition?  When I was a kid, we had a “Big Five” – United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and Everton.  Give it a couple of seasons and maybe we’ll have a “Big Seven”, with Newcastle in there.  Or maybe, given the current goings-on, Chelsea’ll drop out of that “Big” group.  Who knows?   All the best to Nick Candy’s consortium with their bid to buy Chelsea, by the way.   Until a couple of weeks ago, all I knew about Nick Candy was that he was married to Holly Valance, but he’s a Londoner and a lifelong Chelsea fan.

Going back, again, to when I was a kid, United’s chairman was Martin Edwards.  People used to call him for all sorts, but he was still one of us.  The Edwards family were self-made people from Salford, lifelong United fans.  Then along came the Glazers. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against any of the Glazers personally, and I’ve certainly got nothing against Americans, but what did they know about United, about Manchester, about football in general?  I remember once being on holiday somewhere in the US, Atlanta I think, and hearing the local American football club referred to as a “franchise”.   I mean, what?   A “franchise” is where you go for a hamburger.  A football club is an intrinsic part of a town or a city, of people’s lives.   And people, if they’re lucky to get tickets, travel to away matches, to other towns and cities.  Not to other “franchises”.  They do here, anyway.  They even do in Russia.

That was how it all seemed here, that it was about greedy foreign owners who knew nothing about the clubs.  The one exception being Spurs, whose owner had been born above a pub in the East End.  People pointed to the fact that Bayern Munich, who dominated German football to a far greater extent than any club dominated English, Spanish or Italian football, hadn’t got involved – because they were owned by their fans.  (Paris St Germain hadn’t either, but that was because their owners wanted to keep in with UEFA and FIFA.)

But it was different abroad.  Barcelona were also owned by their fans.  One of my initial reactions had been that Barcelona fans would be horrified.  Barcelona, mas que un club, surely they of all clubs would see how wrong this was.  But … well, it must have been representatives of club members who’d made the decision.  Juventus had exactly the sort of chairman we looked back to from the supposed good old days (er, not that English football in the 1980s was exactly “good”) – Andrea Agnelli was Turin born and bred, a lifelong fan, and had succeeded his father as chairman.  Florentino Perez, the chairman of Real Madrid, and the driving force behind it all, was a Madrileno.  None of that fitted the way it looked to us.

What was different?  Well, according to this programme, it was mainly money.  Italy and Spain had also been very badly hit by the pandemic, and some of the clubs involved had already had huge debts.  And, especially in Spain, the media and the government backed the Super League.  Sky put this down to the influence of Perez himself.  Who knows?   Italy was hardly mentioned, which a shame.

There was a lot of talk here, at the time, that the Government backed the Super League plans, and that there’d been secret meetings involving people connected with United.  I’ll just say that, whilst I can’t know for certain, I genuinely don’t believe a word of that, based on what I know of the people allegedly involved.  Anyway, with the fans of the clubs involved, the fans of other clubs, and every part of the media so vehemently opposed to the plan, the Government came out against it.

But it wasn’t about the Government, or even the media.  It was the fans who killed the proposal.  The fans of the clubs involved, who held huge demonstrations against it.  Sky spoke to someone from Marca, a publication which does not generally have anything positive to say about English football, and he said that the Super League proposal had been killed by English football fans.

And he was right.  And I think we can be rather proud of that. The whole thing collapsed within a week.

Watch this, if you get the chance.  It’s not perfect – as I said, it barely mentioned the mood in Italy – but it was very, very interesting.  And be proud, that we put football above money.  There are still all sorts of issues going on with English football, but we got this right.  The owners got it wrong, but the fans put it right.

 

 

 

The Strangeways Riot: 25 Days of Mayhem – Channel 4

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I feel awful for saying this, but my teenage friends and I rather enjoyed the Strangeways Riot.  Our school bus went right past the prison, and we used to wave to the rioting prisoners on the roof.  And they used to wave back to us.  We thought we were *it*.  Classmates who lived on different bus routes were super- envious of us.  The fact that these people with whom we were exchanging cheery waves were some of the most violent people in the entire country, convicted criminals who’d committed horrific offences and ruined innocent people’s lives, in some cases even taken innocent people’s lives … er, didn’t seem to occur to us.  I feel awful for saying it now, as I’ve said, but, at the time, it all seemed quite exciting.

The Strangeways area itself was uber-cool at the time.  The HQ of Joe Bloggs jeans, which, along with black hooded tops, were the Madchester uniform, was very close to the prison.  A few months after that, we went on a school trip to London, and, as it was a trip, we didn’t have to wear uniform (probably so that no-one would be able to identify the school if anyone misbehaved). Pretty much every kid turned up in a pair of jeans and a black hooded top.  We strutted round London thinking that we were the bees’ knees.  Capital city?  Stuff that.  Manchester ruled!

We were actually going to see some boring classics plays, as the headmistress thought befitted a group of Nice Girls from a Nice School, but we drew a veil over that.  It didn’t exactly fit with the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays.  No-one needed to know that that was what we were in London for, did they?

And, of course, the riot had absolutely nothing to do with being cool.  Two people died.  Scores of others were injured.  £55 million worth of damage was done.  The prisoners’ relatives and friends went through horrendous emotional turmoil as false reports came out that tens of people had been murdered.  There was nothing cool about it.  It had nothing to do with Madchester music, it had nothing to do with the James Stannage phone-in on local radio (which we were all really into at the time), and it had nothing to do with the fact that United had had an absolutely terrible league season but were about to win the FA Cup.  And it certainly had absolutely nothing to do with us.  But, when you’re what school stories describe as a “Naughty Middle”, you can tend to think that everything’s about you and your world; and, when I look back at that time, it’s all mixed up together in my head.

I’m doing that again now, aren’t I?  Making it all about me and my world.  Suppose that I try writing something about, you know, the riot and the documentary …

I was quite glad that Channel 4 played Fools Gold and Step On You as the background to some of the footage, and showed people turning up outside with picnics, as if it were some sort of outdoor theatrical event.  At least we weren’t the only ones who, ahem, rather enjoyed it and got it mixed up in our heads with all the Madchester stuff.

Incidentally, Kay Burley, then a very new reporter with Sky News, even claimed that it was the start of 24 hour rolling news.  I’d say that that was more the Gulf War, which happened later that year, but I suppose you *can* make an argument for it having started with the Strangeways Riot.

In amongst all the music and pictures of people having picnics, we did actually hear from some of the prisoners and staff involved in it all, and we did get the background to the riot.  Crime was rising, for a number of social and economic reasons, and, at the time, it was thought that putting people in prison was the best way to deal with it.  Prisons became dangerously overcrowded, and the way in which prisons were run hadn’t really been reformed for years.  Warders were even allowed to use tranquillisers on prisoners, which seems horrendous now.

Everything built up, and a number of prisoners started a riot in the Anglican chapel, and managed to grab the keys.  The staff, vastly outnumbered and with no way of keeping control, pulled out.  And what tends to be forgotten is that it was only a minority of the prisoners who were rioting.  Others, especially sex offenders who knew that they faced brutal attacks from other prisoners disgusted at what they’d done, were terrified.  Meanwhile, ongoing building works made it possible for the rioters to get out on to the roof.

And that’s what we remember.  The prisoners on the roof.  We had no idea what was going on inside the building.  But all sorts of reports were coming out.  There was talk of massacres.   Of sex offenders being carted off to Crumpsall Hospital (that’s our local hospital, officially known as North Manchester General but still referred to by most people by its historic name) with castration wounds.  A large number of reporters set up shop on the roof of a nearby warehouse, and they were talking to the prisoners.  And the authorities were going mad about this.  The rioters had everyone’s attention.  Everyone was listening to every word they said.

I’m not sure what the wider national, or possibly even international, coverage was like – the national press were also busy covering a major anti poll tax riot which took place in London at that time – but, in Manchester, it was practically all that anyone was talking about.  Well, that and the FA Cup run saving Alex Ferguson’s job.  It seems unthinkable now, but then, a fortnight before Easter 1990, a joke was doing the rounds – “Alex Ferguson OBE – out before Easter”.  Can you imagine if that’d happened?   Don’t even go there!  Anyway, the attention was off Fergie for a while, because the local media were all over the riot.  And the Home Office ended up asking the editor of the Manchester Evening News to go into the prison and find out what was going on.  Not a prison chief, a police chief, a senior politician or someone from the military.  The editor of the Manchester Evening News.

So, once he’d been in and seen what was going on, we knew that the inside of the prison was being wrecked but that, thankfully, the reports of a massacre weren’t true, nor were the reports of serious prisoner-on-prisoner violence.  And, as the programme’s narrator said, it had moved from being a riot to being a siege.  A small hardcore of prisoners remained on the roof.  And someone came up with the idea of using sleep deprivation to try to get them down.  So, the next thing we knew, loud music was blaring out over the Strangeways area at night, a helicopter was flying overhead, air raid sirens were being used, and bangers embedded in potatoes were being lobbed in.  Bangers.  Embedded in potatoes.  It sounded like something from a Carry On film, not an attempt by the authorities to bring an end to a major disturbance.   And all this was going on just down the road, on our school bus route.

Meanwhile, riots were breaking out at other prisons across the country, the last few prisoners wouldn’t give in, it was all just crazy, Maggie Thatcher was really not a happy bunny, and, eventually, prison officers went in, and the last few prisoners came down in a cherry picker, like … I don’t know, a cross between an action movie and a pop video.  They were giving clenched fist salutes to the watching crowds of press and members of the public, and people were cheering.  Looking back on it now, it … well, sometimes fact’s stranger than fiction, and this was one of those times.

Afterwards, prison practices were changed, and the prison was rebuilt.  It’s now supposed to be called HMP Manchester, as if changing the name’s going to erase the memory of the riots.  Everyone still calls it “Strangeways”.  And those of us who lived in the local area during those strange 25 days in the spring of 1990 will never forget what happened – but, unlike the people who worked there, and the people who were imprisoned there but weren’t involved in the riot, we don’t bear any scars from it.

Kenneth Baker, who was the Home Secretary at the time, said that it marked “a watershed in the history of the prison service”.  It was one of the biggest national events of its time.  And we had a close up view of it from the top deck of a school bus.  Strange (pun intended).  Very strange indeed.  Thanks to Channel 4 for this.  I know that it was intended to be a documentary about a very serious prison riot and the very serious things which it told us about our prisons at the time, but, for those of us from North Manchester, it also brought back a lot of memories of a very strange and never forgotten time.

 

The Real Peaky Blinders – BBC 2

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Nearly thirty years ago, the presenter of this programme – lovely, lovely man – gave a lecture to a group of first year undergraduates, including my good self, in which the word “Ruthenians” came up.  He confessed that he didn’t actually know what the word meant.  I did.  I have to admit that I was rather chuffed that I knew something which a university lecturer didn’t, but then I was a very strange teenager and most British undergraduates, and even lecturers, aren’t that interested in East Slavic history.  At the moment, I’m getting a lot of opportunities to lecture people on the history of Ukraine and Russia – and, whilst it’s nice to be able to talk about a pet subject, it’s very, very sad that it’s under such horrific circumstances.   It’s devastating to see what’s being done to Ukraine.  And I love Russia.  I always have done.  I used to get some very funny looks for saying that in the days of the Cold War.  After everything that Gorbachev worked for, I never thought I’d see Russia – the Russian Federation, I should say – become the pariah state of the world.  These are sad times.  And that’s got absolutely nothing to do with the history of gang warfare in Edwardian Birmingham, but I wanted to say it anyway.

I think I probably drove the modern history department at the University of Birmingham up the wall by wanting to put a Mancunian interpretation on everything.  My brain does it automatically, OK!   I was doing that all through this programme, so I was rather chuffed that gangs in Manchester and Salford were mentioned too.  Hey, it even mentioned the fact that City grew out of gang warfare!  Whilst United, Newton Heath LYR as was, was set up as a works team by a group of hard-working railwaymen, the Gorton team which became City was set up as an attempt to get young lads interested in something healthy like football, rather than joining gangs and getting into bother.  This always rather amuses me.

OK, back to the point!   This was actually a very interesting programme.

A lot of it was very relevant to today, as well.  We heard about how most of the gang members lived in grinding poverty, and felt alienated from civil society.   We also heard about the ethnic and religious tensions, and how many of the gang members were first or second generation Irish Catholic immigrants, often facing prejudice.  The TV programme also brings in Italian Catholic and Ashkenazi Jewish gangs from London …. I know that a bit of that went on in Manchester too, although I’m not sure about Birmingham.

And, of course, they were youth cults.  You belonged.  Members adopted particular styles of dress, and particular haircuts – which is where the term “Peaky Blinders” comes from.  Members were usually young lads, but girls got involved too.   Just to get off the point again, it’s interesting that EastEnders, which has had gang storylines ever since it started in the mid-1980s, now has its first female gang leader – take a bow, Suki Panesar!

Gambling – which I know is a pet subject of Carl Chinn, the presenter, because his family were illegal bookmakers back in the day (and, as he explained, his great-grandfather was a real life Peaky Blinder) was also mentioned, and the next episode’s going to cover the Racecourse Wars of the 1920s.  Not my thing – all London and Birmingham, no Northerners!! – but I’ll certainly be interested to hear about it.

And, as Carl said, it was the Boer War which made the Establishment realise just how severe was the poverty in which many people were living, and helped to bring about the reforms of the Lloyd George/Asquith area.  OK, we’d had the Booth and Rowntree reports, and a lot of work had been done by individual philanthropists, but what panicked the powers that were was the effect that malnutrition was having on would-be army recruits.  I know there’s been some talk that Covid might have a similar effect, with the higher infection and death rates in some parts of the country being so much higher than in others, but we’ll see.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this programme, even if I have used it as an excuse for writing about a lot of things which have got nothing to do with it!