Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Remember Me

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine
It's hard when writing a blog about television programmes that make me reminisce about travel not to slide into an easy rut of only writing about travel shows, of which there are plenty. Usually celebrity driven. Sue Perkins sailing down the Mekong. John Bishop in Australia. Trevor McDonald on the Mississippi. Paul Merton in India. Stephen Fry in America. Michael Portillo on all those trains. Griff Rhys Jones, Dara O'Briain and Rory McGrath in a boat just about anywhere. So it's ironic that when I finally find a drama to write about, it stars the original celebrity travelogue presenter, Michael Palin, in his first acting role for 20 years.

This is a spooky ghost story, set in a northern mill town, where the mill has been turned into an old people's home and the town is full of second generation immigrants, which people thankfully try very hard not to be racist about. "I bet you've seen some changes" says a social worker to Michael Palin's curmudgeonly old gent Tom after he fakes a fall down the stairs in order to get moved out of his house. OK, so his reply doesn't even attempt not to be racist, but the conversation reminds me of an acquaintance once talking guardedly about "families from Bradford" taking over a Sunday afternoon at Bolton Abbey, anxious not to reveal their ethnic origins.

Anyway, unusual Yorkshire tact aside, all the paint-by-numbers spook creators are there in this supernatural thriller - creaking floorboards, crying corpses, photos coming to life, dripping taps, rocking chairs, doors slamming, lights that won't turn on but candles that do all by themselves. The social worker falls out of a window which is blasted clean out of its socket on the top floor of the mill. Not the best thing to see at the start of a week when we are having seven windows replaced in our house.

There's a body on the beach rising from the dead of the drowned. There's a connection with India that isn't to do with the other residents on Tom's street. The stone of the houses and the clouds in the sky are dark and rain-soaked. Sea shells mysteriously appear out of nowhere. There is an alarm going off by itself repeatedly in Room 027 of the old people's home in the mill. The piano stool is full of different sheet music versions of Scarborough Fair. There is a cascade of water down the stairs reminiscent of the rivers of blood crashing out of the elevators in The Shining.

Michael Palin still has too much of a kindly twinkle in his eye ("I'm 80-odd") to be believably grumpy, I would say. The other familiar faces to me are Mark Addy (clingfilm, shed, Mars Bar, Full Monty) and Julia Sawalha. It's now Julia Sawalha's turn to play a drunk and incapable mother whose goody-two-shoes daughter goes out to work and acts responsibly and takes care of her younger brother. How sometimes television can come full circle. ("My life just flashed before my eyes." "What was it like, a Bergman film without the jokes?")

The series is set in Huddersfield. My only experience close to Northern mill towns is six miserable months at Sheffield University. I know what you're thinking - Sheffield, Huddersfield, Chesterfield, Dronfield, Driffield, they're all interchangeable in my ignorant southerner's mind, and I am conveniently ignoring the differences here. Not true. There are connections to be found between Remember Me and Sheffield. One is that Michael Palin was born in Broomhill, which is the part of the city I lived in.

I apparently skipped the "love Sheffield" gene possessed by the rest of my family, since three of my cousins have gone on to do degrees there and settle permanently in the city. Sheffield is a lot nicer now than it was in 1992, but I still can't set foot in the place without feeling physically ill. It haunts me like the ghost story of Remember Me. Going there was one of the worst decisions of my life. I probably couldn't have picked a more sad time to go - the steel industry was being shut down, the city council was bankrupt after hosting the World Student Games, and several hideous 60s concrete structures were not yet knocked down (Sorby Hall) or filled in (Hole In The Road). The trams that now glide along the city streets were merely an idea. So the city felt incredibly run-down and depressed. "Ah, but it's built on seven hills like Rome," the locals sighed wistfully. To which I wanted to shout, "Have you ever been to Rome? Do you think the Park Hill flats look anything like the Piazza Navona? Is Italian catwalk chic available in Meadowhall? Does the Moor back on to the Vatican?" "Ah, but it does back on to the Peak District," others said, offering an escape. That's all well and good, but it lashed it down with rain every single weekend I was there and outdoors was the last place I wanted to be.

The main reason I felt so miserable was that I hated my degree course - it had sounded good in the prospectus, but was in reality very different. Modern Languages without many languages other than English in the lecture halls. And I just wasn't in the mood for my party-on hall of residence where drunken students set the fire alarms off every single night. Call me a bore if you will.
Party-on hall of residence, with Sorby Hall just visible back left

The Arts Tower
But what haunts me most is the paternoster lift in the Arts Tower. Paternoster lifts - open conveyor belts of cubicles that never stop moving so you have to leap on as they pass by - were big in the 1960s but are now a rarity, thanks to more stringent Health & Safety and disabled access regulations. But the one in the Arts Tower at Sheffield University is listed (it's the world's longest) so has to stay. I still to this day have nightmares about it. I don't know why, as I didn't mind it so much at the time, apart from finding the narrow cabins a bit tight to share with a stranger. I didn't suffer from vertigo then and learned to get on and off with something resembling aplomb on my way to French classes on the 9th floor. But now the very thought of riding that paternoster scares the proverbial shit out of me. I fear ending up as splatted as the social worker plastered on the ground in Remember Me, even though nothing remotely dangerous happened on the 200 or so rides I took on the paternoster during my six month stint in the Arts Tower. I never even got stuck, which is quite a miracle as the paternoster was forever breaking down. When it did, the passenger cabins would stall halfway between floors, too far for anyone to climb out or risk jumping out. The breakdowns were usually caused by people riding over the top or round the bottom, which threw the balancing mechanism out of kilter. I never had the courage to do this but there is now a video of it on You Tube (or two) so you can see this terrifying rollercoaster journey from the safety of your own armchair. The paternoster also featured on an episode of The One Show, which held a race between (1) the paternoster and (2) the conventional lifts opposite that have doors and buttons and work as you might expect. In the time the paternoster had delivered 50 students to the 18th floor (9 minutes 20 seconds), the conventional lift had only transported 10. Which is why every Arts student at Sheffield in my day had to learn to ride the paternoster.

So these days I avoid Sheffield as much as possible. Instead, I'd rather go to the mills at Saltaire. It's such a beautiful place. And I love David Hockney, whose works are on display throughout the shops and galleries. Here I have family roots too, since my grandmother's family all came from the aptly named Idle, up the hill on the outskirts of Bradford. (We were once a family from Bradford.)

Scarborough hasn't yet played too big a role in Remember Me, but the songsheets in the piano stool indicate that it will. We go to Scarborough several times a year, although never to a fair to consume culinary herbs. We used to be able to take in an Alan Ayckbourn play at the Stephen Joseph theatre, but nowadays we go and eat goo, ride the donkeys on the beach or the railway out to Scalby Mills, watch the dragon boats in Peasholm Park, make sandcastles (in all weathers) and generally return home refreshed and in love with all things Yorkshire.
Making sandcastles on Scarborough South Bay. This was January.

No comments:

Post a Comment