by Bryony Rudkin
December 26th. What else to do but slump on the sofa and watch a Carry On film? For those not well versed in 1970’s UK cultural history, these are some 30 odd films characterised by innuendo, slapstick and farce and not well known for referencing local government. Until it seems 1973 and Carry On Girls. I sat there, small sherry in hand, entranced to see the inner workings of Fircombe Council portrayed in technicolour, with Councillor Fidler and his plans for a beauty contest robustly argued against by ‘feminist’ Councillor Prodworthy. Suffice to say, the plot descends into chaos and civic dignity is in short supply. 1970’s comedy has enough to make us wince without poor representation of local governance but it did make me think what other role models I grew up with.
I’ve been a councillor for over 20 years but rarely see myself or my colleagues represented realistically on screens small or large or in print. I worked in local government before I was elected. In the early 90’s we avidly watched Alan Bleasdale’s GBH and gathered round the fax machine (no water coolers yet) to discuss dramatic representation of life in and outside a not so fictitious northern town hall. We recognised some of the extreme behaviours of councillors depicted, but not much of the daily slog of casework or policy deliberation. UK soap operas offered a few select examples. According to one internet fan site, in ITV’s Coronation Street , Alderman Alf Roberts served for over 30 years in the borough of Weatherfield and Sally Metcalfe was the directly elected Mayor for a year before resigning in a fraud scandal. She’s currently in prison. Hope Andy Burnham has visited over Christmas.
So not much inspiration thus far. The printed word offers better examples. Winifred Holtby’s South Riding is a wonderful evocation of 1930’s Yorkshire. Her mother, Alice, was the first Alderwoman on East Riding County Council. Sadly this book was published posthumously and Holtby’s work has arguably been eclipsed by that of her good friend Vera Brittain, despite screen adaptations. More recently, J K Rowling set her first work post Harry Potter in a rural community with a dysfunctional parish council. Plus ca change. If it’s local, it can’t work. Radio is no better. A colleague offers the view that “they never get planning right” in Radio 4’s long running drama (sic) The Archers.
So is there any cultural representation of civic life that rings true to someone who knows what it might be like? Peter Flannery’s 1996 epic Our Friends in the North is a magnificent thinly veiled account of local – and national – politics in the north east. The scenes set in the council chamber in the 1960’s were filmed in Islington Town Hall in the early 90’s (I took the call from the production company: “We’re doing a film about corruption in local government. Can we come round?”). But it’s not the shenanigans the big men of the city got up to that strikes a chord. It’s the quiet work of central character, Mary, dancing with the children at a party for striking miners’ families, sitting late at night with the paperwork. Not a Carry On. Just quietly carrying on.
Bryony Rudkin is a PhD student at INLOGOV, Deputy Leader of Ipswich Borough Council and Portfolio Holder for Culture and Leisure. Bryony also works with councils around the country on behalf of the Local Government Association on sector-led improvement, carrying out peer reviews and delivering training and mentoring support.
All views in this blog are those of the author and not INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.