May 13th, 2012


Bristol to London and Back Again

I gave two papers over the last couple of days, one at a conference on Southwest Writing in Bristol and the other at a children's literature conference in London. They both went okay, I think, but it's left me rather tired and (oddly) about two pounds heavier. (Perhaps that's a corollary of being taken seriously by academics: "Does my gravitas look big in this?") Anyway, there were some excellent papers, including a keynote by fjm (this was at the NCRCL in Roehampton).

I also learned a good deal about the Red Book of Bath, the existence of which was news to me. This, I hasten to add, was from a medieval historian at the southwest conference, not a children's literature specialist in Roehampton, though there may well have been mention there of the Big Red Bath Book. The Red Book of Bath is one those compendious and oddly miscellaneous collections of medieval Stuff, like the Red Book of Hergest. In fact, this led to some discussion of whether it was a common thing for cities to have a 'Red Book', and whether the colour had any signification, as in the red letter days of the calendar, or even the sumptuary laws. Also, how did they even make leather red in them days? Was it particularly expensive, as with cloth?

I also heard an exasperated paper from a woman who works at a local media company about the way that Bristol specifically and the southwest in general has failed to gain a national presence, beyond the twin stereotypes of the straw-sucking yokel and Vicky Pollard. A lot of TV and films are made here, but if they're not buying into one of those two stereotypes then the Bristolness of Bristol tends to get elided. There's no southwestern soap, as there is for other English cities and regions such as Liverpool (Brookside), Salford/Manchester (Corrie), Newcastle (Byker Grove), London (Eastenders), Yorkshire (Emmerdale), Birmingham (Crossroads, RIP), and even Chester (Hollyoaks). (I'm not sure whether Skins is very big on its Bristol setting, because I've not really watched it.) Casualty was filmed in Bristol for over 20 years, but never made a point of it: in fact, it called the city Holby, which made it very easy for production to move to Cardiff a couple of years ago. A similar thing happened with Being Human, which was pleasingly Bristolian for the first three series, but then was seduced by the Dark Side and moved to Barry. Bristol streets do a roaring trade in pretending to be London for drama series, but even something as quintessentially Bristolian as Aardman Animations doesn't set its work here: Wallace and Gromit live in Lancashire. And as for the BBC Wildlife Unit, don't get me started...

She also had a couple of stories that suggested that these stereotypes govern what kinds of programmes the BBC and others are prepared to set in this area. A radio playwright who'd written a series of plays about the Devon working class, for example, was told that they'd love to make it - if she'd only set it in Wales instead (because of course Devon doesn't have a working class, just a peasantry). And the writer of Mamma Mia - whose hand you'd think people would be biting off - couldn't sell her sitcom about two canny Bristol single mums using their wits to get by, because the only places people do that kind of thing are Liverpool (copyright Carla Lane) and London (copyright John Sullivan). In Bristol, apparently, single mums just live placidly on welfare, saying "Yeah but no but". No.