Phil Redmond: Liverpool 8 Rest of us 0

The creator of 'Brookside' has led his home city from disaster to triumph as a European Capital of Culture. He's just sorry the whole country doesn't appreciate it. Cole Moreton meets... Phil Redmond
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The Independent Online

You plan a party. You invite everybody. Then you stand by the cheesy dips on the night itself, weeping for fear that nobody will come. Liverpool knows how you feel.

This time last year, the city looked set for a party disaster a million times bigger than your worst nightmare. Liverpool was about to begin its term as European Capital of Culture, but the rest of the country seemed to be ignoring it. Thousands of events had been planned, at huge cost, but there was a very real danger that not enough people would want to see them.

A Beatle had been booked for the opening show, of course, but it was only the least talented one, Ringo (who would go on to make a complete arse of himself a few days later, leaving many in Liverpool feeling upset and used). And the man in charge, who had only just been hired to rescue the project from chaos, could not ignore the doubters.

"There was the typical Scouse cynicism and anxiety that it wasn't going to work," says Phil Redmond, the television genius – creator of Grange Hill and Brookside – who was appointed creative director of Liverpool Capital of Culture only four months before that opening night. In terms of planning a year-long, city-wide festival, it was the 11th hour, 59th minute and 59th second. He remembers the jitters on 12 January 2008: "At six o'clock there were people worrying that nobody was going to turn up."

Ringo Starr prepared to "sing" on the roof of St George's Hall. Acrobats were suspended from cranes. Down below, the streets filled up surprisingly quickly. "At a quarter to eight, the same people were worrying there would be too many," Redmond says, with a smile. "At half past eight, the city's shoulders relaxed."

They didn't, of course. That's a pretty melodramatic thing to say about what was essentially a pop concert. Even then, the idea of being Capital of Culture left some people cold, not least because it would cost £125m. But Phil Redmond is probably entitled to a bit of melodrama, because the party turned out more than OK. The best anyone had hoped for was four million visits to events and cultural attractions over the year – there were actually 15 million. Experts had forecast an extra £100m might be spent in the city – it was more like £800m. Three-quarters of people living in Liverpool saw or took part in something; as did every child in every school.

The year ends this Saturday evening with a multimedia "People's Celebration" on the rebuilt Pier Head – although Redmond is selling it as a "transition" because the idea is to "keep the energy, the ideas and some events going. Symbolically, it is not the end."

Smiles all round, then. He must feel like the king of Liverpool, and he has the office to match: in the neoclassical World Museum, in the gloriously scrubbed-up centre of the city. It's easy to imagine Victorian empire-builders striding through its cavernous halls, and Redmond has something of their swagger. (But not the top hat and tails: he looks more like Alistair Darling's imaginary rock-star older brother, at nearly 60, his necessary black suit matching bushy black eyebrows and set off by long, unruly grey hair).

But it wasn't looking so good on opening night. The BBC had failed to appreciate that this was a festival on behalf of the whole country, Redmond says. "They totally missed the point." There was already a team planning coverage of the 2012 Olympics. "That's a three-week sporting event in a London suburb. There was nobody looking at what we were doing." As a result, not enough people realised it was representing Britain to the whole of Europe. "Beyond Liverpool, I don't think the message has ever sunk in."

Then Ringo did his worst, a few days after opening night, on the Jonathan Ross television chat show. He was plugging his single "Liverpool 8" – a sentimental ode to growing up in the city. And leaving it: "Liverpool, I left you... but I never let you down." The city made up its own mind about that when Ross asked Ringo what he missed about Liverpool. The answer was hollow laughter and a confused look that said, "Are you kidding?" But Ross pressed him: was there anything at all? "Er... no."

Ringo made it worse by describing how he'd told the Liverpool audience he was "that close" to coming back – making a small space between two fingers. His laughter suggested he thought he'd taken the Scousers for mugs. Newspapers and talk shows in Liverpool were full of fury. "Self-indulgent and arrogant," one woman called Ringo; another was "disgusted by the way he mocked Liverpool". Redmond shrugs. "Lennon could have said it and people would have laughed." Lennon was funny. Ringo was not. "Ringo tried the worst John Lennon impression you could ever do."

He did Liverpool a favour, though. "We wanted to launch our year with something that would get international headlines. Ringo was looking for a platform to launch his next record. The things come together. Also, he's family. Sometimes family members do things that disappoint."

Phil Redmond is family too. "I'm a hardcore Scouse. My family is Irish, decamped to Huyton." Born there, he went to comprehensive school in Kirkby. He lives on the outskirts of the city with his wife Alexis, but asking about his domestic life gets you nowhere. "No one ever gets that." That's strange. He's not exactly Madonna. But his explanation seems fair enough. It can't be repeated here, because the lawyers wouldn't like it, but in the past there were threats to his children. "It's always been off limits after that."

He trained as a quantity surveyor, but started sending jokes to Les Dawson and quit his job to write for a living and study sociology at Liverpool University. His first hit came quickly: a surprisingly gritty show for kids, set in a comp called Grange Hill. It was the first time many of us had seen something like our real school lives on the telly. Before that it was all posh kids saying, "Cripes".

Redmond formed Mersey Television to make Brookside, in 1982. It mixed genre drama with issues such as drugs, incest and the first prime-time lesbian kiss, on a Liverpool close built for the show. Hollyoaks came in 1995 as an all-glam answer to American youth soaps, but only found its stride after his trademark grit was introduced. "We killed Natasha with an ecstasy tablet and the ratings soared." It is still going, but Grange Hill was axed last year, and Brookie in 2003. The close was sold to developers but is for sale again, cheap. What does he make of that? Redmond laughs. "I made a return on Brookside twice. That's it." That's all he'll say.

The second time was presumably when he sold his company three years ago. "Alexis, my wife, is an accountant. Her motto is 'bank as you go'. It seemed to be the right time." Why? "The type of programme I wanted to make just wasn't going to be possible in the future. Television has only got another three or four years anyway. It's old-fashioned technology."

Professor Redmond, as he became, looks to the future as chair of the International Centre for Digital Content at Liverpool John Moores University. Rich and lauded, he surely didn't need the aggro of running more than 7,000 events for the Capital of Culture, so why do it? "It's my city." At the time he described the organisation as like "a typical Scouse wedding". That was no compliment. Shows were over-budget. Big decisions had yet to be made. "I could see it going off the rails."

So he went through the programme "like a head of studio", cutting and shifting and "being the guy who said yes and no very quickly". The council had already made two great decisions, he says: involving schools and community groups; and timing new buildings or refurbishments for 2008. "As the wrappers came off and the roadworks went away, people got the message."

Major events brought to Liverpool included the Tall Ships Races and the Turner Prize. There were 60 premieres in music, film, theatre and art. Exhibitions included Klimt and Le Corbusier. Sir Paul McCartney's emotional concert at Anfield far surpassed Ringo's effort. And there were spectacular street performances from creatures called Superlambananas and – creating headlines around the world – a 50ft mechanical spider called La Machine.

The EU judged Liverpool to be the most successful Capital of Culture since the first, in 1985. Despite this, Redmond still doesn't think most of us outside the city realise it was acting on our behalf. "Nobody ever says it." But Liverpool knows what it knows, as ever. The cynicism, the wit, the community, even the sentimentality of Scousers can be traced, he says, to having been a port "at the centre of nothing, at the periphery of everything". A million people worked in the docks. Then the wealth went away. "Since then, everyone's looking for the angle, a way to survive. The whole city knows, as George Harrison's song goes, all things must pass."

So Liverpool will move on. What does it have to show for a year as Capital of Culture? Only a new sense of vibrancy, a massive injection of cash, a rebuilt city centre, several major new attractions and a new arts body – the Cultural Collective, chaired by Redmond – to continue what was started. The maverick has become a committee man, also chairing National Museums Liverpool. But he's not quite tamed. "We're planning something big in 2012. For when people get bored down there."

So what if we didn't quite get what Liverpool was doing? "Oh well," he says, dryly. "There's time." The nations take their turn. "We've got about 40 years before it comes round to us again."

Professor Redmond's story: From playground to palace: a life on screen and off

1949 Born in Huyton, on Merseyside. Passes 11-plus but goes to comprehensive school in Kirkby. Trains as a quantity surveyor but quits to try writing and to study at Liverpool University.

1978 Starts children's show 'Grange Hill', set in a comprehensive like the one he went to. Seen as ground-breaking for dealing with issues such as bullying and drug abuse. Tucker Jenkins, played by Todd Carty, becomes a playground hero.

1981 Sets up own company, Mersey TV.

1982 Channel 4 broadcasts first episode of new soap, 'Brookside', filmed in a purpose-built close on Merseyside. Grittier and more daring than any show of its kind. Characters include Beth Jordache, who locks lips with local nanny Margaret in prime-time's first lesbian kiss. She also buries her abusive father under the patio.

1989 Made professor at Liverpool John Moores University (where he is now chair of the International Centre for Digital Content).

1993 Consultant to sleepy soap 'Emmerdale', crashes a jet liner into the village, killing half the characters.

1995 Starts younger soap 'Hollyoaks', initially as response to glossy US shows. Adds grit again.

2003 'Brookside' ends.

2004 Appointed CBE.

2005 Redmond and wife Alexis sell Mersey TV.

2007 Creative director of Liverpool's term as European Capital of Culture.

2008 'Grange Hill' ends. Redmond becomes chair of National Museums Liverpool and the city's newly formed Cultural Collective.