Even its kindest critics suggest the best thing about Doncaster is the bypass. For too many, the South Yorkshire town has all too little to recommend it. Its famous sons include TV's rudest man, the Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson, and pop star Tony Christie – who sang of finding the way to Amarillo, as far from his home town as possible.
So dispirited are some of its residents, in fact, that they are considering doing away with the town entirely and renaming Doncaster "Danum", the settlement's Roman name – all in the hope that it can shake off its less than salubrious image. The drastic move is one of a range suggested by a group of freemen of the borough, including notable "Donny" residents such as the opera singer Lesley Garrett and jazz trombonist Dennis Rollins.
The initiative comes as the city council's acting chief executive, Tim Leader, resigned and hundreds of job losses in the area were announced following the closure of the railway firm Jarvis. These developments, though, were just the latest in the town's tribulations.
Recent stories have highlighted a meltdown in local social services, following the deaths of children on the at-risk register, and the town's unwelcome high teenage pregnancy rate. The Government has labelled Doncaster an antisocial behaviour hot spot, and the town was subject to intense national scrutiny 12 months ago, after the violent attacks on two small boys in the town of Edlington, in the south of the borough.
The group championing the beleaguered town hopes that drawing attention to its Roman roots, as well as its pioneering role in the development of the railways, will help draw a discreet veil over its more chequered recent history.
It hopes to publish a book about Doncaster icons and release a DVD espousing its virtues. Former head teacher Tony Storey, who chairs the group, said: "Over the past 20 or 30 years, it seems to have picked up some negative publicity. Its reputation is of a community that is dysfunctional, and that is not true."
While the town is not a total writeoff – it was home to the confectionery firm that invented butterscotch, and the town's football team is currently putting bigger clubs to shame – Doncaster's critics believe it will struggle to shake off its reputation simply by rebranding. They point out that the move would put the town on a par with Sellafield, the nuclear power site which was renamed from its original Windscale after Britain's worst nuclear accident, Abu Ghraib prison, renamed Baghdad Central after the torture scandal erupted, and the white elephantine Millennium Dome, rechristened as the O2.
Poet Roger McGough said: "I don't think [renaming] is really the answer. The past is the past, isn't it? Ask the people of the town what they should do – the poets and the artists. Don't get some PR firm in." He pointed to the experience of Bootle, the Merseyside town which gained notoriety after toddler James Bulger was abducted from a shopping centre and murdered by 10- year-old boys Jon Venables and Robert Thompson in 1993.
"The word Bootle became synonymous with violence, and later I was brought in to write a poem to celebrate Bootle."
Celebrity PR agent Max Clifford said: "It is not going to be easy. You have to change the whole public perception, but it is possible. Stars can be the key to this, because they immediately say glamour."
One of Donny's finest has pledged to help. Singer Tony Christie, who was born in the Conisbrough area, said: "If they wanted me to help, I'd absolutely do it. In recent years the town has got bad press."