Sheffield's really a post-industrial paradise

Many in the city are cross at its bleak portrayal in 'The Full Monty'.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It's Sunday lunchtime, and a lawyer, a PR executive, a portrait painter, a radio-station managing director and a journalist have gathered in the minimalist dining room of a fine, stone house. Amid the clinking glass, the bottles of Cotes de Nuitsand the taste-of-the-moment Moroccan lamb with couscous, they discuss the production of King Lear they are planning to see, the quality of the wine, the papers and, inevitably, the film that has broken all box-office records, The Full Monty.

Sounds like a typical metropolitan occasion? If that were so, and you listened in on the conversation, you would no doubt hear comments along the lines of: "It was a really terribly funny movie, wasn't it? But can you imagine how frightful it must be to live there. But people are such salt-of-the-earth types in the North." Or: "My nephew wanted to go to university in Sheffield, but thank God, my sister persuaded him not to. She couldn't get him to consider Oxford, but at least he's decided on Bristol."

Except that this isn't a lunch in London. It's in Sheffield, the very place where the movie is set, and instead the comments are: "Did you spot the bit when they were playing football? That must have been the Manor." "I don't know where the supermarket was, but I did spot the tram bridge." "It's about time the corporation cleaned up that canal. Or did they dump the car in it just for the sake of the film?" And then there was my view, as I lunched with old friends, back in my former stamping ground. "Aren't you livid with the makers of The Full Monty for portraying it as a gloomy, grimy, Northern town, to match every Home Counties cliche of life in the North?"

A film about a bunch of unemployed steel workers who turn to stripping to make some cash seems an unlikely bet for the most box-office busting British movie of all time. But the movie's portrayal of the indomitable human spirit, and the humorous way the men struggle in adversity are powerful, moving, and very funny. The poignant performances of Robert Carlyle and Tom Wilkinson have touched everyone who has seen them, me included.

But the depiction of Sheffield as a dead-end town is what I take exception to, and so do some of its MPs. The Sheffield Telegraph has had its share of complaints from several of the city's parliamentary representatives, criticising the way in which the city is written off. And they're right. It's all too easy for film-makers to stick to the old myths about the North and pander to the likes of Simon Jenkins - the self-styled expert on urban living and former editor of the Times who wrote in the London Evening Standard that Sheffield's "depression, grime and despair are the film's essence".

Southerners like Jenkins never ever think of the North as a place where people might lunch as I did or converse intelligently, attend the theatre, or listen to fine music. To them, the cities of Yorkshire and Lancashire mean dereliction, dole queues, and deserted factories.

That very same dereliction does not seem to deter fans of the movie, for the local tourist board is expecting coachloads of visitors to arrive in the city in the next few months, searching for "Montyland". The pub where the lads take their kit off, the canal with its dumped cars, and the rusting, decaying steel plants will be all on their list of must-sees.

But they'll be in for a surprise. The Full Monty is out of date. It depicts the Sheffield I knew 12 years ago when I worked there.

There is no doubt that much of the North of England has suffered a dramatic loss of jobs and of manufacturing industry. But there have been successful attempts to transform Sheffield. Historic buildings have been cleaned, new sports venues have opened, and the unemployment rate has fallen.

Like the rest of the North, it beats the South hands down for quality of life - should you be fortunate enough to be in work. House prices are still low; you can buy a five-bedroomed Victorian stone villa in the best suburbs for pounds 87,500, with just a few minutes drive to work rather than the hour-and-a-half London commute, and enjoy the city's five rivers and seven hills, as well as the nearby Peak District.

Although the steel industry, once the city's guarantee of full employment, has shed thousands of jobs, it still produces 70 per cent of this country's engineering and special steel, and Sheffield cutlery remains the finest in the world.

But what of those, less fortunate, who have been thrown out of the steelworks or the cutlery workshop? Sheffield does teeter on a knife-edge. In the last three years, unemployment in Sheffield has fallen, to 8.6 per cent in 1996. Even more heartening is that the rate of long-term unemployment has started to fall. Yet the unemployment rate still remains just above the national average, although it is a major improvement on 1986 when it peaked at 16 per cent.

What people in the South forget (and the makers of The Full Monty do nothing to disabuse them) is that Northern cities are no longer places as depicted in Room at the Top, or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. There might be pigeon fanciers, pie and pea suppers and pubs with decent beer, not to mention people with time to be human.

But this isn't the world of Joe Lampton, or Billy Liar, or Arthur Seaton. Sheffield is a post-industrial city of service industries. The universities, with 30,000 students, keep Sheffielders employed, and shopping centres, like Meadowhall, teem with people spending and shop assistants earning. There is a "cultural quarter", with a national centre for popular music being built in the home town of the Cockers, Jarvis and Joe. Sheffield is a typical modern Northern city - a place of science parks, food courts, and data-processing complexes. The air is smokeless, the rivers clean, the slum, factory-built housing of Sixties Britain are coming down to make way for new brick houses which hark back to an earlier, tougher age.

Writing off the place, when Sheffield has done so much to struggle for survival, is to traduce it, and its people. But if The Full Monty can offer any lessons, it's the way in which men find meaning in their lives through work more than anything else. Many of the new jobs in Sheffield are those to which women are drawn. Manufacturing may well never return on the scale it once was but men like The Full Monty's strippers - and the nation - need industry to be nurtured, not just exported to other parts of the world where the workforce can be exploited for cheap wages. The MP for Sheffield Brightside, David Blunkett, now running the Department of Employment, please take note.

Comments