I WAS chatting to a distant relative of mine at a family gathering many years ago. He was from leafy Guildford in Surrey and asked me in all earnestness: “You not intending to spend the rest of your life in Wigan, are you?”
To say I was taken aback by this snobby inquiry is an understatement. Just about managing to keep my temper under control, I said: “Quite possibly. You know, you really ought come and visit the place before you pass judgement on it like that.”
Having previously lived in Hull, another place with an image problem largely propagated by people who’ve never visited it, I was well used to protecting my corner.
It is easy to get over-defensive about the place you call home. After all, show me a place that hasn’t got any faults at all.
But latterly I hadn’t needed to come to Wigan’s verbal rescue anywhere near as much, although I still delight in telling anyone who cares to listen that the borough is 75 per cent countryside.
High profile successes in sport and helpful national TV coverage from programmes like Countryfile which show that we aren’t still relying on outdoor privvies and tramping in clogs to the mills in our thousands.
Then along comes a documentary called Don’t Blame the Council which set us back on the road to Wigan Pier.
I’m sure the people who made it knew that if it was done in a worthily poe-faced manner, showing the borough’s good bits as well as bad bits and edited in ways that didn’t unnecessarily embarrass people who had not done anything wrong, it wouldn’t have had a chance of making prime time ITV viewing. Instead it would have ended up, if anywhere, in a daytime or late night graveyard slot.
And so we had Carry On music playing in the background, outdoor footage that only seemed to focus on grot spots and the more deprived areas of the borough.
After a recent national newspaper article which went out of its way to create the impression that we all lived in the foulest British backwater, I was already beginning to wonder what some folk thought was wrong with filming or writing about the place’s positives too.
The thrust of the warts and all show (with the focus very much on the warts) was to explain Wigan Council’s laudable project The Deal. Now I know everyone hasn’t bought into it but I am certain there is nowhere near as much scepticism, ignorance or disenchantment towards it as was expressed by those talking heads.
The programme also left us with the distinct impression that, for all the tens of millions of pounds in cuts inflicted on the authority - the third largest in the country, let’s not forget - there is still plenty of slack left in the system, given the skiving and loafing about that was shown to us. If the programme had been about tackling a borough’s most poverty-stricken areas I could understand the concentration on council estates. But The Deal is meant to encompass everyone.
So why could millions of viewers not been given a chance to see a litter-pick at prized public assets like Mesnes Park or Haigh Hall?
There would have been no need to labour the point that we have beauty spots as well, but it would have helped to steer the debate away from reinforcing terrible old northern stereotypes.
As for individual staff members: I am not going to make excuses for people admitting various work-avoiding practices on film. But if you film someone for long enough, sometimes they will either drop their guard and/or feel obliged to fill air time, which might account for some of the comments and goofing about.
The council’s environment chief Terry Dunn came in for some stick too for his blue-sky-thinking-type language to the point that one online wiseacre was tweeting Ricky Gervais to inform him that there was a new David Brent on screen. But as someone who has seen a lot of local government in action over the last quarter century in various towns and cities, that is how a lot of folk in the sector have come to speak. To be honest I barely noticed.
Furthermore I felt uncomfortable during the scene where the winner of the raffle for folk who public spiritedly clean up after their dogs was left hanging because the person with the certificate got lost.
A producer not out to cause mischief would have just said: “Never mind, we’ll go and shoot something else,” rather than turn it into a comedy of silences. Anyone could have done that.
But there is no denying there has been a very big, negative backlash to the programme, regardless of my opinions.
Never have we taken so many emails and phone calls to our newsroom complaining about something. Even former Labour deputy leader of the council and newly appointed alderman John O’Neill was moved to speak out strongly against the show and authority’s complicity, and he is not one who usually breaks ranks.
And the production company and Wigan Council, who apparently sanctioned the finished programme after asking for certain scenes to be deleted (Lord knows what must be on the cutting room floor!) must share equal blame for the fall-out.
Sadly the main message of The Deal, which the authority was doubtless hoping would be positively and repeatedly demonstrated during the documentary, was either lost among the antics or largely knocked down by the staff and public.
I know I have expressed some reservations about its being universally accepted (there was more than a whiff of truth in the comment that went something like: “how do you expect someone who has settees and old fridges in their garden to go and pick up a crisp packet blowing around the street?”
But I also happen to know that The Deal has done a power of good too and more people are getting involved in community clean-ups. Whether or not they have officially “signed up” to it is another matter. Many, I suspect, just get on with it quietly without feeling the need to put it in writing.
For an authority which sets huge store in image and marketing, it proved remarkably naive in entering into and endorsing this enterprise. But it was also stitched up. By coincidence the council has been appearing on another, far safer daytime programme this week (which is why it isn’t on in the evening).
But I think the town hall powers that be will be thinking long and hard before they consider letting any more flies sit on their walls as a way to get a message over. Lessons will be learnt, but it has been the hard way.
And it could take a long time to repair the damage unless we can persuade Sir Ian McKellen to present a world-franchised, prime-time documentary presenting all of Wigan’s good bits.