Before "Alexei Sayle's Liverpool" even began on BBC 2 last Friday (it's still availabe to watch on the Beeb's iPlayer) I frowned at the opening credits. It was billed as a collaboration between the BBC & the Culture Company. Great, I thought, not just a mea culpa for his remarks at the Edinburgh Festival five years ago, but also an act of civic fellatio from an unlikely source.
However, any PR bullshit from the Culture Company was kept to a bare minimum in Sayle's personal portrait of his birthplace.
Opening with the cliche about taking the boy out of Liverpool, but etc., etc., he made his pitch clearly & unambiguously. He accurately noted that Scousers have "a taste for taking offence" when talking to the editor of the Liverpool Daily Post, Mark Thomas. It's sister paper, the Liverpool Echo, of course, ran Sayle's 2003 comments with relish, & Sayle was filmed perusing the Echo's archives from the time. However, I couldn't help feeling that the Echo's influence on Merseyside was just a little over-stated.
Sayle declared that the furore over his comments had somehow "reconnected" him to the city, a reconnection which doubtless owes a lot to the idiotic rantings on Roger Phillips' phone -in on BBC Radio Merseyside & the odd death threat at the time.
There were a couple of sacred cows which weren't exactly slaughtered, just kicked about a bit during this first of three programmes. The first statement to question sacrosanct nostrums was that the Beatles' success had left a "black hole" for music in the city afterwards; it's both a source of pride & a heavy burden for local bands to know that a musical revolution happened on their doorstep. How do you follow it?
The second statement which would have caused mass panic at the Culture Company's HQ came from a Toxteth resident, reminiscing about his own involvement in the riots. Talking to Sayle on Upper Parliament Street, he maintained, "If we hadn't [rioted], this place would still be a shithole".
Turning to the industrial strife of the 70s, the programme sympathetically looked at the Ford workers at Halewood, noting that much of the trouble stemmed from managers who neither knew nor cared about local trade union culture. Inevitably, perhaps, it led on to a look at the 80s in the city with a chat between Sayle & Derek Hatton. The ex-Tankie (Sayle) & the ex-Trot (Degsie) agreed to disagree about the tactics of the time.
"I don't think Hatton could've existed anywhere other than Liverpool," Sayle mused in a voice-over. Perhaps.
There were certainly some familiar faces on the footage from that decade. Shoppers on Church Street were addressed by Mick Hogan from Garston Labour Party Young Socialists as youthful idealists tried to flog the Militant. Hatton is now a property developer. As for Mick Hogan, I haven't seen him in 20 years.
Where the programme sinned by omission was probably at its most glaring in the interview with Phil Hayes, founder of the Picket. The history & role of the venue, which was also a recording studio & general cultural resource, was mentioned, but the enforced closure of the original Hardman Street home was ignored. The original site was redeveloped for the construction of, you've guessed it, luxury apartments; as own goals go (& there have been far too many in the city's post-war history) this was one of the biggest.
Sayle was sympathetic & even supportive of the 1995-1998 Dockers' dispute. Doreen McNally, one of the founders of the Women of the Waterfront campaign, spoke eloquently & astutely about its legacy. Already politically aware, via her husband's trade union activism, she soon learned to read between the lines as the dispute grew. It was nice to see the Casa in the programme, the bar/community centre/local resource on Hope Street which was resurrected by way of the dockers' pay-off.
The thorniest subject was left till last: Hillsborough. As local musician Jegsy Dodd, who was there that fateful day, said with feeling, "I'm sick of the actual word, 'Hillsborough'."
The burning of the Sun outside a newsagent's seemed a little superfluous, yet drew attention to the anger which is still felt ("even the bitter blues won't buy it," the newsagent pointed out).
All in all, a broadly accurate & warm portrait of the place. Alexei won't have to worry about the Echo anymore, they liked it, too (http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/liverpool-news/local-news/2008/06/07/on-the-alexei-sayle-trail-100252-21036120/ ), as did Lew Baxter on Liverpool Confidential (http://www.liverpoolconfidential.com/ ), the Liverpool journalist who broke the 2003 story.