The Tory mayoral carry on

With Boris on the boards the London political scene now has a production to grasp the popular imagin

So one of the longest productions in the Westminster Playhouse is finally closing after more than a year.

Yes Carry On Conservative Candidate is finally coming to a triumphal conclusion having played to largely indifferent houses over the last fifteen months. The cast has featured several household names but none lasted more than a few days until the arrival of Boris in the lead role just as the curtain was about to fall.

The production has outlasted its author, Francis Maude. He wrote the confused script having ignored all advise from those who knew their London audience and saw a serious piece of political drama turn into complete farce.

Sadly no Carry On production has succeeded without Sid James but Steve Norris this time has resolutely kept in the wings having signed a more lucrative engagement at the Jarvis travelling railway theatre.

Other leading men resisted all blandishments to appear in the production. Michael Portillo (Kenneth Williams), has made clear his days of serious political theatre are over. He now contents himself instead with a regular outing on a Thursday night when his hilarious catchphrase 'Ohhhh Diane' echoes around the BBC studio at Millbank. How we titter.

Lord John Stevens (Former star of “Carry on up the Yard”) who was approached no less than four times made it plain that he was not interested and anyway had earned £8 million from his guest appearances in such productions as “Death of a Princess” and the long running “Footballers bungs”. A suggestion that Greg 'Roland Rat' Dyke should appear in a blue and yellow costume was dropped after coach parties from the suburbs made it clear they would cancel their block bookings.

There was a supporting cast most of whom were recruited from the Borough Repertory Companies. Lurline Champagnie was plucked from the chorus line of Harrow Rep where she has worked away for twenty years for one last attempt at stardom.

Warwick Lightfoot, an intellectual economist found that his rather dry style barely set Kensington Music Hall alight and making him utterly unsuitable for a West End transfer.

Victoria Borwick another Kensington veteran and previous auditioner, and always the winner of the best make up and costumes award, found herself condemned to the never ending Conservative Coffee morning Circuit.

Andrew Boff found his comedic style was as out of date as a routine from Stan Boardman and anyway probably more suited to the touring production of Carry on Camping.

Several cast members from South East London have struggled to get repeat bookings over the years at Bromley Butlins never mind the Town Hall and a late cast addition said to be a very Senior Alderman of the City of London Corporation is rumoured to have misunderstood and thought he was putting his name forward to be Lord Mayor of London: sorry the jewellery budget for this production does not run to a diamond badge!

So as the script is written for the sequel provisionally entitled “Clash of the Titans”, the London political scene now has a production to grasp the popular imagination.

Johnson and Livingstone must be the only two UK Politicians whose surnames are superfluous. I suspect Box Office records will be broken on this one and that next May there may well be a new name in lights on London South bank as the younger performer replaces the old veteran whose act is now seen by many as rather passé. Never mind Ken you can join Messrs Blair and Prescott, those bill toppers of yesteryear, on the much more lucrative the after dinner circuit.

Brian Coleman was first elected to the London Assembly in June 2000. Widely outspoken he is best known for his groundbreaking policy of removing traffic calming measures
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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era