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segunda-feira, 29 de fevereiro de 2016
Northerners have plenty of reasons to be angry - but Grimsby isn't one of them
Why Sacha Baron Cohen's crass working class stereotypes are just the latest assault in the south's war on the north of England
I’m half Southern, me. My mother is from Surrey, and still keeps her long a’s after 40 years in Yorkshire. But it means I rarely felt proper northern, even though I was born in Sunderland, and grew up in Yorkshire from the age of six months onwards. According to my aunty Enid, every Boxing Day, I wasn’t proper Yorkshire because I couldn’t play county cricket. I don’t even have a broad northern accent, having had it bullied out of me at my Bushey boarding school (“go on, say b-a-t-h”).
But despite all that, I know I am northern. I am very northern. I am northern not just because I moved back up north after two decades away (abroad, then in London), but in my liking of all and sundry calling me “love”: I find it affectionate and warm (unlike snotty southerners who find it demeaning or patronising). I am northern in my love of the moors and fells a short drive away from my house in Leeds. I even own a flat cap (bought to run in the Flat Cap Five race in Dewsbury, obviously).
So do I mind that there’s now yet another film - Grimsby, starring Sacha Baron Cohen - that takes the “grim up north” stereotype, throws in some Shameless lovable working classness and crassness, and gets endless jokes out of it? Do I care that the joke is on the working class, as well as the northern accent? No, not particularly.
The northern accent has long been used for comic effect, but it’s also considered one of the more trustworthy for call centres and recorded phone menus. You can trust a Yorkshire voice in a call centre (or even a Sean Bean Sheffield accent in Game of Thrones, where it meant steadfastness and dignity as well as pure grit), but not a Brummie. To me, a northern accent means warmth and home.
I don’t care that Grimsby is the latest in a long line of films that play on the north-south divide, with the north usually the comic butt of superior southernness. But there is affectionate comedy - Brassed Off (despite Ewan MacGregor’s woeful accent), the Full Monty, Billy Elliot - and the unoriginal, unimaginative kind.
Grimsby tells the story of two brothers, separated while young. One is an urbane, sophisticated, sexy super-spy. The other is a white working-class father of nine who drinks WKD and has a Liam Gallagher mad-for-it hairstyle and sideburns. Guess which Baron Cohen plays and where he’s from. Oh, and he’s thick, too.
Of course the residents of Grimsby are annoyed: their once mighty fishing town, which served the nation its fish, but also sacrificed plenty of its menfolk at sea, with few thanks: now it’s an identikit cesspit of a town that serves only as a backdrop for cruel comedy. Baron Cohen’s Grimsby is so identikit, it was filmed in Tilbury.
And don’t start me on his Gallagher haircut, which even Gallagher doesn’t have any more, nor his England shirt, nor why he’s trying to do a Yorkshire accent for a town in Lincolnshire. Nor the recruiting of six 20-stone, tattooed women to play Grimsby Town fans (at least they’re female, which makes a difference to most football casting). And that is just the surface evidence of contempt: how easy or artistic is it, really, to take the mickey out of one of the most maligned sectors of the population, the unemployed white working-class man?
Still, there’s an easy way to object to Grimsby: don’t watch it. And for every grim-up-north portrayal, there’s a thoughtful Kes, or a Hull Truck Theatre production, or Four Lions, or anything written by Simon Armitage.
I care more about the insidious metropolitan prejudice that doesn’t appear on film posters, but is bigger and wider than Baron Cohen’s Lincolnshire vowels could ever be. This is the metropolitanitis that is behind every email to me that asks me where I live in London, or every newspaper culture supplement that ignores the north. It is behind the government decisions that have dictated that Bradford’s wonderful National Media Museum “gives” its collection of the Royal Photography Society to the V&A, that London gallery which is known to be severely lacking in treasures so obviously must take ours.
Or the funding decisions that seem to assume that money stops at a glass wall outside the M25, so that George Osborne, in his autumn statement, announced £150 million for London museums, £100 million for a new Battersea campus for the Royal College of the Arts, and £141 million for East London’s Olympic Park (where visitor numbers are vastly lower than they were predicted).
As Diana Johnson wrote in the Yorkshire Post recently, £3.5 million was given for a helter-skelter for the Olympic Park, while Hull’s New Theatre was denied the £5 million it asked for. Instead, Osborne said, Hull could have “a share” in £1 million for preparations to be City of Culture in 2017. Small museums all over the north are closing, such as Bede’s museum in Jarrow, which had 27,000 visitors a year. These are local council decisions, but the rot, and the bias, comes from London. A 2013 report found that spending by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Arts Council England was £68.99 per London head and £4.58 for each of the rest of us.
Don’t pay attention to all that Northern Powerhouse rhetoric: it’s as full of hot air and nonsense as Grimsby’s spy narrative. But never mind: we’ll carry on up north, grimly, with our affordable houses, wide open spaces, friendly bus drivers and decent accessible schools. We’ll keep our many amazing theatres, ballets and art centres going, despite that glass wall.
Keep thinking it’s grim up north by all means, and stay there in your overcrowded unaffordable metropolis. Up here, we’re champion, ta.