Friday, 27 April 2012

Ponteland Observed, part one

On 25 April 2012, Ashley Highfield, chief executive of Johnston Press plc, which owns 255 newspapers across Britain and Ireland, confirmed that all its titles would be redesigned during 2012 and made to conform to one of five templates developed by Cases i Associats, an international design consultancy. No paper will be unscathed, apparently, as all the company's 'brands' are sent in a 'platform neutral' direction and made fit for the digital age while at the same time contributing towards paying off the company's substantial debts. It's possible  that this might be the moment a subtitle one of its Northumberland mastheads has carried for twenty-six years finally disappears, taking with it a perhaps little-noticed journalistic legacy.

Among Johnston Press's three paid-for weeklies in the county of Northumberland is the Morpeth Herald, established in 1854. On the masthead, in a small roman font beneath the gothic script of Morpeth, can be found the legend 'Incorporating the Ponteland Observer'.

The Ponteland Observer disappeared as a distinct title in January 1986, but had endured many vicissitudes and demonstrated many strengths in its short life of three years and four months. It first appeared in October 1982, and was immediately distinctive among the weekly newspapers of the time. It took the chance that the village of Ponteland and its annexe, the large and prosperous Tyneside commuter suburb of Darras Hall, would be sufficiently interested to support a paid newspaper. Where the other paid weeklies were broadsheet, the Ponteland Observer was a tabloid. This was no Sun nor Daily Mail, but a softly-spoken and refined tabloid, a 'compact' in latterday national parlance. Furthermore, rather than belonging to a newspaper group like almost all the other weekly newspapers in the area at the time, the Observer was independent, owned by Ponteland Observer Ltd, a company belonging to its first editor Michael Sharman. Michael Sharman was at the same time editor of the Hexham Courant, a traditional broadsheet weekly owned then and now by Cumbrian Newspapers, but it was explained in the first number of the Ponteland Observer that Cumbrian Newspapers had no financial interest in it.

Whereas other Northumberland weeklies were still to some extent in the hot metal era, the Ponteland Observer was phototypeset and printed on the modern presses of the Bensham Press, the Reed International subsidiary who then owned the now-defunct Gateshead Post on the south bank of the Tyne. This allowed for a higher clarity of design and manufacture than either the Courant or the Northumberland Gazette - which then had a Ponteland edition consisting of a slip Ponteland-only front page and then pages from its Morpeth and Alnwick editions - then enjoyed.

By the end of December the Observer's format seemed well-established, running to either eight or twelve compact pages. The 24 December 1982 edition, no. 14, led on Labour's parliamentary candidate for the Hexham constituency (in which Ponteland then as now lies), Stephen Byers, warning that the Conservative government's Transport Bill would damage bus services in Ponteland and Darras Hall. Photographs showed a Nativity play at Darras Hall's Runnymede First School, and toddlers meeting Santa Claus at the Ponteland Playgroup Christmas party. In a documentary about the Hexham Courant broadcast in ITV's About Britain series in 1976, Michael Sharman had spoken of his housewife in her remote farm kitchen as the reader for whom he had to aim his 'parish pump' bread-and-butter stories, and it seemed that in Ponteland the same could be said for the suburban mother. More children's parties, as well as some teachers and Rotarians, could be found pictured on pages 2 and 3, with guides and brownies on page 4. Non-seasonal local news was largely confined to the front page and pages 6 and 7, with sport of course on the back page. Advertising came from Hexham, Gosforth and Newcastle as much as it did from Ponteland. Specialised editorial and advertising sections were divided by crisp headings in Souvenir Bold, now apparently an unfashionable font but then assertively contemporary, and complementing the masthead. In the classified advertising section, Michael Sharman was looking for a part-time advertising assistant for the paper. Expansion seemed to be the order of the day.

During 1983 the paper's circulation area expanded to outlying villages whose children attended Ponteland schools, such as Belsay, Stamfordham, and Heddon-on-the-Wall, and also into the City of Newcastle upon Tyne by addressing three communities on the A696 road to Newcastle city centre, the established villages of Woolsington and Kenton Bank Foot (as it was then spelled) and the new suburb of Kingston Park. Community involvement was cemented with an occasional supplement produced by Ponteland High School students, High-Lights. The paper was largely written in a vigorous, straightforward and intelligent house style, with regular columnists on gardening and other subjects emerging, and seemed to have won a place in the Ponteland community. The ratio of copy to advertising defnitely favoured the former. While this was refreshing in the age of the freesheet, with Newcastle Chronicle and Journal's The Advertiser (published by 'Warrington & Co.', an alias paying tribute to Warrington-based publisher and enemy of restrictive trade union practices Eddy Shah) lapping at the Observer's circulation area, it was also a warning sign for the paper's economic future.

Monday, 23 April 2012

165 Eaton Place no more - brief thoughts on a television cancellation

So, farewell then (again) Upstairs Downstairs, after an erratic second season which failed to satisfactorily build on the strengths of the 2010 miniseries. There are petitioning groups set up on Facebook and Twitter in an attempt to reverse the BBC's decision, but any extension would have to see the direction of the series rethought. From her utterances on Twitter (where she was extremely courteous to my expression of regret), Heidi Thomas appears too exhausted by the job of running UpDown and the much more lauded Call the Midwife to be showrunner for two series at the same time, a reminder that British television series drama seems to rely too heavily on a small pool of talent. UpDown probably lost a valued champion when Piers Wenger left BBC Wales, and the absence of Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh from this series left a void: though there was much to enjoy, something died with Solomon the monkey. I'd still like to see it back, but the stories told this year needed more episodes in which to breathe, and a greater sense of verisimilitude in the trajectories each character took.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Close the Coalhouse Door

There's a tunnel being dug from the past to the present, and a condemned house is restored to life for two and a half hours. This is to give away just one of the conceits in Lee Hall's revision of Alan Plater and Alex Glasgow's Sid Chaplin-inspired musical Close the Coalhouse Door, first staged in 1968, and now again playing in Newcastle, at Northern Stage and produced by Northern Stage and Live Theatre. Director Samuel West has assembled a cast of all-rounders who can all, in the idiom of the period of the play's birth, hold down a chord. West himself emerged on to the stage at the play's opening to introduce himself and musical supervisor Sam Kenyon as joint understudies for Tarek Merchant, unable to take on the role of the Expert as he is recovering from the removal of his appendix.

In 1968 the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham were facing uncertainty as the Labour government's rationalisation policy cut a swathe through the collieries; the industry looked likely to be burned away in the white heat of technology, but the coal itself was to remain underground. Song and story relate a hundred and thirty years of history as foundation myth, as prophetic figures such as Thomas Hepburn and Martin Jude point the way towards a present where the pitmen finally share the fruits of their labour; but Utopia is a doubtful achievement, and the celebration of the past is a dubious festivity if it offers no way of taking tradition and effort forward. It's a very twenty-first century comment to make, and most of the characters would have no truck with psychobabble, but Close the Coalhouse Door presents a culture sustained by communities held together and held captive by generations of abuse. The escape offered to the youngest generation of pitmen, represented by brothers John and Frank, by feminist sociology postgraduate Ruth (a compelling performance by Louisa Farrant) leaves one chill given the fate of many of the factories of Teesside and Consett steelworks.

This production still needs some work; the second act needs tightening and the final array of songs could do with breaking up and some disentangling 1968 and 2012. However, on the evidence of tonight's performance this is easily within the competence of everyone involved, and with the rounds of pit closures still uncomfortably within living memory, Newcastle offers an audience who know they are inside the joke. In a period when the pitmen have all but gone from Westminster, and when Britain too often thinks of heavy industry in terms of grassed-over slag heaps, the foundations of our society in the blood and bone behind the coalhouse door deserve this invocation as a reminder of the lives worked and lived and often lost underground, too wretchedly honoured (if one might excuse this reviewer's sentimentality) by the union leaders and politicians of recent decades alike.