Creator of some of the most controversial storylines in British soap, Phil Redmond is also the driving force of UK City of Culture and a newly published author. He speaks to Sarah Freeman.
“It’s amazing what a lick of paint can do for a place isn’t it?” says Phil Redmond. Best known as the creator of Grange Hill, Brookside and Hollyoaks, given the decorating job he’s talking about is the £5m refit of the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull, he also has a certain Liverpudlian way with words.
But he has a point. While much of the money was spent behind the scenes, overhauling the lighting and they air conditioning, when the gallery reopened earlier this month it added to the feel-good factor surrounding this year’s UK City of Culture and came on the back of the unveiling of a giant wind turbine sculpture just outside the Ferens’ front door.
“It’s about civic pride,” says Redmond. “Once you’ve seen that giant blade you won’t forget it. That creativity focuses people’s minds so the next time someone says, ‘We need a new bench in the city centre’, someone else will say, ‘Ok, but why don’t we do it a little bit differently’. Art triggers new ideas.”
To be fair, he speaks from experience. After a slightly faltering start, Redmond was drafted in to steer Liverpool during its year as European City of Culture in 2008. He compared the political squabbling which had threatened to derail the event before it even started to a Scouse wedding, where the rows about who to invite ultimately give way to a great knees-up. And so it proved.
“People just needed to have confidence and they needed to relax. It wasn’t just about Liverpool, it was about the whole of Britain and as the data started coming in we realised not only that it was having a huge economic impact, but also that there was potential to replicate it elsewhere.”
According to the ever persuasive Redmond, he whispered in the ear of Andy Burnham and the MP for Leigh and then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport listened.
“I just thought we’ve got something here and we shouldn’t have to wait another 30 odd years before it comes back to the UK. That’s when UK City of Culture born and it has exactly the same philosophy of the European event. It’s not just a title. It gives people permission to do things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
“Can you imagine someone walking into the offices of Hull City Council a couple of years ago and saying, ‘I’ve got an idea for a sculpture, it’s the blade of a wind turbine and I want to drop it outside the Ferens gallery at midnight which will mean closing all the roads in the city centre’. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have happened, just as I am sure that had Liverpool not been the European City of Culture we wouldn’t have had a giant spider walking through the streets and we wouldn’t have had the Superlambanana.”
The 45ft mechanical spider was built by a French performance company and its journey through Liverpool made international headlines, but it was the Superlambanana which became the enduring symbol of a city reinventing itself.
The original sculpture - a hybrid between a sheep and well, a banana - had been the subject of a degree of ridicule by those who didn’t reckon an ironic comment on the dangers of genetic engineering was worth £35,000 when it was unveiled in Liverpool as part of an exhibition 10 years earlier.
“As part of City of Culture we decided to create 125 mini Superlambananas across the city and it just went nuts,” says Redmond. “I had so many people contacting me asking if they could have one in their school or community centre that I pretty much ended up running a black market in them. It was a different time and a different place.”
Redmond was key to Liverpool’s success and it came at just the right time. In February 2008, just two days before its official 30th birthday, the BBC announced it was axing Grange Hill. Redmond had nurtured the show, which had revolutionised children’s television, from infancy and while the decision didn’t end his love affair with TV it did lead to a painful separation.
“I grew up in the age of those powerful dramas like Cathy Come Home. I knew I wanted to be involved in TV, although being a Liverpudlian I naturally thought I would write comedy,” says the 67 year old, who sent his first ever sketch to Harry Secombe while he was working Yorkshire TV. “The Beeb’s mantra when it came to programmes was ‘inform, educate and entertain’. I guess I’ve always thought it should be the other way round, but to give the Beeb credit they were the ones to take Grange Hill after it had been turned down by everyone else.
“The problems began after new regulations introduced in 1990 really started to take effect. It was all about taste and decency and whether susceptible adults would be effected by what they watched. The problem was no could define who was a susceptible adult. As I used to say, ‘if Everton beats Liverpool there are 25,000 susceptible adults wandering around Anfield, but I reckon they’ll be ok the next morning’.
“The biggest change was that prior to 1990 you could consult the regulator before a programme was screened. They would tell you if you needed to tone it down. After 1990 it was broadcast and be damned - if you fell foul of the guidelines the fines were hefty so it made everyone so incredibly risk averse”
Given Redmond had covered teenage drug use in Grange Hill, given viewers a lesbian kiss and a body under the patio in Brookside and shone a spotlight on self-harming and eating disorders through his teatime soap Hollyoaks, cautious wasn’t a word which featured in his vocabulary.
“The tipping point came when we were talking about doing a 10 year look back at the Trevor Jordache story. No soap had tackled domestic violence like Brookside had done, but we were told we couldn’t show anything before the watershed despite the fact the original had gone out at 8pm. I became more and more frustrated and stepped away, but after a while I realised that while I didn’t miss any of the bureaucracy I did miss the storytelling.”
It’s the reason why he has just published his first novel Highbridge. While the format may be different, it ploughs much the same furrow as his TV work. Set in a fictional northern town its central characters are two brothers trying to avenge their sister’s death at the hands of local druggies.
“The best thing is that I don’t have to worry about the budget. They can hop on the train to Manchester and I don’t have a producer on my shoulder saying, ‘But how are we going to afford that?’ I enjoyed it, but my family enjoyed it less. They had to get used to having a writer back in the house and that invisible ‘do not disturb sign’ going back up again.”
Still a writer who takes the long view, Redmond says he already has plans for at least another four books and for at least the next 12 months he will juggle his new career as an author with his commitment to the UK City of Culture operation.
“It isn’t going to solve all of Hull’s problems, but it is a start. Think of all those teenagers living in the city who are getting ready to step into the next chapter of their lives. They are going to witness one great year and it should inspire them. In Liverpool, we are seeing a lot of those who were 14 and 15 in 2008 starting up some really pioneering businesses. I’m not saying that it is all down to one event, but it played its part, it gave the city momentum in the right direction.
“In 2008 Liverpool’s tourist economy was worth £2.8bn. Today it’s worth £4.4bn. In a post-Brexit world it’s more important than ever that we can stand on our own two feet.”
Highbridge by Phil Redmond is published by Arrow, £6.99.