There was a great deal of sniggering on The Graham Norton Show last week when Jodie Whittaker replied to mein host’s question about Doctor Who’s “world launch”. The new Time Lord’s answer – that it had taken place in Sheffield – provoked much hilarity.
Why not Sheffield? Russell Senior, the former Pulp guitarist, once told an interviewer that he grew up in the early 1970s “reading the local paper and seeing ‘Sheffield, city of the future’ with a map of how it’s going to be and pictures of everyone walking around in spacesuits”.
On Sunday – only two more sleeps – we will watch a two-hearted alien walking around the streets of Steel City. Yes, after months of breathless build up, a new series of sci-fi adventures finally gets underway as the Thirteenth Doctor goes into battle on behalf of all underdogs, foils various monsters’ evil plans for world domination and exchanges witty banter with a new group of besties. All in South Yorkshire, mind. This is not quite what Sheffield council’s marketing department had in mind when it came up with that city-of-the-future tag line all those years ago. In its 1970 film On The Move, it was presented as a coruscating, progressive, forward-looking city, boasting myriad landscapes of outstanding natural beauty and soaring monuments to civic optimism. There were no time-travelling blue police boxes as I recall.
Back on the Norton sofa the three, slightly baffled, Hollywood stars stopped chuckling to dutifully applaud Whittaker’s announcement. “I don’t want any patronising claps,” she chided them. You tell ’em Jodie.
Why should Doctor Who not have had its world launch in the former Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire? From Barry Hines’ Threads in the 1980s to This is England ’86, 30 years later, Sheffield has formed the backdrop to several major productions. On The Move even appeared during the opening titles of the most famous Sheffield-based movie of them all – The Full Monty.
It might seem a strange comparison to make but the vision which inspired that much-mocked promotional short has a lot in common with the new Doctor Who. The Gallifreyan, like post-industrial Sheffield, has regenerated, been given a fresh start. A new gender, a new (Yorkshire) accent, a new sensibility.
“We’re all capable of the most incredible change,” says Our Jodie. “We can evolve while still staying true to who we are. We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.”
“Of all the northern cities,” wrote the architectural critic Owen Hatherley, “Sheffield went furthest towards becoming some sort of viable modern city…” Sheffield-born modernist Alison Smithson, like her fellow brutalists, was in the vanguard of a social architecture movement which rebuilt post-war Britain. As the council officer who commissioned On The Move explained, “we have the cleanest atmosphere of any industrial city in Europe. (Visitors) might be surprised at the extent and variety of the city’s parks, at the housing developments, and progress in slum clearance.”
They were also surprised to encounter Park Hill flats, the towering social housing development which has given the cityscape a futuristic feel for the past five decades. Alongside other modernist icons, like Hyde Park, Broomhall, Kelvin Flats and Gleadless Valley, it radically transformed the skyline, a rejoinder to all those critics who had turned up their noses at the industrial squalor. In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell had cruelly branded Sheffield “the ugliest town in the Old World”.
Park Hill, with its pioneering “streets in the sky”, is now a Grade II listed building and appears in the new Doctor Who as a landmark of a gleaming metropolis. One of Whittaker’s new besties, Yasmin Khan, lives in one of the flats.
On an American website I came across a few days ago, a devoted Whovian declared: “The tyrannical grip (of) London is finally over.” She then helpfully explained to her readers that “Sheffield…isn’t London.” You can say that again. The overblown capital does not have a monopoly on alien shenanigans and futuristic landscapes. As millions of viewers across the world will discover on Sunday.