Like many people as we reached September, I was eagerly anticipating Channel 5’s reboot of one of Yorkshire’s most successful cultural franchises: All Creatures Great and Small. Growing up in the 80s, I remember gathering around the telly with my family on a Sunday evening to watch the escapades of James and his veterinary friends.
Despite the bygone era the stories resonated with us: I grew up on a tenant farm in Wensleydale where my mother and father still live today, although it is mostly run by my brothers these days. It was probably the only thing on telly that reflected our life: from the tracking shots along the drystone-lined country roads, to the dirt of the farms and the grumpiness of the farmers (no offence Dad!), it felt comforting and familiar. As the show’s popularity grew, attracting huge audiences, I’m sure farming families across the county felt that their way of life, which often was ignored or even made fun of, was recognised and understood by the nation, even if only for an hour on a Sunday evening.
Fast forward 30 years, I wonder what a story about a small 1930s rural community can do for a nation and its people at a time of growing confusion, division and worry about our future. Will it be an outdated and nostalgic representation that will reinforce dated stereotypes, or will the stories of James and his farming friends, be framed in a way that is relevant today? Can the stories of our past and heritage teach us anything useful and hopeful about our future?
While All Creatures Great and Small presents a niche perspective of life in Yorkshire, the themes it explores are as relevant now as back in the day: how to make your way in the world when the odds are against you, and in the case of the first episode, the conflict between tradition and modernity.
But what about other Yorkshire stories? In 2017, Francis Lee’s brilliant film God’s Own Country presented a very different perspective of farming life in West Yorkshire. Far from the genteel and romantic idyll of life in the Dales, it depicted a brutal and harsh farming environment: the struggle to make ends meet, the repressed resentment between father and son, and the challenges of fitting into a small community when you feel different to those around you. At the centre of the film is, however, a story of love – a universal story that all audiences can identify with – even though the lens through which the story is told is perhaps a little different to our own situation or experience.
Storytelling is a great way to normalise hidden perspectives or experiences and can help to highlight all that we have in common – our values, hopes and desires as human beings – despite our differences. If they are told well, they can draw in new audiences, bringing hidden truths and realities into the mainstream. By seeing and understanding different experiences and perspectives on life, as well as learning about how the context around individuals can impact on people’s lives, we can challenge our own perceptions and prejudices, and boost our own understanding of the world and people around us. Better still, over time, these accounts can help to drown out the pervasive and damaging narratives that blame and shame certain groups of people, often pedalled by those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Like fiction, personal testimony can be a powerful agent for change. It was Marcus Rashford’s authentic account of hunger as a child that grabbed the attention of the public about the injustice of child poverty in the UK. That story had an impact on the public consciousness in a way that was much more meaningful than the latest research report on poverty. It led directly to those in power making the policy change needed to support kids trapped in poverty over the school holidays.
Across Yorkshire there is a rich tapestry of stories – not just farming ones! Our landmark year of culture will offer the chance to shine a light on people and places right across the city and wider region. In the build-up to Leeds 2023, we want to work with communities to unearth hidden stories and amplify and celebrate our rich heritage. By listening to one another and seeing ourselves reflected in the stories told, we can start to break down some of the barriers that exist and build support for a more inclusive and just future for all our communities.
We are fortunate to have a region brimming with creative talent: from writers, to dancers, to sportsmen and women and community theatre groups; at the centre of all forms of culture lies people’s stories. Whether they are real life accounts or fictionalised tales that explore universal themes, let’s harness our storytelling talent to understand our past and create our future!
Abigail Scott Paul, Director of External Relations, Leeds 2023
First published in the Yorkshire Post, 3 September 2020