Victorian heritage of the North on screen

Apparently, the first show in BBC4’s North Of England season was titled The Road To Wigan Pie Shop, so forgive my initial fear it’d just trot out all the usual stereotypes of our region.

Yet, while I’m still not tossing my flat cap in the air at most of the schedule, such as a whole night of programmes about rugby league, there is a real gem nestled in there too.

People’s Palaces: The Golden Age Of Civic Architecture is a two-part documentary on northern architecture of the Victorian age, both the ambitious, lavish neo-classical and the dark, overbearing gothic.

Presenter Jonathan Foyle in a publicity shot for BBC4's People's Palaces documentaries

Much of the first hour-long show pings back and forth between the fierce rivals Liverpool and Manchester as they try to out-bling each other in the neo-classical stakes.

Nowadays Manchester markets itself so rigorously as a shiny, new city that it’s easy to forget the beautiful columns of Greek-style buildings like the Portico Library and the Royal Manchester Institute (now the City Art Gallery).

But Liverpool is surely the North’s most handsome city and nothing can match St George’s Hall, Walker Art Gallery and the City Hall, particularly when filmed by the BBC in brilliant sunshine.

The last ten minutes saw the programme-makers twig that the North comprises more than just those big North West rivals. So it shoehorned in two great Yorkshire town halls – the completely overblown Todmorden version and the jaw-droppingly sumptuous interior of the one in Leeds.

I’ve yet to view the second instalment of the documentary, on gothic Victorian architecture, but I hope it significantly shifts the focus away from the North West. Surely Newcastle, featuring street after street of charming Victorian buildings, my own, unfairly-maligned hometown of Hull, which attracts more visitors than another overlooked city, York, deserve at least a mention?

Jonathan Foyle presents with reassuring authority, but the stars of the show are of course the buildings, many of which you can take a look at any time. But by a handy coincidence, this weekend sees Heritage Open Days take place once again giving access to some places usually out of bounds. Take a look at the website here for listings.

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