Bravo for Britain! BBC reporter Fergal Keane says revisiting the deprived families he met for a series 12 years ago filled him with hope
22:00 GMT, 23 November 2012
Nearly 13 years ago I set out on a journey around Britain for the BBC, filming some of the most hard-pressed citizens of the nation.
Back then somebody far up in the management chain had decided it might be a good idea to get a foreign correspondent to cast a stranger’s eye on the Britain of the struggling and poor.
‘A fresh perspective. Do what you do abroad, but here in the UK,’ as it was put to me. I was intrigued.
I knew middle-class Britain well enough. It was my base for flying to the world’s trouble spots while working for the BBC’s World Affairs Unit. But the Britain of the margins was foreign to me.
Nearly 13 years ago Fergal set out on a journey around Britain for the BBC, filming some of the most hard-pressed citizens of the nation
This was the early years of Blair, when the country was entering one of the longest economic booms in modern British history. The official narrative was of hope.
But the people I met felt forgotten by the Westminster elite. There was Gwlithyn Roberts, a young mother with three daughters living on an isolated sheep farm in North Wales while her husband worked all the hours God sent to stave off bankruptcy.
The Roberts family was drowning in debt as farm prices collapsed. In Glasgow I met John Brown, a shipyard worker, who fought hard to save the jobs of hundreds of men at the Govan yard. I’d never met anybody who could express the dignity of a working life with such clarity.
‘I’m not a pawn and I’m not a number. I’m a man, I’m a human being, and they will never, ever take my dignity from me.’
On the Lincoln Green estate in Leeds a grandmother called Liz Craig spoke of her struggle to raise her grandchildren in a place where heroin addiction was rife. Her own sons had been caught up in the crisis that was claiming the lives of hundreds of young people in Britain at that time.
Over the years, when I thought of these people, it was their resilience that stood out. Still, I often wondered what had become of them. And then last autumn, out of the blue, a producer in BBC Current Affairs called with a suggestion. ‘What would you think about retracing your steps and going back to see those people’ I didn’t need to be asked twice.
Today they are clean and occupied families
In Glasgow, the metalworker John Brown described the extraordinary roller coaster of his life in the intervening years. At first his job had been saved, but two years later he was made redundant. There followed two years of job training schemes until the big man from the shipyard got a job as a teaching assistant in a class of ten-year-olds.
John got on with the job. But as Britain joined the US in military interventions across the globe, there was a change in the fortunes of the yard. One day he was called up by his old bosses and asked to come back to work. There was much to do: a multi-billion pound contract to help build two new aircraft carriers. ‘It was like pulling on an old pair of drawers,’ John recalled. ‘It was as if I’d never been away.’
On the Lincoln Green estate in Leeds I learned with sadness that Liz Craig, who had dreamed of recreating a community in a place of drug dens and fear, had died five years ago.
‘I might be grasping at straws, but I think we could be a community again like we used to be,’ she’d once told me. Liz would be encouraged by the new Lincoln Green. Millions have been spent on housing. The police and council targeted the heroin dealers and addicts. Community policeman Tony Sweeney, a well-liked local figure, took me back to flats where we once saw floors festooned with needles.
Today they are clean and occupied by families. ‘I think it’s testament to everybody, not just the police and the local council but also the community as well… they’ve all had to turn round and say enough’s enough, this has got to change,’ said PC Sweeney.
In Cornwall and North Wales I traced my path back to the tenant farmers whose lives had been upended by the farm crises of the late 90s: BSE, foot and mouth and falling prices had all had a deep impact on rural life.
When I met Gwlithyn Roberts at the turn of the millennium she was undone by worry. With three young children and mounting debt she wondered if the farm could survive.
Going back into the crowded kitchen I found the girls had nearly grown into women and had been joined by a younger brother. Gwlithyn was smiling. The Roberts family had survived. They had tightened their belts to the last notch and stayed in business long enough to reap the benefit of rising food prices.
Of course, not all is happy. For the tenant farmers there is an endlessly precarious financial situation, the steady decline of rural communities as more young people leave for the cities. In Glasgow the future of the Govan shipyard is threatened once again by more defence cuts and the debate over Scottish independence.
But the big story of my return journey – too easily ignored in the daily flood of bad news – is of a resilient Britain. It’s a nation where the values of family and community are not at all forgotten. Far from it. They’re stronger than I ever expected.
Return To Forgotten Britain, 8pm, Sunday, BBC2.