Media Week: Suffolk-ing predictable - The portrayal of Ipswich Town
Ah, Ipswich Town… such great memories. Jumpers for goalposts, the “Tractor Boys”, Bobby Robson, hmm? Anyway, best not hang around. I’m being chased by Gavin Barber. And he’s got a pitchfork.
What’s your abiding memory of the actor John Thaw? The grumpy brilliance of Inspector Morse? The snarling Jack Regan in the Sweeney? The bumbling middle-aged Dad in 80s sit”com” abomination Home To Roost? Unlikely, that last one. Less likely still is that what sprung to your mind was the same as what always springs to mine when I think of the much-decorated screen legend: his piss-awful attempt at a Suffolk accent in a 1999 TV adaptation of Goodnight Mister Tom.
This stands out in my memory for two reasons. Firstly, because it was out of character for a fine actor like Thaw to take such a lazy approach to his craft: he just churned out the bog-standard Generic Yokel Accent which appears to be taught in every stage school in the land for the purposes of portraying anyone who hails from any point between Land’s End and Lowestoft. Secondly – and you may already have picked up on this – because I can be a just a teensy bit sensitive about people taking a patronising approach to Suffolk.
Which, as an Ipswich fan, is a bit unfortunate for me, given that it so often appears to be the default setting for any national media outlet to portray the club, its fans, and indeed the entire East Anglian region as a semi-feudal anachronism: a kind of Heritage Centre for rural England, where gap-toothed simpletons with straw in their hair scratch at their smocks and stare at the visiting press corps – them with their motor cars, lap-top computers and digital watches – shaking their heads in wonder before returning to their mud-huts to howl at the moon.
(Sophisticated urban types may sip on their Shiraz at this point and wittily observe that the above depiction is only partially true. Ha ha ha. Pass the crudités, darling.)
I exaggerate slightly, but there can be a breathtaking condescension and ignorance about the media’s coverage of Ipswich, and I expect that – had I the language or technology to communicate with them – Norwich fans would say much the same. I vividly remember Sky’s coverage of the first Premier League meeting between the two sides in 1992. “They haven’t just come from Norwich and Ipswich for this”, Ian Darke proclaimed in his pre-match build-up, “but from Diss. Stowmarket. Great Yarmouth. Bury St Edmunds. Thetford. [Sound of paper being shuffled.] King’s Lynn”. Darke’s theatrical reading of the words in large print on the rarely-thumbed Eastern England page of his road atlas was what passed for research on the local significance of the fixture.
Things haven’t got that much better in the intervening years. Earlier this season Sky hyped up their coverage of the Peterborough v Ipswich game – the result of which escapes me just for the moment – by claiming that it was the season’s “East Anglian derby”. There are 68 country miles between the two clubs’ grounds. In terms of this season’s Championship, far more rivalry exists between, for example, Ipswich and West Ham, who have a history of hard-fought FA Cup and play-off tussles, and divide the loyalties of many an Essex family when they play each other. But that doesn’t fit the narrative of those forelock-tugging country folk setting their pitchforks against each other.
(I shouldn’t complain too much: in the late 80s when both clubs were in the old First Division, Anglia TV used to big up Luton v Norwich as the region’s big derby. Distance between the two clubs’ grounds: 101 miles.)
Of course, you don’t mind if it’s done well. Julie Welch in the Independent once beautifully captured the resolve of John Wark’s defending with the words “he is as difficult to get past as a milk lorry trundling along an East Anglian country lane”. The NME hailed Ipswich as a “punk rock town” in the 1990s because it was one of the few places where Ian Marshall could freely display his mullet without being set upon by enraged coiffures. These more inspired examples, however, are rare.
But perhaps it’s unfair to expect national broadcasters to have an accurate feel for the vibe and dynamics of each region that they cover. What about the football itself? As far as Ipswich are concerned, collective memory of the Bobby Robson years – very much the Swiss Army knife in any reporter’s toolkit of ITFC reference points, an item for which a use can be found in almost any situation – is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s nice to be reminded of it, and it’s a source of pride to think that our little club was once the subject of Europe-wide renown for the sheer quality of its football. On the other hand, reporters and broadcasters who make occasional visits to Suffolk sometimes seem astonished to discover that the more recent vintage falls noticeably short of those standards. The current team has enough problems, frankly, without some broadsheet smartarse pointing out that Lee Martin isn’t quite as good as Arnold Muhren.
(Oh – I said “vintage”. That reminds me of another well-worn Ipswich media cliché: former chairman John Cobbold’s quip about the only crisis at Portman Road being a shortage of white wine in the boardroom. Just as there is someone in your pub quiz team who feels the need to say “his real name was Marion Morrison, you know” whenever there’s a question about John Wayne, so one can rely on a presenter or summariser dredging Cobbold’s quote from the sludge of their memory at some point during any Town game shown on TV. It can surely only be rivalled by Bill Shankly’s “life or death” epithet for its quality of rendering anyone who uses it instantly punchable).
In recent years, the one thing that has disrupted the smooth flow of the national media’s narrative was the appointment of Roy Keane as Ipswich manager in 2009. Confusion! Man famed for glorious career with big city club pitches up in Suffolk. He’s used to life in Manchester – how will he cope without easy access to motorways and a 24-hour herbalist? Solution: rebrand as “Roy Keane’s Ipswich”. Phew! Our readers will understand it if it seems like a corporate takeover of Ipswich by Roy Keane PLC: they couldn’t cope with the idea that he might actually want to work there.
None of that went particularly well, of course, though Keane’s legendary press conferences did provide the most entertaining interactions between an Ipswich manager and the media for some years. Once Keane departed, things quickly returned to normal: new boss Paul Jewell even made self-deprecating jokes about how little he knew of the area. “I thought it was just down the road from Peterborough”, he quipped to reporters in his first week (it’s 68 miles Paul, not that Sky’s man would have been able to tell you that at the time).
So effortlessly have the media slipped back into their patronising comfort zone when covering Ipswich, that the Roy Keane era seems almost like a strange, half-remembered fiction. Perhaps someone should make a film about it. But who could play the famously grizzly, dogmatic hardnut? It’s a shame John Thaw’s dead. Then again, I’m not sure how he’d have coped with an Irish accent either.