Tuesday 21 August 2007

Passing Titans

Today I’d like to mark the passing of two huge British institutions, whose demise was foreshadowed last week: Dawn French and GNER. People wept openly in the streets after one announcement, but greeted the other with shoulder-shrugging indifference. I certainly did. But then I’ve long had rather a soft spot for GNER, while finding Ms French about as funny as a broken pelvis.

Dawn French herself broke the news that she is retiring to Cornwall to die. She’s only just coming up to 50, though a glance in the mirror would tend to confirm her supposition that she will not make old bones. Apparently she’s known it since the age of six. Once one has been granted that revelation, I suppose the temptation to say “what the heck” and have that extra slice of pie must be irresistible.

She did not actually set a date for her death, so her many fans will have plenty of time to pray, and to lay in stocks of beer and snacks for the inevitable re-runs of her finest work when she does hand in her dinner pail. Here’s hoping that the BBC majors on The Vicar of Dibley, which was redeemed even for me by its brilliant supporting cast, rather than the excruciating Wild West or Jam and Jerusalem.

The end of GNER, by contrast, will follow a strict timetable. (Now there’s a first.) The Department for Transport has decreed that new franchisee National Express will take over the East Coast main line on 9 December. Could there be a better time to change the entire management of the country’s premier rail route than immediately in advance of the Christmas rush?

National Express will apparently be spending a lot of money repainting trains in a more contemporary style, ditching those irrelevant old crests, and giving their onboard staff some snappier togs. I can’t help wondering whether all the investment in paint jobs and new uniforms since rail privatisation has been the best possible use of funds. But then I’m an old fogey who rather liked GNER’s midnight blue livery and its attempt to recapture the spirit and style of the great days of train travel.

I commuted between Alnmouth and King’s Cross every week for nigh on 20 years. In that time I had many more chuckles out of GNER than I’ve ever had from Dawn French, though admittedly they were usually in circumstances where one either had to laugh or cry. It’s funny how disaster always struck when one was in a tearing hurry to get to a meeting, lunch or show, and never when one had all the time in the world.

Still, at least GNER gave the impression of caring about their customers in a way that made a refreshing change from the jobsworth mentality of British Rail. And I’ve also seen enough of the UK’s other train operators to know that GNER were much the best of an admittedly questionable bunch.

So I shall miss them. Along with the numerous anorak-wearing nerds who will undoubtedly be crowding platforms and trains in the final weeks. I’d book your seat now, and maybe take your own mug with you. Those crested cups, glasses and cutlery will be in strong demand from souvenir hunters.

I do empathise with Ms French in one respect. I also retired to the country to die shortly before my 50th birthday. Not only have I failed to do so, but my health has improved exponentially since I cut out the weekly stress of travelling to London. Maybe Cornwall will have the same positive effect on her, particularly if she also goes a bit easier on those Terry’s Chocolate Oranges.

So, farewell then. I’m sure that both these great national icons will be fondly remembered. But I reckon that Hornby will still be turning out replicas of those rather gorgeous blue trains long after the very last Dawn French DVD has been de-listed.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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