Let's hear it for… that place in Essex
A TV sitcom has at last enabled Gants Hill’s finest to stand up and be counted
Oh my good gawd, that's Clayhall," squawked Sue, my wife, when the first exterior was shown of the suburban semi in Simon Amstell's brilliant new comedy, Grandma's House, on BBC2 on Monday.
"Don't be so daft," I said. "It'll be west London somewhere. It always is. You know Ilford doesn't exist to the creative classes."
When it turned out that the house really was meant to be in Clayhall - one of our home suburb's sub-suburbs - and that Amstell's utterly genius, Royle Family-esque script was littered with the names of familiar spots around Ilford and Gants Hill, it started to get positively weird.
"Maybe this Simon is actually from Ilford?" we said to each other, shrugging, when we weren't shouting out with laughter. Wikipedia confirmed that Mr A is, indeed, a Beal School boy made ridiculously good.
It is one thing to discover that an upmarket comedy talent like Amstell is Jewish. But to find out that he is Jewish and from Ilford and "out" (as an Ilfordian, not a gay man, which Amstell also happens to be) is simply implausible. If you come from Ilford - and successful people in all walks do - you tend to keep shtum about it, not base sitcoms in it.
This reticence that we all learn is not because Ilford-ness is a matter of shame. It's just that the outside world has a blind spot over it. Telling Londoners, Jewish or otherwise, from "acceptable" areas that you are from Ilford sometimes doesn't even draw derision - just non-comprehension, like telling Manhattan-ites you're from New Jersey or Altrincham people you're from, I don't know… Wythenshawe.
If Ilford or Gants Hill crops up in the news, they call it "the East End", which isn't right, or Essex, which, although postally correct, also gives rather the wrong idea. Essex is, like, Billericay, not Gants Hill roundabout.
Before Grandma's House, the nearest Ilford had ever made to a starring appearance in the entertainment media was, I think, a few incorrect references back in the '60s by Dudley Moore in his and Peter Cook's Dagenham Dialogues. Moore got all the bus routes wrong and referred to Gants Hill as an actual hill, though it is as flat as Rakusen's finest.
Yes, of course, Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran (Southgate boys both) did make the daring move of setting Birds of a Feather in Chigwell, but it was only ever a nominal Chigwell; there was never any outright naming of roads.
Amstell, however, goes totally for broke Ilford-wise, with a bold "Fencepiece Road" here, an audacious "Beehive Lane" there. Even my old road, Collinwood Gardens, gets a mention as a cabbie's cut-through. On BBC2, noch, this makes for a liberating, a defining, moment for Ilfordians - even those of us who, as I can hold back no longer from saying, now do not live anywhere near Ilford.
Ilford people, even Ilford expats like us, are used to being ignored by mainstream society. I knew from childhood that coming from the eastern end of the Central Line put you beyond the pale of Jewish civilisation, even though it was already becoming very Jewish. (When my parents moved there in 1947, it was deeply gentile; there apparently used to be letters in the Ilford Recorder complaining about the "new people" hanging out washing on a Sunday.)
When I was little and spent occasional days with my dad and grandad at their garment factory in Kings Cross, we used to go to a greasy café for lunch with a gang of taxi drivers. They all came from Wembley, and referred to Ilford sneeringly as "the other side", as if we were dead - which, to them, we almost were. My grandfather would get quite irate about this, but nothing could convince the Wembley boys that Ilford was anything other than loser-ville.
Amstell, albeit now a Hampstead resident, doesn't only get his Ilford references spot-on, which increases our civic self esteem no end. He even gets the Ilford Jewish vernacular - a unique tribal language which will one day be cherished like Welsh - to a T.
To we Jews of Ilford, as Amstell ably reflects, a sofa can only ever be a settee (pronounced "stee"), a jumper or sweater, always a pullover, and the theatre, the thee-yetta. I am sure there will be many more examples that Sue and I have, in our lately acquired west-London snootiness, forgotten, in the episodes to come. All power to the mighty Amstell.
Jonathan Margolis is a journalist and author