Standing at the Sky’s Edge: The rise of Northern storytelling

The North has been far from silent about the stories of its people. Whether Willy Russell’s classic portrayal of Liverpool in ‘Blood Brothers’, to its portrayal in television, through classic soap operas such as Coronation Street, to showing the suffering of the working class in films such as Billy Elliot or The Full Monty.

While this type of storytelling of the North has always been around, in recent years there has been a large influx of Northern cities being the backdrop to stories, whether on-stage, the small screen, or the big screen.

One city which has had increasing limelight, is Sheffield. With the musicals ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ and ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ having major success, there seems to be an increasing demand for stories based away from the comfort of England’s cultural hub, London. But why is this the case, and, more importantly, what does the future hold for Northern storytelling?

Dr David Forrest, the senior lecturer for Film Studies at the University of Sheffield, has some ideas, suggesting: “It’s about people being drawn to narratives which are out of the perceived centre of cultural production. It’s very much the case, as a country, that we still see our culture through our terms of received pronunciation. I think people are absolutely drawn to stories which offer alternatives to that mainstream representation.”

The issue with having the setting in the North is that, not only are there a multitude of cultures, stories, and personalities in individual cities, but being able to accurately reflect the cities they are trying to portray.

Dr Forrest said: “One of the major ways of how we imagine the North is through television drama. This is how we have conversation with ourselves about place, about identity, and about the nation, and this stuff really matters.

“With Standing at the Sky’s Edge, because of the way in which it foregrounds multiple histories and multiple identities within its storytelling, using that set of flats to suggest that actually, there are multiple stories that take place, multiple experiences and perspectives that come together. It’s how you tell the story that creates that space and that’s so important.”

The sell-out show opened on 15 March and is running until 6 April and has received significantly high ratings and flurries of praise for its accurate portrayal of the lives in Park Hill, a famous housing estate in Sheffield.

It is seemingly following in the footsteps of its predecessor, ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’, which tells the story of a teenager from a Sheffield council estate who dreams of becoming a drag queen star. After selling out the original run in Sheffield, it was quickly snapped up by the West End, and has a tour of the UK planned in 2020.

Dr Forrest added: “As an audience we invest in that genre’s point of identification, so not only the screenplay and the location but the actors themselves. That appeal comes to thinking, firstly, ‘it’s different from the mainstream and establishment discourse’, but also, secondly, ‘this is something I invest in and believe in because it’s like my life.'”