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Last Updated: Friday, 4 March, 2005, 17:48 GMT
Showing 'crap town' Luton in new light
Writer and broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor on the train back to his home-town Luton
Reflecting on Luton: Sarfraz Manzoor takes the train home
Poor unloved Luton was recently voted "Britain's crappiest town" and its media image veers from cheap 'n' cheerful Luton Airport to reports of police raids.

So when writer and broadcaster Sarfraz Manzoor was commissioned to make a documentary film about the town where he grew up, he was determined to avoid the usual cliches.

What do you think of when you think of Luton?

Chances are it is one of the following: Lorraine Chase "wafting in" from Luton Airport, the Vauxhall car factory or terror raids.

If you were feeling particularly cruel you might also point out that Luton was recently voted the crappiest town in the country.

What you almost certainly won't think of is that Luton might make the subject of an entertaining, amusing and insightful TV film.

6th Century: Saxons create a small settlement, a town near the River Lea, hence the name
1800s: Hat industry flourishes and inspires the "Hatters" nickname of the football club
1919: Disgruntled WWI servicemen burn down the Town Hall, as a pianist plays "Keep The Home Fires Burning" on an instrument looted from a shop
1938: Luton Airport puts the town on the international map
1970s: Eric Morecambe shoehorns a mention for his beloved Luton Town into every comic "play what Ernie wrote"
1983: Former Vauxhall employee Paul Young hits No 1 with Wherever I Lay My Hat
1988: Luton Town beat Arsenal 3-2 at Wembley to win the Littlewoods Cup
1990: One million people cram into the town centre to welcome plastic-breast-wearing Gazza and the England World Cup squad back home

But hopefully after seeing my documentary Luton Actually on Saturday night, that will not seem such a ludicrous suggestion. When the BBC asked me if I wanted to make a programme about my home town I was in two minds.

One part of me was flattered and another part insulted. I was pleased to be asked to present my own documentary but, really, talk about a poisoned chalice.

Who would want to watch a programme about Luton and particularly about Luton's Pakistani community?

I was about to refuse until it struck me that this was a challenge that I accept.

They always say about New York that if you can make it there you can make it anywhere; my version of that was that if I can make a programme about Luton interesting then a gripping two- hour epic about crown green bowls would be a walk in the park.

The other reason that I agreed was that I have always been convinced that there is no reason why documentaries about supposedly minority subjects cannot appeal to everyone.

Nor why they cannot be what all other programmes are meant to: interesting, accessible and engaging.

At the heart of the programme is a personal story about how my father left Pakistan in the early 1960s for a new life in England and how he then brought me and the rest of the family over in the early 1970s.

I have always found it funny that of all the places to settle my dad would choose Luton.

Sense of belonging

During my Luton childhood pretty much the only thing I wanted to do was to leave my home town and move somewhere where the people were more interesting and I could live the life that I imagined those cool city folks did.

Eventually I did leave and now live in London. But Luton Actually is not a smug programme where I gleefully delight in the fact that I am no longer in Luton.

One of the most surprising aspects to the programme is that by the end it is not so clear who has done better - the people I interview who are happy to have stayed doing what do in Luton, or those like me who moved out.

On the face of it you might think that with my west London media life I would have the better life but talking as I did to friends who are still in Luton they have some things that I don't.

Things like a sense of community and belonging, the comfort and security of being near their parents.

In short they have a firm sense of belonging.

Vauxhall cars
Luton has flourished despite its famous Vauxhall factory closing

People like me who went for our dreams in the big city paid the price of not having that sense of community and belonging.

One of the most interesting comments I have heard about my programme when I have shown it to friends is one man who told me that he felt really jealous of the people I interviewed from Luton.

The person who said this is a highly successful TV producer and yet there was something in the voices of the people I spoke to that made a real connection with him.

That is why I am glad I have made the programme. Everyone assumed that a programme about Luton was going to be a hatchet job that would just repeat the same old jokes but I hope I have made a far more honest programme.

And it's a programme that is not, really, even about Luton or Pakistanis or me: it is about where we come from, how we feel about our home towns and the journey that all families make between generations.

In my case it was, for my father, a journey from Lahore to Luton and for me it was a journey from Luton to Ladbroke Grove.

But the programme will, I hope, appeal to anyone who has had to stop to think when someone asked them where they come from.

Luton Actually was screened on BBC Two on 5 March as part of the Pakistani, Actually evening of programmes.

Luton goes literary to beat image
09 Nov 04 |  Beds/Bucks/Herts

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