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A slice of garlic bread - Kelner in Phoenix Nights country
By Martin Kelner on Aug 29, 2006 - 4:16:00 PM

COMEDIAN Peter Kay has always been a little unkind about his home town. Bolton, he used to say in his stand-up act, is one of those places where they still stop and point up at the sky if an aeroplane passes.

The town seems to have forgiven him, because there is a poster in its splendid Victorian library and museum which boasts: 'Peter Kay wrote the second series of Phoenix Nights here.' Quite right, too, that Bolton should take pride in one of its most successful sons. Kay's version of the North might be cheeky, but it is shot through with so much warmth and affection that only the most humourless Northerner could possibly object. And now there is evidence that his clubland comedy may be responsible for a mini tourist boom. Well, maybe not a boom exactly, not a fully fledged thermos-flask-time-to-stop-for-a-toilet-break coach-party boom. But when I turned up in search of the real Phoenix Nights I had the distinct impression I was not the first.

As it happens, the club where the programme is shot is on the road from Last Of The Summer Wine country in the Pennines to the Coronation Street studios in Manchester, so it is probably only a matter of time before the area is marketed as Phoenix Nights country.

This will be great news for the committee at St Gregory's Social Club in Farnworth, three miles south of Bolton, where they have bought a new red floral carpet and recovered their seats with money Channel Four paid them for accommodating Peter Kay and his cast.

Now, chairman Paul Sandland tells me, they may be able to spruce up the club even more, thanks to the steady trickle of Kay fans arriving each week to pay homage to, and take advantage of, St Gregory's very reasonably priced beer.

Farnworth is a smudge on the map. Its main street is little more than a strip of discount shops, takeaways and off-licences outside which teenagers mooch in the evenings. At the other end of the town stands the legacy of better days: a pretty park, an impressive Edwardian town hall and the well equipped Carnegie Library.

The friendly librarian I ask to direct me to St Gregory's has been asked before. 'Oh, the Phoenix Nights club,' she says, 'Every few days someone comes in here looking for it. There's not much to see actually, but it brings back good memories for me. I had my wedding reception there.'
That is the kind of club St Gregory's is - still very much attached to the church, with sing-along evenings for old folk, keep-fit sessions, church socials and acts of the type Brian Potter might book for the Phoenix on Sundays only.

It is not typical of Northern clubland, where some working men's clubs can be rather cheerless places; damp, grey prefabricated buildings, with a labyrinthine committee structure, which make you wonder whether you have blundered into an old East German nightmare. A club in Yorkshire I once visited made me promise not to indulge in 'fighting, spitting and gouging' before granting me temporary membership - and they were only half joking.

Not St Gregory's, though. It is as friendly as you like. I rolled up for concert night one Sunday and was welcomed with open arms, despite my non-member status. The night I was at St Gregory's the performers were J. D. Stewart, a crooner, and a vocalist/ comedienne down from Stockport called Audrey M. Resident musicians Neil on keyboards and Ken on percussion, and compere Tony completed the bill.
J. D. Stewart had clearly been around for some time and could carry a tune, although his vocal style occasionally veered uncomfortably close to Vic Reeves's club singer in Shooting Stars. Audrey was not in the first flush of youth and nor were her jokes ('Last club I were in they asked me to do something Irish. So I went outside and dug up the car park.'). She could belt out a ballad, though, and what made the evening fly by was the obvious enjoyment of the audience.

That, and the fact that I was there, on the very set of the funniest British TV comedy for a number of years. 'Everyone wants to come here now we're the Phoenix Nights club,' Paul Sandland tells me with relish.

One occasion at St Gregory's when you might see a performance in the style of Peter Kay's speciality acts is when they have a special Phoenix Nights night. There has been one so far, organised by a fans' website in aid of local charities. Paul simply handed over the club to them and they booked the acts. In fact, there were quite a few of the cast in the audience.

The actors turned up, I suspect, because Phoenix Nights is a celebration. There is no sense in which it sneers at the lack of sophistication of Northern clubland, and Farnworth is delighted to find something to celebrate.

Like many other towns in the North-West, it never recovered from the closure of the mills and coal mines.

Nearby Bolton is giving it a go, though. The hotel I stayed at was top notch, the Egerton House, three miles north of the city on the road to Blackburn. Like a lot of Northern towns, it has some fine Victorian architecture: the town hall, the library and the museum, where you can see Bolton lad Samuel Crompton's spinning mule, which revolutionised the weaving business in the 18th Century. But what distinguishes Bolton from other nearby towns is a handsome crescent next to the town hall. Built in the Thirties, apparently, and renamed Le Mans Crescent in 1974 in honour of Bolton's twin town, it seems to belong to somewhere like Cheltenham or Bath.

My room at the Egerton House looked out on the West Pennine Moors, and as I woke to a fine clear morning, I decided to wander up there. There is no solitude like that on Northern moorland and looking down on the mills below - except these days they are not mills, but discount shoe warehouses or arts and craft collectives - it is easy to see the paintings of L. S. Lowry.

I live in the North - albeit on the other side of the Pennines - and even I enjoyed two days of the full-blown Northern experience. Phoenix Nights country is as close to the genuine North as you will get.

Farnworth is undeniably drab, but within minutes moorland and rugged hill country offers as much peace and quiet, and fine rambles, as anywhere in Britain. It was so quiet up there that when a plane flew past I think I caught myself looking up and pointing.

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