Glitz, Glamour and Grimsby: Celebrity and Town Identities
The looming crisis facing lower-league football clubs, heightened by the outbreak of coronavirus, has consequences for our towns, where the majority of lower league clubs in the top 5 leagues of the English football league are located. As our recent report Loss on the Terraces set out, this has an impact not just for fans and owners, but has a broader knock on effect on community resilience, for local identities, and for local economies. We proposed proper financial transparency, a real commitment to inclusive football and making it easier to establish fan ownership.
But this week, the National League’s Wrexham FC have taken the much more exciting move of becoming a passion project for Deadpool and Mac from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
The Welsh club - the third oldest professional football team in the world - is being courted by Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, who are promising to “protect the heritage” of the club while turning it into a “global” force. The actors’ interest in Wrexham is a breath of fresh air for the lower-league game after months of headlines dominated by financial doom and Coronavirus. With local reaction seeming positive and the results of Wrexham Supporters Trust's vote on the pair's ownership due any moment, you can forgive fans for expecting a bit of the Hollywood fairytale to land in North Wales.
A full day at Wrexham AFC. Photo: Mark Barnes
Wrexham got us thinking about celebrity in general, and the relationships that stars can have with town communities. For example, Port Talbot, a town on the South Wales coast where we have been working closely as part of the Hopeful Towns project, which set the scene for native son Michael Sheen’s 72-hour, 13,000-person production of The Passion - a huge cultural event that remains “the most ambitious piece of theatre Wales has ever seen” (BBC). According to a local community leader we spoke to, Sheen “did a huge amount of community engagement in the run up to his production of The Passion. For a while after that, people…felt good about their town and about themselves, because what he did was enable them to open up their story.”
It seems, on the surface at least, that celebrities can form part of a town’s modern mythology - the way it understands itself and its place in wider society. This, in turn, affects the development of community resilience. Our Understanding Resilience in our Towns report found what appears to be a significant link between liberalism towards migration and both local cultural opportunities and ‘heritage assets’.
The more easily we can engage with local culture and form our own understanding of our community, the less anxious we’ll be about letting others into it. Celebrities have a cultural gravity of their own, and so their presence in town communities (either as hometown heroes like Sheen in Port Talbot or local gossip like Reynolds and McElheney in Wrexham) could be understood as a type of cultural landmark - another thing that’s putting your community on the map.
Celebrities can also have a more overt influence on inclusivity. Gary Linaker’s recent public messaging for the IRC on welcoming refugees, and hosting refugees at home. In the U.S., Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon set up an integration centre in his hometown of Hazleton, a place which had experienced rapid demographic change in a small space of time, considered ‘the fault line of America’s immigration debate’. These figures have weight and positioning to send messages of welcome beyond the usual choir.
However, celebrity engagement can also be volatile. Turning people into cultural tent-poles means relying both on those people to deliver and on public reception of those people to be positive. A recent study found that celebrity endorsements of political ideas aren’t always helpful, and that “celebrities with whom the public is merely familiar but not favourable towards may have a negative effect”. It’s easy to see how this could extend to celebrities and place - if our local cultures are defined by celebrity, then our communities are viewed through the bad as well as the good.
A proxy for local celebrity can be found in The Pudding’s People Map of the UK, which maps the most Wikipedia’ed person linked to each town or city. An extreme example is Luton - a young, energetic and resilient town that has maintained an enviable sense of vibrancy in the face of hardship. But, looking at it purely through the lens of celebrity, Luton is defined more by tanning shop proprietor and miniature fascist Tommy Robinson than its rich local cultures.
On a broader level, engagement with celebrity can be tricky territory for those of us focused on building community resilience. While it’s usually an exciting and positive thing for a bit of glamour to be injected into local life, and we wish Wrexham AFC the best in becoming a Hollywood staple, it also outsources the way an area understands itself and is understood by others to individual people. While it’s always fun for a star to roll through town, the most sustainable, empowering cultural myths come from within a community - and celebrity engagement should not come at the expense of developing local cultures at a grassroots level.