Bake Off meets Brassed Off - how a community bakery became a showstopper

·6 min read
George Jones and Liam Tobin in Homebaked The Musical
Homebaked The Musical is "your classic Brassed Off, Billy Elliot" feel-good story, says playwright Boff Whalley

A decade ago, the closure of a bakery in Liverpool sparked a community fightback against neighbourhood demolition and decline. Now, having the story turned into a stage musical is the icing on the cake.

As well as advertising home-made hot pies, filled rolls and fresh bread, the sign above the counter of Mitchell's bakery in Liverpool used to grandly promise "cakes for auspicious occasions".

It catered for the occasions, auspicious and otherwise, of locals and football fans in the shadow of Liverpool FC's Anfield stadium for more than 100 years.

But in 2011, with the bakery earmarked for demolition, its ageing proprietors decided to shut up shop.

Meanwhile, more amenities were lost as terraced streets were regenerated - ie knocked down and replaced by new-builds. Other Victorian homes were left empty, under threat from the wrecking ball.

"There were so many changes in the area, like streets that have been there for 100 years were being swept away," says Tom Murphy, 34, who grew up in the area and is now secretary of the Homebaked Community Land Trust (CLT).

Homebaked bakery with Anfield Stadium in Liverpool
The real Homebaked bakery is opposite Liverpool FC's Anfield stadium

"The community has always been tick-box 'consulted', but it was always fairly tokenistic and actually, whatever you said didn't actually get listened to."

However, when a Dutch artist came to the city to help local young people design an affordable housing scheme as part of the 2012 Liverpool Biennial arts festival, she chose the empty Mitchell's shop as her base.

And when people kept knocking on the door asking to buy bread, volunteers started baking. In 2013, despite a compulsory purchase order still being in place, they decided to reopen it as a community bakery called Homebaked.

Around the same time, the CLT was created to save and redevelop the 10 terraced houses in the same row.

Eight years on, the bakery is thriving, once more catering to football fans and locals, while the adjoining houses are due to be refitted next spring and offered at affordable rents.

Homebaked The Musical
The old Mitchell's bakery has been recreated on stage

If that scheme's a success, more could follow, while there are also spaces for a microbrewery and more community businesses.

It's little surprise that this heartwarming story of ordinary people taking back control of their own neighbourhood while fighting "the system" has attracted interest beyond Anfield.

It's an archetypal underdog tale, according to playwright and musician Boff Whalley, who has turned it into a feel-good musical with the Red Ladder theatre company for the city's Royal Court.

"I immediately thought, it's one of those lovely stories that feel really British," he says.

"It's your classic Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, all those northern English stories of people making it against the odds.

"They're great, those stories. We all love them because they're timeless and they make us feel good in bad times, and probably give us hope as well."

So it's Bake Off meets Brassed Off - with potential showstoppers including a rousing song that repurposes the government slogan "build back better" for its chorus.

Houses next to Homebaked bakery in Liverpool
There will be eight homes and space for small businesses and cookery classes in the block

Angela McKay, 56, who manages the Homebaked bakery, says the real-life effort has been far from a piece of cake. "It's taken a lot of hard work and commitment off everybody involved," she says, speaking in the bakery's back room.

But she adds: "The musical's about people coming together, people being resilient, people being proud of who they are."

Residents had grown tired of losing their facilities and history, not to mention being told their area was no good, Mrs McKay explains. "I got involved because I was interested in the housing.

"I was working for the homeless. I didn't want the houses, good solid houses, to just get knocked down."

Mrs McKay's son, 23-year-old Evertonian Luke Hargreaves, also works at the bakery. "It's a success story, and fingers crossed the musical does it justice - but I think it will from what I've seen," he says.

Steph Lacey, Liam Tobin and George Caple in Homebaked The Musical
Some of the characters in the musical are based on real people

In the musical, also titled Homebaked, the characters include a woman who worked for the homeless and her Evertonian son. "All the characters are kind of amalgamations of real people," Mr Whalley says.

"Some of them are based really closely on real people and that's always a worry in case they walk out the theatre going, 'It's nothing like me!'"

But he adds: "The best thing is to say to people upfront, 'This is not going to be a documentary. This is not about you and you and you. It's going to be based on what a brilliant story you've created, but don't expect it to tell the real story.' It makes it a lot easier."

So he has had licence to make up some bits of the story and gloss over others, as well as inserting songs and plenty of baking-related wordplay.

"The first thing I did when I was writing the script - seriously, the first thing I did - was I went on the internet and looked up 'jokes about pies'. And I got several pages of jokes involving pies," he says.

Boff Whalley and Rod Dixon, artistic director of Red Ladder
Boff Whalley (left) with director Rod Dixon of the Red Ladder theatre company

What's the show's best baking-related joke? "Why did the baker have smelly hands? Because he kneaded a poo!"

Perhaps you have to be there. But the show and its songs certainly have an upbeat tone that's designed to give a rosy reflection of the community's true-life struggles and achievements.

One thing that has been replicated directly from reality is the old bakery banner, which hangs above the stage: "Cakes for auspicious occasions."

A trip to see the show could end up being auspicious itself if it inspires the audience to put people power into practice.

Paul Broughton & Eithne Brown in Homebaked the Musical
Paul Broughton and Eithne Brown in Homebaked the Musical

"I think people are really beaten down at the moment," Mr Whalley says. "A lot of people are not just struggling with unemployment or homelessness or Brexit or whatever, they're struggling with, 'What can we do about it?'

"As older people, a lot of us have kind of given up. We kind of feel like we've been beaten. There's this air of, 'They've won. There's nothing we can do about it.'

"I look at young people, and they don't have that. And so I wanted the show to have that sense of hope."

Mrs McKay echoes that, adding: "Hopefully it will inspire someone to think, 'Actually, if they can do it, why can't we do something?'"

Homebaked The Musical is at the Liverpool Royal Court theatre until 23 October.

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