Why We Need More Health and Safety Officials / Sunshine on Leith

07/10/2013 11:58 BST | Updated 05/12/2013 10:12 GMT

I have seen no better symbol of boundless consumerism than the giant horse statue in the middle of Leeds Trinity shopping centre. It buckles under a sack distended, I imagine, with the dubious harvest of a thousand Chinese factories, the poor beast's hooves scrabbling to stay upright upon its narrow plinth. Quite what the developers were thinking I do not know. Are they making a Marxist point about consumer quiescence that is so entrenched it can be openly mocked? Or maybe we are supposed to be in on the joke. So ironic that we're shopping, but we're not really, you know, SHOPPING.

The Trinity Centre is the largest retail development to have opened this year in Western Europe. It is a lovely space and full of shoppers. In the evenings it is full of women in the most lethal heels that are legally permissible. The top floor was crammed to bursting with punters patronising the bars, the chain restaurants, the sybaritic sofas of the Everyman Cinema - the only one in the north. In fact the crowds had swollen so that it was getting rather uncomfortable on that top floor. My family was standing around waiting for the cinema to open. "The film is about Edinburgh" my parents had told me. What they had not told me was that it was a musical. I do not like musicals - more on that later.

There we stood amongst the partygoers and their ranks of flesh, so often ill-judged in the manner of its exposure.

"I think I want to go downstairs."

"You can't, the escalator is out."

"There must be another way."

There wasn't another way. The walk-out exit had been closed off for the evening. The only escape for the hundreds upstairs seemed to be one broken escalator. We were trapped. And whilst the repairmen slaved under the irate eyes of a confined crowd, they blithely kept the 'up' escalator running, with no one posted to tell those ascending that their date with the gods could be every bit as permanent as a stay at the Hotel California. For a good half an hour more arrived, and ever more waited to descend. Too late we saw the single lift, that shining pod of hope, hidden at the far end and stuffed and heaving with a canny few. The queue for it was so immense that people preferred to queue for the broken escalator lest it be fixed in the next three hours. We waited some more.

The British might not gesticulate when things go wrong, but just because we are polite doesn't mean that we don't get angry. At the head of the escalator some poor sap had been posted to field the concerns of the clientele.

"We know it is not your fault. BUT WHAT IF THERE IS A FIRE?" The guy shifted nervously and avoided eye contact.

"There is a fire exit round the back. has been locked for the night."

"Right. So we are trapped."

This was not good communication. For all the good it did our mood he might as well have said "If there is a fire, you will die, and I have been selected as the member of staff to die along with you this evening." A really bad day at the office.

Now I know the centre is new and might have a few teething problems. But I take it there does exist somewhere a slightly more sophisticated evacuation plan than "If the escalator breaks down you are all going to die." Unfortunately, this plan was not communicated to us. What I wanted was a health and safety official, equipped with hard hat, pencil and pompous manner. I wanted my official to tell me what the contingency plan was, and Moses-like lead us out of level 4, brandishing his clipboard of destiny. Too right this country has a health and safety problem. There aren't enough of the guys when you actually need them.

In the end it was people power that forced management's hand. A couple of boys ran down the up-rolling escalator, forcing the technicians to finally shut it off. As soon as it fell silent the crowd descended, and the escalator was used for a scandalously novel purpose - the two-way staircase.


The film in question was Sunshine on Leith, a musical jukebox compendium of songs by The Proclaimers set amidst the glories of Edinburgh - quite the most stunning city in Britain. The plot of these sorts of musicals, much like Mamma Mia, are often contorted by the demands of the songs. The officially gorgeous Freya Mavor was always going to have to move to America. How else to shoehorn in Letter From America? You could see that one being set up for a good hour before the cast finally burst into the song's litany of industrial relics:

Lochaber no more

Sutherland no more

Lewis no more

Skye no more

These songs are some of the best and most memorable accounts of the recent Scottish experience. (Not that everyone appreciates it. In the 80s my parents knew a nurse in Edinburgh who lived in the flat underneath the Proclaimers. She used to bang on the ceiling with a broom when they got too loud). This is also rather a Scottish film, with repeated jokes revolving around tightness with money and gruff men. The one Sassenach in the piece, though a major character, appears not to come from a city or a county but rather from "England", that wee place over the border.

I really really don't like musicals. In general, I cannot think of a single moment of carefully calibrated emotion or dramatic catharsis on screen which is heightened by the cast bursting into some hammy number. It destroys the emotional balance. The tone in this film was certainly all over the place. But give me panning shots of Edinburgh glowing in evening light, and a nicely perceptive examination of some elements of the Scottish male psyche (to which my family has often exposed me) and I confess. Reader, I found it all rather touching.