Orson Welles

An A-Z Journey Around Britain

48 Widnes


Paul Simon wrote Homeward Bound while waiting to catch a train out of Widnes. The homesick singer did not settle in Britain, unlike the daughter of Elvis Presley who moved to Tunbridge Welles and who has sometimes sold fish and chips from the back of a van. She must think it quaint. Tunbridge Wells, though, is not Widnes. Runcorn is on the south bank where the Mersey estuary widens, and Widnes is on the north bank. The suspension bridge that crosses the estuary is magnificent but it is plagued by traffic in the rush hours.

Widnes expanded after a chemical factory was established there in 1845. Chemical manufacturing still provides employment for the locals. Social deprivation in Widnes is not exceptional but despite investment the town feels a poor choice for a place to live a life. Neither quite the outskirts of Liverpool nor an independent town, it has even swapped counties and now is condemned to being unwanted by not just Liverpool but Lancashire, where it used to be, and Cheshire, where it is now.


In the index to British listed buildings the interior of the town hall is described as ‘without interest’. The exterior, though, is a heart warming mix of red brick and tile and is packed with industrial gothic integrity.   If the town is ordinary, Victoria Park is well maintained and it complements fresh air rather well. Spike Island has wildlife, a riverside walk and a nearby power station. It is a good place for a pedestrian to see the Runcorn-Widnes Bridge.  Catalyst is a good name for a science museum that has won awards. The ticket prices reflect a desire to educate rather than make money.


The true passion in Widnes is Rugby League. Widnes Vikings are not rivals for the Lancashire giants, St Helens and Wigan, but they have a good stadium, and the team has had its moments, including being Rugby League World Champions in 1989. Widnes also has a Silver Blades Ice Rink and a two year old ice hockey team that has begun well.

The Brindley Theatre, which is in Runcorn, attracts customers from both sides of the estuary. It relies on tribute bands rather than fading talent, unlike the seaside theatres in the South. There are exceptions. Michael Portillo appears in February, and the talented actor Simon Callow in March. Callow will be talking about his hero and mine, Orson Welles. The ex-Tory Minister will be exploiting his enthusiasm for railways and trying to sell a book. The restaurants and pubs in Widnes and Runcorn are not memorable but the reviews for La Cantina in Trip Advisor are exceptionally good.

The name Widnes is derived from Vid Nase, which is supposed to be a Viking reference to the wide nose of the estuary.

On my last visit to Widnes I saw the Ronettes. Ronnie Spector had aged but her flirtation from the stage produced an uninhibited reaction in the men that would have shamed any redneck audience. Confident American women should be wary of the signals they give to men in small Northern towns. After that night Ronnie Spector understood. I saw a confident rock star retreat into an asexual shell. Like Paul Simon, the leader of the Ronettes did not return to Widnes.

Next week, arcades and motorcars, Wigan

Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.

If you want to read more about his travels click here.





Film Noir – The Lady From Shanghai

Lady from Shanghai

‘Give my love to the sunrise.’

Rita Hayworth says this to a distant Orson Welles in the final scene of The Lady From Shanghai. Welles understood. His career in Hollywood was sabotaged by men who wanted status and power. Unable to listen to his warning, many wasted their lives on ambition.

‘There are no happy endings,’ said Welles.

Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles were the 40s equivalent of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. Welles was an intellectual with a gift for popularity and he married a popular sex symbol. Supposedly, Welles had not intended casting himself as Mike O’Hara, the innocent victim who is seduced by devious but desperate Elsa. But the impact of celebrity is not ignored in the film. The island escape is mentioned by more than one character, something that will free these indulged schemers from the glare that celebrity brings.

When Elsa appears in court, a woman spectator says, ‘I just want to look at her.’

She could be referring to Rita Hayworth. We all want to see what she looks like in a formal suit. Fabulous as it happens.

Welles is miscast as Mike O’Hara. He is too sophisticated to be an innocent and, although Hayworth was married to Welles, on celluloid the relationship does not convince. Welles, like Elvis in the seventies, is too flabby.

Although born too late for the film, early Elvis would have been good as Mike, naive strength and youth tarnished by a sophisticated but corrupted woman. O’Hara is not defeated at the end of the film. He will not enjoy his wealth defying romance, like he had previously, but continuing exclusion remains his destiny.

Youth is important in The Lady From Shanghai. Welles understands both sides of the nihillistic argument. O’Hara is not dependant on wealth like the lawyers, Bannister and Grisby, but he is young. Bannister believes wealth is our immunity against age. Romance, either personal or sexual, cannot survive ageing. The generation that attempted personal freedom in Buddhist India now worries about funding health care provision for the old.

Film noir was shaped by male paranoia during and after the Second World War. Women had left households to do wartime jobs and, because the men had disappeared from their lives, each woman had a suspicious past. This fear of the past of the female is emphasised in the film by Elsa having a secret history in Shanghai. We assume that she was a prostitute but when the audience hears Elsa talking in Chinese to the villains of Chinatown it suspects that she really is evil. Welles exploits our racism. But noir is also concerned with male guilt, the knowledge that if there is a choice between admirable and virtuous woman or the dumb but sexually potent then men usually choose the latter.

After her death, Arthur Miller discussed his marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

‘I was driven by lust,’ he said.

Guilt and lust not only undermined Welles and Miller, their appetites damaged two vulnerable women and probably more.


Howard Jackson has written 3 books that have been published by Red Rattle Books. His next book Nightmares Ahead will be published in 2015.

If you want to read more about American culture click here.

The final scene from The Lady from Shanghai: