RETRO: Sheffield street artist revealed

DIARY'Vote Alf Roberts
DIARY'Vote Alf Roberts
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As election posters go, it wasn’t as polished as those produced by your average political party.

But 25 years ago this week, this huge billboard urging people to ‘Vote Alf Roberts’ was turning heads and raising laughs in Sheffield.

Why?

Because Alf was not some candidate standing for office in the city’s up-coming local elections. Rather, he was one of the oldest characters in ITV soap Coronation Street. And that year his council seat in the fictional ward of Weatherfield North was being contested by his own grocery shop employee, Deirdre Barlow.

The handmade poster – pasted up in Abbeydale Road three days before the country went to the polls for real on May 7, 1987 – caused such a stir this very newspaper sent a reporter out to try to find who was responsible.

‘As election fever reaches boiling point in the Rovers Return the mystery supporter decided to declare his or her voting intentions,’ ran our page three article. ‘And the support has been welcomed by Coronation Street’s grocer who said he wished the viewer was voting in Weatherfield North.’

But, for all the fuss – and all the efforts of said reporter – the person behind the poster was never uncovered.

Until, that is, today.

For now after a quarter of a century of silence, the agent provocateur has revealed all to Midweek Retro.

And it turns out, in 2012, he is a journalist on The Star.

Back in 1987, Simon Bebbington had been unemployed since finishing his degree at Sheffield City Polytechnic the previous summer. Then, as now, jobs were few and far between, so he fell into the typical post-student pastime of watching soaps at his shared house in Sheldon Road, Nether Edge.

“Even though we were typical young idealists, we weren’t exactly excited by the prospect of the local elections,” says the 48-year-old of Hunter’s Bar today. “Sheffield was firmly at the centre of the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, so we knew the Town Hall and the Nether Edge ward would stay red.

“But a few weeks before the elections, the story line about Deirdre Barlow challenging her boss Alf Roberts for his council seat came up.

“The students in the house next door put a scribbled note in their window backing Deirdre. For the hell of it we put a slightly bigger one in our window supporting Alf. Next door put up a bigger one, and so it escalated.

“Then one day I noticed the billboard on Abbeydale Road was empty. I was young – 23 – and daft and up for a laugh, so I hatched a cunning plan. I visited the student unions of both the polytechnic and the university and cadged some old gig posters. I painted the backs of the sheets on the floor of my living room and managed to talk some friends into helping me put it up.”

Then five of them, including Simon’s then-girlfriend-now-wife Diane, spent the May Bank Holiday pasting up the poster.

“It wasn’t a quick job – it took at least an hour,” recalls the father-of-three. “Two police cars went by while we were doing it. One put on his brakes but then kept on going. He must have had something better to do.

“I must admit that I grinned when I walked past it the next day and people on the bus were gawping at it.”

And what happened in the election?

In fictional Weatherfield, Deirdre deposed Alf, who had a heart attack at the shock of losing his seat. In the real world, Nether Edge ward and Sheffield Town Hall stayed in Labour control.