The cult TV documentary that so enchanted Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett ... trends now

The cult TV documentary that so enchanted Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett ... trends now
The cult TV documentary that so enchanted Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett ... trends now

The cult TV documentary that so enchanted Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett ... trends now

There's a surprise hit on television this Christmas. But it doesn’t involve snow, or Santa, or talking elves — or even the odd B-list celebrity.

It isn’t even new — it was made in 1994, in Blackpool, on a teeny budget, by a then-fledgling filmmaker called Philippa Lowthorpe. And there is nothing remotely glamorous, flashy and action-packed about it, either.

In fact, very little happens at all in Three Salons At The Seaside, a fly-on-the-wall documentary about day-to-day life in a series of net-curtained, pink-rollered hair salons in Blackpool called Tricia’s, Vanity Box and Mary’s Way.

Instead, this exquisite 40-minute film takes us back to the lost land of the weekly wash and set. Big hood driers and My Weekly magazines with Princess Diana on the cover. 

The 1990s cult-classic documentary follows the lives of the owners, workers and patrons of three Blackpool hair salons

The 1990s cult-classic documentary follows the lives of the owners, workers and patrons of three Blackpool hair salons 

Cate Blanchett (left) recently starred in a tribute mockumentary of the fan favourite documentary, alongside Dame Harriet Walter (right)

Cate Blanchett (left) recently starred in a tribute mockumentary of the fan favourite documentary, alongside Dame Harriet Walter (right)

The documentary has been re-released on the iPlayer and is proving to be just as insightful as when it was first aired

The documentary has been re-released on the iPlayer and is proving to be just as insightful as when it was first aired

Layers of lacquer, headscarves, brooches, walking sticks and gammy hips. Dark humour and petty gossip — and, for so many silver-haired ladies (always called Mrs, never by their first name), a beacon of comfort and joy in the relentless grey of ageing.

Amid grim talk of colostomy bags and the looming prospect of nursing homes, the film’s kindness and warmth is still so uplifting, so nourishing for the soul that, nearly 30 years on, it is earning another great army of fans.

Not just here in the UK — where it has been re-released on BBC iPlayer and selected as one of the best documentaries of the past 50 years by the Grierson Trust, a charity that promotes documentary filmmaking. 

But also in Australia, Asia, South Africa and the U.S., where Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett was so entranced (after her hairdresser insisted she watch it) that she and Dame Harriet Walter have been inspired to make a new ‘mockumentary’ called Two Hairdressers In Bagglyport. 

It was filmed in what was Mary’s Way salon (now Salon K) in Blackpool earlier this year.

It is thought to be a spoof series — though done very much in tribute (Cate says the original reminded her of her grandmother) — with the actresses playing two hairdressers.

Former owner Mary Burney, now 75 and retired, tells me she popped along with her dog to have a look during filming.

‘I tell you, I didn’t know who they were. They didn’t even look familiar. Though apparently Harriet’s a Dame,’ she says. ‘I was just impressed by how nice they were.’

‘Life, death and everything between — loss and fragility and strength and the beauty of old age,’ says Lowthorpe of the hair salons

‘Life, death and everything between — loss and fragility and strength and the beauty of old age,’ says Lowthorpe of the hair salons

But they recognised Mary.

‘Someone shouted, “Excuse me, but are you Mary? You haven’t changed at all”,’ she says. ‘So I must have looked the devil 30 years ago because I have got a million wrinkles now!’

So why is this quirky little film so damn popular? Well, as I’m sure Cate and Dame Harriet would tell you, the original was about so much more than having your hair done.

‘Life, death and everything between — loss and fragility and strength and the beauty of old age,’ says Lowthorpe, who went on to become the first woman to win a Best Director: Fiction award at the Baftas (for Call The Midwife). She has also directed episodes of The Crown.

During the film, we see how the immaculately coiffured proprietress of Vanity Box, Hilary, keeps a smart black handbag ready under the counter to lend to clients for funerals. ‘With money and a mint inside, just in case,’ she says.

There’s also a list in the back of her bookings ledger giving the details and date of anyone who’s passed away. ‘We’d hate to get anything wrong!’

But for all the pain and suffering — and these wonderful women do seem to have an extraordinary number of dead or housebound husbands — it’s the wit and warmth that really shine through.

The gentle bickering and teasing between the hairdressers and their much-loved clients was part of what made the original documentary so moving

The gentle bickering and teasing between the hairdressers and their much-loved clients was part of what made the original documentary so moving

There are the eventful visits from the wet-fish man and the pie man, and the very lively discussions about Coronation Street star Lynne Perrie after her trip to the plastic surgeon.

‘Oooh, don’t she look horrendous; she looks like a chipmunk don’t she!’ says Hilary. ‘She had wrinkles down her cheeks. They’ve gone away . . . But I’m sure they’ve done her mouth wrong. Terrible.’

Or there’s the gentle bickering and teasing about whether one lady fell or was knocked down in the street. (‘I didn’t fall, I was knocked down, outside Kwik Save!’)

And not forgetting the lady who sadly passed away while on the loo upstairs in Vanity Box. (‘At least it was after her appointment — so she looked smart when she went — but it was a week or two before anyone used the toilet.’)

Lowthorpe says she was inspired by her aunts Anne and Hilda from Yorkshire and their wonderful, witty Alan Bennett-ish chat.

‘You never saw old women on the telly,’ she says. ‘I wanted to show their beauty. To celebrate them.’

She was also always obsessed with

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