Today I’m going in search of the real Germany. It won’t take long because I know exactly where to find it.
I’m almost there already actually. I’m sitting on a bench by the gates of Zons, a medieval walled town close to the city of Düsseldorf.
The tower in the background reminds me that Zons has some serious history behind it, yet few people outside of this region have ever heard of the place.
Düsseldorf is of course a very different story. Düsseldorf is on the map, a global hub for frequent flyers. Düsseldorf gave the world Persil. Düsseldorf is the home of Augustus Gloop in the latest Hollywood adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.
It looks glorious in the film, picture perfect houses against pinewoods and snow-capped mountains. It’s a fake, filmed several hundred miles away in the Black Forest. Düsseldorf may have some very Teutonic phonetics but it just doesn’t look very German. Düsseldorf is glass, concrete and commercial real estate.
The movie men kept the name and filmed somewhere that looked more authentic. Düsseldorf is used to this. It is perhaps the most misrepresented city in Germany, at least in English-language media.
The city was also the setting for ITV’s cult comedy drama Auf Wiedersehen Pet, following the fortunes of seven British building workers forced to work in Germany as a result of the sky high unemployment figures in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.
So popular was the series that for many years British construction workers were known as Auf Wiedersehen Pet Brits. Drawn by high wages and with labour shortages to fill, they were still coming when I first moved here.
I love the show. I love it so much that I’ve come here today to visit the places where the producers filmed on location. I wouldn’t recommend that UK-based fans do the same — in total, only ten days of a film shoot which lasted for several weeks were actually filmed in Germany.
Although the action mainly takes place in Düsseldorf, most of it was shot in Britain. If you live in London it’s an easy day out. Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, where they now film Eastenders, was the real-life location of the building site where the lads lived and worked.
In defence of the production crew, they used specially imported German bricks because they are slightly bigger than the British variety. That’s what I call attention to detail. They also blended in a few shots from a building site in Hamburg. You know it’s Hamburg from the vehicle licence plates. That’s what I call sloppy.
Technicalities are a problem. You should never watch the show with anyone who works in the building trade. The footage does not stand up to the expert eye. The cast included some of Britain’s finest actors, many of whom were laying the first stones of Hollywood careers, but master builders they are not.
You should also never watch it with a German person. For one thing, the undiluted Newcastle brogue in which Dennis (Tim Healy), Neville (Kevin Whately) and Oz (Jimmy Nail) deliver their lines means that anyone who hails from further outside of Geordieland than, say, Darlington needs subtitles to understand them.
If German viewers of the programme are confused by the dialogue, they also display a worrying tendency to point at the screen and laugh.
Nearly all of the German characters are actually English — and usually learned the lines phonetically because they spoke no German. Any German will hear the British accent and the dodgy intonation instantly. Any German that’s not already sniggering at the Hamburg number plates that is.
Zons was in the show, that’s why I’m here. In one episode the lads, tired of the dirt and depravity of living in a hut on a Düsseldorf building site, decide to have a weekend away.
They hire a car and drive for what seems like hours until they arrive here, pulling up outside a hotel which is instantly recognisable. As the camera cuts to inside the building, a Bierstube that was probably filmed in an English pub, Neville is heard to say:
“This is great. I feel like I’m finally gettin’ to see the real Germany.”
So there you are. The real Germany, at least for millions of British viewers, is right here.
It takes less than ten minutes to walk round. The street pattern hasn’t changed since medieval times, the walls still have towers, willow trees from the riverbank hang over the ramparts. Small but perfectly formed.
There are thousands of places like this dotted across the country; the real Germany could be any one of them or something else entirely.
But I like to have things official and so, for that matter, do the Germans. And so the official real Germany is here, no arguments — and I love it. I reach out and touch the wall.
I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that I can quote large chunks from the show. I’ve lived close enough to Newcastle to claim some level of proficiency in Geordie; it’s actually quite easy once you realise that what sounds like a battle cry is intended to be friendly, affectionate even.
Neville, the newlywed rookie who has left his home town and his wife for the first time, has some of the best lines. When he’s asked how he gets on with the German workers he replies.
“Aye grand. They’re just canny lads really, just like the rest o’ wur”.
“They’re nice guys, not that different to you or me really”. I’ve always liked that one, unspectacular though it is.
The fresh-faced and enthusiastic Neville would not work without a juxtaposition, in this case the anglocentric psychoveteran Oz.
Oz has no interest in discovering the real Germany and so does not come fishing. As he explains:
“Ah thawat ah’d be havin’ a bit crack wi me mates when ah come awa’ heea. Now thuys wantin’ tey gan on’ fishin’ trips an’ nature rambles an’ taakin tey the Jurmans!”
Loosely translated, he wants to be alone.
Although he falls in love with a German who thinks he is a millionaire (“they cannat tell accents awa’ here”) and occasionally softens his attitude to his host country, in particular in respect of the German brick, Oz remains a germophobe at heart.
East Germans earn some respect (“union labour”) but for him the “Erichs” will always be “the bastaads wot bombed me granny”. He sounds ridiculous but I know a lot of people like him.
In the realms of television Zons is a million miles from Düsseldorf — or at least far enough away that it requires several hours of driving. The reality is somewhat different: I walk out of the gates, step onto the pier, pay a euro to the ferryman and cross the river Rhine. I am in Düsseldorf five minutes later.
In many ways it’s an ideal candidate for the real Germany: a place where tradition and multiculturalism fuse seamlessly, whose vibe mixes bourgeois individualism with a more urbane solidarity.
A walk through the old town won’t throw up in the way of TV nostalgia. Most of the ten days spent in Germany were spent up in Hamburg. Many of the Düsseldorf’s top sights are not even featured. Immermannstraße, the high street for the largest exiled Japanese community in the world, is one notable omission.
The rows and rows of bars remind you of the boys’ many drunken misadventures right enough, and we’re headed to the most notorious one right now.
The Uerige beer hall is the scene of the infamous bar fight where Dennis is involved in a punch up with German Builder 2 and Oz is wounded breaking it up. Oz isn’t all bad, not at all. I find the very table that Dennis sat at when it started. The decor hasn’t changed a bit. I’m half expecting there still to be fake blood on the floor.
Service in Düsseldorf beer halls is brisk and efficient. A nod, a wink or a raising of a finger sees a waiter plop down a glass and pencil a notch on your beermat. Southerby’s for hedonists. It’s not hard to understand why the lads were so drunk most of the time.
I’m alone in the room and I can’t resist coming out with the line that started the famous fist fight.
“Nicht verstehen, bonny lad!”
The waiter hears, understands nothing but plops down a beer glass and marks the mat.
I drink up, take a photo and head out to the tramstop. So much for location. In the show you can see the ambulance rush past here on the way to the hospital to give Oz a blood transfusion which saves his life but makes him — to his horror — half German.
They got a lot wrong when they filmed Auf Wiedersehen Pet but it caught the zeitgeist well. You really feel that you’re in Düsseldorf when you watch it, even if only a couple of minutes were ever filmed here.
Although I know no British expats who live in wooden huts on a building sites, it hit the nail on the head on the subject of working abroad. We have Neville and Oz to thank for that.
You get the Oz types, who can never reconcile themselves to the fact that they live in a different country and have to adapt to a different way of thinking. They take it to ridiculous lengths sometimes. Although the authorities very much frown upon becoming German via blood transfusion, many have taken German passports or German wives, or have German kids without a hint of the irony.
Most of us try to be more like Neville, open to new experiences and looking for similarities rather than differences when me meet people. We probably don’t all want to go on nature rambles and fishing trips but we do want to get out and see the place and interact with the world around us.
The Ozzes and the Nevilles of this world don’t necessarily live in different camps. All of us from time to time need the camaraderie that comes from being with people who come from the same place as we do. Something to think about as I walk down the Spichernstraße, a hundred-yard-long alleyway with half a dozen Irish pubs. Sometimes you need places like this. Sometimes.
I get on an overcrowded commuter train and head back to Herne. It’s always full at this time of day as office workers pour out of the global conglomerates and return to their more affordable, down to earth home towns up the road in the Ruhr.
This could be London, or Paris, or Droitwich or Dortmund, anywhere really. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to Tokyo. Ties are loosened, headphones go on, comic books and cheap thrillers are opened. Off with the suits and back to the roots.
This too is the real Germany. Not so different from somewhere near you really. I told you it was easy to find.
“They’re just canny lads, just like the rest o’ wur”.
Well said, Neville.