Last Sunday morning I was running along the Leeds - Liverpool canal, listening to You Must Remember This.
It's a film history podcast, created by film critic Karina Longworth, about 'the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood's first century'. I first discovered it during the Charles Manson's Hollywood season in 2015 (I remember listening to one episode while shopping in Asda Shipley and literally getting stuck when I got to the crisps aisle, unable to move or process anything else until the story concluded).
The latest season is Polly Platt: Invisible Woman who Longworth introduces as 'an Oscar-nominated production designer, screenwriter, producer and executive who put her stamp on some of the greatest and most loved films of the 1970s and 80s – including Paper Moon, Bad News Bears, Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, The Witches of Eastwick and more—Polly Platt had a major impact on the careers of Barbra Streisand, Tatum O’Neal, Garry Marshall, Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson'.
(Polly Platt in 1972)
Longworth pitches the series beautifully. Platt is:
“the secret, often invisible-to-the-public weapon behind some of the most loved American ‘auteur’ films (many of them comedies, directed by men) of the last decades of the twentieth century... And even if you think you know who Polly Platt was, you don’t know the whole story.”
Now, I don't normally listen to YMRT while running. Film history, and certainly the untold stories of women working in film, are what my own work is all about, and I run to relax, to switch my brain off. Karina Longworth's podcast is 100% guaranteed to spark more ideas, which is not what I need in my exercise accompaniment.
But, on this Sunday morning, I only had one episode of the Polly series left, and I was desperate to know how it all worked out for her.
So I plugged in, set off, and as I got near Bingley Five Rise Locks, the rising sun flooded the canal.
It should have been all lovely and peaceful, but as Longworth started to talk about Polly's final years, when Polly was in her 70s, I got a terrible sinking feeling.
Polly started falling.
Tripping over her own feet.
Then she started having problems zipping up her own clothes - her muscle co-ordination.
And I knew what it was.
Polly was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND, also known as ALS / Lou Gehrig's Disease).
My mother-in-law, Sheila Fairclough, died due to MND just over a year ago, just eighteen months after her diagnosis.
(Sheila in the early 1980s)
As the podcast continued, I slowed down, thinking 'oh god, I don't know if I can listen to this'. YMRT started to cut at deep wounds I didn't think I could bear to open.
But Longworth told us that Polly spent her remaining time dining at fancy Brooklyn restaurants with old friends, demanding wine to be poured down her throat, and being with her daughter and her daughter's family. There's no good way to go with MND, but what touched me here was that Polly went on being Polly. She went out on her own terms - eighteen months after her own diagnosis.
Longworth concludes the episode by reflecting on something that Polly's daughter Sashy said. Polly's hands were one of the first places to show evidence of the degenerative disease, and then, that Polly's 'talent was tactile': she was a production designer, a physical maker; how when working in costume she had to touch a fabric to know whether it would be right for the film.
I looked down at my own hands, clad in fingerless gloves knitted by Sheila. She made me three different pairs of the same pattern, each in a different coloured yarn, that I live in for six months a year - I have a freezing, rundown Victorian house and I can't bear being cold. I thought about my home, filled with the crochet blankets, hand-knitted cardigans and quilts made by Sheila, 'with love', as her personalised name tags sewn into the garments always proudly stated.
Longworth's podcast gave me a new way to remember Sheila, and to think about her legacy.
Polly and Sheila may have lived and worked in different countries, with very different lives and ambitions, but in that moment on the canal, my family and film history were bridged by their haptic, enduring talents.
You Must Remember This is a kaleidoscopic study of Polly's work, a jaw-dropping illumination of her contribution to filmmaking culture. But the podcast is also a lesson in how to bring women's stories to light, in all their messy, humane complexity. And these stories don't have to be just about extraordinary makers such as Polly, whose mark on cinema will now (hopefully) be recognised, and thus, remembered. Longworth's methods can also be wrought upon our more everyday artisans, those quieter women who use their hands to not only soothe themselves (Sheila said that she didn't need valium because she had her knitting), but also to make - and leave behind - concrete memories for those people that they loved.
The podcast ended in celebration, not in mourning. I sped up, dodging the puddles of black ice on the canal path, and ran on into the morning light.
You can donate to research on MND through a fundraising page set up in Sheila's memory. You can follow Karina Longworth's film research on her Patreon, and download You Must Remember This on all major platforms including Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Stitcher.