Inspired by the 1980s hit musical ‘Starlight Express’, this performance / event re-enacts the history of public transport provision in Greater Manchester from the post-war period to the present day… on roller skates!

In November 2018, Harrison was commissioned by Manchester Art Gallery to produce a new work as part of their summer exhibition about crowds and protest marking the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre: Get Together & Get Things Done (17 May – 29 September 2019).

Through her campaigning work with Bring Back British Rail and Get Glasgow Moving, Harrison was aware of the new Better Buses for Greater Manchester campaign, (funded by the Foundation for Integrated Transport) which had been launched by We Own It in September 2018. As a further exploration of the relationship between art and activism, she chose to utilise the commission which had been offered to her as an artist to create awareness and support for the local campaign. Firstly by using her space within the exhibition itself to screen The Fight for Greater Manchester’s Buses – the new film by the Association of British Commuters about the campaign (pictured below). And secondly, by devising a celebratory piece of agitprop making the case for re-regulating Greater Manchester’s buses which would be staged in the gallery as the closing celebration of the exhibition – an upbeat and optimistic attempt to synthesise her art and activism.

Bus Regulation: The Musical was inspired by the 1980s hit musical ‘Starlight Express‘, which Harrison remembered seeing in London as a small child. Just as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous musical uses performers on roller skates to portray trains, Harrison decided to work with local roller derby skaters to re-tell the history of Greater Manchester’s buses. The Musical was researched during two short residential visits to Manchester on 22 – 23 May and 14 – 19 July 2019, whilst Harrison was completing her book The Glasgow Effect: A Tale of Class, Capitalism & Carbon Footprint (the third part of which contains much of this research into the history of regional public transport networks). Harrison made two trips to the archives at the Museum of Transport Greater Manchester and then developed and produced the script and costumes back in Glasgow in August and September 2019.

The event was staged at Manchester Art Gallery on Saturday 28 September 2019 as the closing celebration of Get Together & Get Things Done. It starred Summer Dean (from the Association of British Commuters) as Barbara Castle (the only female Transport Secretary of the 20th Century) and featured skaters from Arcadia Roller Derby: Tori Baron, Laurelle De-Gisi, Alice Green, Kirsty Gravestock, Cat Hughes, Charlotte O’Prey and Phoebe Queen, and Steve Long from Manchester Rollerball, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Bus Regulation: The Musical received much media interest, including features on BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours, BBC North West Today, The Guardian, CityMetric, East of the M60 and Coach & Bus Week. The short film documenting the event by Jen O’Brien and Martin Allison (above) was then released on Facebook and Twitter. It helped to create greater awareness and support for the Mayor of Greater Manchester’s proposal to re-regulate the region’s entire bus network (utilising ‘franchising’ powers in the Bus Services Act 2017), which, when realised in 2025, will set a precedent for other cities around the UK to follow suit.

Following the success of the Greater Manchester Musical in 2019, Harrison went on to create Strathclyde and Merseyside versions of the Musical in 2022 as part of an ambitious Trilogy exploring the relationship between public transport policy and population health in these three post-industrial city regions. On completion of her Musical Trilogy, Harrison was awarded the University of Dundee’s ‘Engaged Researcher of the Year’ award at the 2023 Stephen Fry Public Engagement Awards.


Photo: Andrew Brooks