After the credits rolled: What happened to the cast of 2023?
Returning to some of the people we met this year
Dear Millers — for this final weekend read of the year, we had a lovely idea. It was called “Love Actually at Manchester Airport” in our story schedule, and we were all very pleased it was going to be a fun, festive piece. And then, like so many of our artfully conceived features ideas, it exploded on contact with reality.
Jack visited the airport on Thursday, planning to create a touching photo essay about people returning to Manchester for Christmas. It was a bust. Storm Pia cancelled a string of flights meaning that the airport was pretty dead, and many of the people we could persuade to speak to us were coming back for Christmas in Leeds and Huddersfield and West Lancashire.
So, we thought, how do we fill our Millers’ stockings with end-of-year goodness on the day before Christmas Eve? The answer was in our comments section. We often get comments under our best stories saying that we should catch up with the person we’ve written about later to find out how things panned out.
And not for the first time, Millers were right. Journalism shouldn’t be about diving into someone’s life and then disappearing never to be seen again. This felt especially pressing for us as local journalists, whose role is to be close to the communities we write about. One of our resolutions for 2024 is to follow the story a little more. And we’re starting that early.
Wishing you all a wonderful Christmas — and please enjoy reading catching up with The Mill’s cast of 2023.
Riz Zeb, chicken shop consultant
Riz Zeb has had a big year. His business, Lefke Spices, which sells spice mixes to chicken shops that want to emulate Manchester’s famous spicy chicken burgers, has gone international. “We export to Pakistan and Dubai now,” he says. Riz originally had the idea during lockdown, after seeing how spicy chicken burgers had gone viral on TikTok.
The chicken burgers, which are sold by mostly halal takeaways around Greater Manchester, have sparked a cult following and huge financial success for some of the most popular shops. Recipes for the spicy sauce the burgers are coated in are rumoured to sell for six figures. Riz decided to commercialise the sauce and sell it directly to shops.
Now, he supplies takeaways up and down the country, but not in Manchester. Originally, this was because he agreed with the local shops not to step on their toes, but even though nowadays that agreement seems to have been forgotten about, the Manchester market is too saturated. Riz is going to spend 2024 seeking out new frontiers, and developing his burgeoning chicken shop consultancy.
He got the idea after some guys approached him who wanted to try his spice mix for a shop they were opening in Scotland. “They wanted to do a try-before-you-buy thing,” Riz says. “And then they started asking loads of questions, and I was like: ‘well, I’m not answering all your questions for nothing, my friend.’”
The Tyshkuls, a Ukrainian family living in Manchester
For the Tyshkul family, 2023 was a year of fading hope. We first met in 2022, a month after the war in Ukraine began. Liubov, Olena and Darina fled their hometown of Kharkiv to join Kateryna, who lives in Bury.
They lived with Kateryna and her boyfriend in their two-bedroom flat for six months. “If I’m being brutally honest, everyone was quite pissed with each other,” remembered Darina, 19. As the war has raged on, the family — who at one point thought they’d be home in time by May 2022 — have watched from afar, wondering if they’ll ever see their home country again.
Kateryna has continued working at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre’s Saturday school in Cheetham Hill. More people are coming over and their children are joining (the student population is at 250, up from 200 last year, Kateryna says) so things have been getting busier.
Liubov, her mother, is in a supported living complex now. Kateryna visited their weekly bingo night recently; it was good to see her happy with the people she lives with. Olena has been attending English classes, and Darina has been taking graphic design courses since her degree at the Kharkiv Polytechnic institute was disrupted by the war.
When we met earlier this year, Darina was volunteering at Oxfam but still hadn’t found a job. She has now. She’s an usher and bartender at Bridgewater Hall, which she is doing while she applies for junior roles in graphic design. “They’re trying to build from scratch what they lost,” Kateryna says.
This will be the family’s second Christmas together, after years of Christmas via FaceTime. In other circumstances, this would be a wholesome, happy thing. But of course, it isn’t. “I remember when we were talking on the phone with them at Christmas dinner,” Kateryna says. “It was like that for years. And now having everybody here is so strange. It’s nice. But every time, you think of why they’re here, the life they could have had.”
Matt Wynne, independent councillor for Edgeley, Stockport
“I didn’t leave the Labour Party, the Labour Party left me,” Matt Wynne told us in April, a month before the Stockport local election, where he was running in Edgeley for a new independent party he had founded a few months earlier, The Edgeley Community Association.
Wynne says he resigned from Labour after what he called a “far-left cult” stopped him from standing in this year’s local election. Setting up his own party was a way of fighting back against the forces he believed had hijacked Stockport Labour Group. It paid off, at the elections in May, the ECA won all three seats in Edgeley.
“I think it's been a great year for local democracy in England,” Wynne says. “In tight-knit communities like Edgeley and Cheadle Heath we have seen a rejection of a tired brand of politics and the birth of a new way of doing things.”
That new way of doing things is, counterintuitively, the old-fashioned way of doing things: focusing on local issues, “grinding out results through persistence for your area and making difficult and complex decisions with, and often on, people's behalf,” Wynne says.
2024 will be a big year. There are thousands of homes planned for Wynne’s area under the Mayoral Development Corporation, and Stockport County — whose ground is in Edgeley — look likely to be promoted, so there’ll be a new raft of parking issues to deal with. But you can tell Wynne welcomes that work.
And the past year, mostly, has been vindicating. He feels he was “slandered” by those in the Labour Party that deselected him, now he’s showing them how local politics is done. “I think it's put the big parties on notice in Greater Manchester in saying: don’t piss about.”
Michaela Ali, nurse’s assistant and social housing tenant
Right now, Michaela Ali is in a hotel in the city centre with her newborn daughter, Isla-Rae. Since last summer, Michaela has been in and out of hotels across the city while her housing association, Riverside, works to fix a rat infestation.
Despite her continuous requests for help, Riverside has been slow to help her. “When is this going to end?” she asked back in September. “This situation I'm in, I feel like I'm just getting ignored.” Michaela, and other Riverside tenants, have told us about how powerlessness they feel over their housing situation.
Over Christmas, Michaela will get out of the hotel and spend the day with her mother Margaret, who first got in touch with us about Michaela’s situation, when she walked in the office one day and told us: “She's just heartbroken.”
Riverside have said Michaela will be back in her flat in early January, but she still worries about what kind of state she will find it in.“We just need to see where we’re going to be,” she says. “Because really, it’s about me keeping my baby safe.”
Leila Layzell, an influencer and content creator
When we first met in a coffee shop in March, the influencer Leila Layzell was excited and anxious all at once. Excited because she felt she was on the verge of her life changing — her TikTok following had been growing steadily, and she was starting to get more opportunities to work for fashion and sports brands. Anxious because she was about to change direction and start making video content, which required chatting to strangers and networking, something which she had found “intimidating” in Manchester’s ultra-competitive influencer scene.
One week after I met Leila, she made her first ever interview-style video with a TikTok influencer called Diego Day. They are both talking about their favourite sex positions, flirting and standing close to one another. Her audience loved it.
“It’s the first one I ever tried and it got 16 million views,” she said. “Now it’s just kind of snowballed. It’s gone crazy.” Not long after, an influencer management company called HLD Talent reached out. They liked her videos and they wanted to help her get even bigger. Now, she’s getting five-figure brand deals and invited to Jack Wills’ pool parties at mansions and has saved enough money to move to London.
The flipside to influencing is the constant work. Leila talked openly about the difficulty of feeling like she had to be glued to her phone 24/7 and how if she wasn’t constantly posting, her audience might get bored and look elsewhere. Her work still sounds intense — she was meant to be heading home for Christmas yesterday, but had to delay the trip after a last minute invite to the rapper Giggs’ Christmas drinks — but she says she has more time for herself now she has a management team to help with admin.
She adds that she feels more confident now and she has learned not to be intimidated by influencer events. Many of her close friends in London are also influencers and have helped her boost her brand. “I think maybe it’s a question of putting yourself out there more,” she says. “So that you can feel more included, and you’re not excluding yourself.”
Jo Yee Cheung, chief executive of the music charity Olympias
It was a bittersweet evening. Manchester Museum was filled with Christmas lights and music stands arranged in a crescent moon shape, and parents and teachers were watching with pride as the kids from Olympias Music Foundation — a local charity that provides free music lessons to the children of refugees and families on a low income — began to play.
The Christmas concert is the culmination of all the hard work they put in over the year, and a chance to celebrate how far everyone has come. For Jo, it was an emotional night — the programme manager Patrick had handed in his notice a week before, saying he was ready for a change. Both of them cried.
She says that moment was a reminder of how “fragile” things are when you run an ambitious project to help 120 kids get into music, on a shoestring budget and with a small team. When we met earlier this month in a café in Chorlton, Jo seemed anxious about needing more funding to achieve their goals, mentioning they had a £50,000 shortfall in 2024.
While running a small operation has its challenges, she says the future is looking bright. After we published our article about Olympias, Jo’s story prompted an outpouring of kind messages and donations, many from people who worked in the arts and music industry and wanted to know how they could help. She says Olympias received £4,016 in donations from Mill readers, the equivalent of around 200 free music lessons, and a donation of some lovely Irish bodhran drums.
“What it tells us is that the community really do care,” she says. “And I think from a financial perspective we’re getting closer, we’ve still got a £50,000 shortfall, but we’re creeping towards the target. And your Mill readers were a massive help.”
Julie Hesmondhalgh, actress and Save Oldham Coliseum campaigner
“There’s a sort of yearning which runs through all her projects for a better world,” Sophie wrote in her piece about Julie Hesmondhalgh. One of the most revealing parts of the story was how much Julie feels at home in the theatre world. “You’re there with the audience and it’s new every night,” Julie said, talking about the thrill of performing in local producing theatres where the audience fills the room with a powerful sense of community.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Julie has been one of the most prominent voices in the campaign to save Oldham Coliseum, a producing theatre in Oldham town centre that closed in March. The sad saga began in November 2022, when the Arts Council announced they would be withdrawing funding from the Coliseum, around £600,000 a year, explaining the Coliseum presented “quite significant risk in terms of public investment”. In February, the then-artistic director and interim chief executive Chris Lawson cancelled all events from late March and admitted the theatre would be going dark “indefinitely”. Not long after, they announced Encore, a tribute to recent pantomimes and plays seen at the Coliseum, would be the final show at the Coliseum before the curtain fell.
It seemed it was a fait accompli that the theatre would have to close. Many thought the building was past its life and decaying, and there seemed to be no prospect of changing the Arts Council’s mind. But there are some who disagree.
Julie is part of Save Oldham Coliseum, a passionate campaign that includes audience members who have visited over the years and actors who made their names in the Christmas pantomimes and feel an affinity for the theatre. It was thought the building was decaying and past its life, but the campaigners recently received a report from Duncan Craig, chair of trustees of the Coliseum, which said that the building was fit for purpose and would require an investment of £60,000 to fix the fire door, plus £137,000 + VAT to improve the rest of the building — significantly less than they initially anticipated. Some campaigners recently attended a full council meeting at Oldham Council and asked council leader Arooj Shah if refurbishing the building and saving Oldham Coliseum was still on the table. She seemed equivocal.
Julie says Encore was a “really important thing” for the staff at the Coliseum to say goodbye, but it had a slightly “counterproductive effect”. She went on: “It's been quite a task trying to get it put back into people's minds. And really, people were really, really invested in it. I think everybody knew that it represented something bigger than just a theatre, you know, falling into hard times. It was about a small northern industrial post-industrial town.”
The campaigners know it won’t be an easy task keeping momentum up and organising meetings with local leaders to try to find solutions. But threaded through the story is a feeling of hope. “There’s conversations happening behind the scenes,” Julie says. “And I think there’s a little bit of a case.”
Winnie Su, undergraduate piano student at the Royal Northern College of Music
When we met Winnie Su, an undergraduate in piano at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), she was trying to find a way to be kinder to herself. She had grown up practising the piano for eight hours a day, but after a humiliating memory lapse during a performance, she quit. She was 15.
Three years later, she applied to the Sydney Conservatoire — she grew up in Ryde, a suburb of Sydney — and got in. She later moved to the RNCM to be closer to the UK’s rich classical music culture. We visited her during one of her practice sessions in August, as Jack wrote at the time: “Winnie and the piano breathe together. As the music rises she inhales and as it falls she breathes out, ‘whatever is the most organic, in terms of the way our bodies work, is what sounds the best,’ she says.”
Back then, Winnie was getting ready for the RNCM’s Beethoven piano competition. She won that, and will now go to the finals, to compete with the winners from other colleges. “It’s like a hunger games kind of thing,” she explains.
And this week she heard back about her auditions for masters programmes across the country. Despite getting offers from schools in London, the RNCM offered her a place with full scholarship. “So I’ll be staying here,” she says. “I can continue to expand my circle of influence in the UK and Manchester.”
It’s also great news for Winnie’s students, who have lessons with her at Forsyth’s on Deansgate. She held a little Christmas concert for them recently. “It was adorable,” she says. In the new year, Winnie is launching a platform for people to submit clips of their playing for her to feedback on for free. She says the focus will be “progress, not perfection.”