Impromptu shrines to culturally important dead people are not unheard of. More than 15 years after the death of Princess Diana, I stumbled across a small collection of messages and flowers tied to the fences of Kensington Palace. The David Bowie mural in Brixton has been flooded with tributes since his sad departure last January. And a shrine to Marc Bolan, on the site of his fatal car accident in Barnes, has become a permanent memorial.
Much rarer are shrines to people who never actually existed in the first place, but they do exist. In Cardiff Bay, for instance, on an otherwise unremarkable bit of wood-panelled wall, are dozens upon dozens of tributes to a man who never was.
What fictional character could possibly merit this treatment? Surely one of vast impact, from stories that left culture changed forever?
It’s Ianto Jones.
From Doctor Who’s dubious “adult” spin-off Torchwood.
No, not that one from Torchwood. Or that one. The other one, who didn’t really even have any character traits apart from “being slightly sarcastic”.
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I came across it entirely by chance a few years ago and was mesmerised. There are photos, drawings, flowers, poems, essays. There are messages from all over the world – in just the ones I took pictures of, I can see mentions of Spain, Finland, Russia. Someone’s sewn a tiny version of Ianto’s suit; someone else has hung up a tie.
The results of a poll from Poll Pigeon Dot Com have been laminated: 55 per cent of respondents say they won’t watch the next series unless Ianto is resurrected. There’s a “Keep Calm And Save Torchwood” card. There’s Ianto as the Terminator saying, “I’ll be back!”. There’s a confusing reference to Paul McCartney’s alter-ego Percy Thrillington. All human life is here.
So how did a character who most people probably never knew existed in the first place earn this tribute? Thanks to the magic of the internet, it’s not hard to find obsessive fans of almost anything these days (there’s even Thomas The Tank Engine fan fiction where the trains turn into people and... kiss). But this stuff rarely spills over into the real world.
The one other recent example involved a far more famous character: Sherlock Holmes. When the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock fell to his death off the roof of Barts Hospital in London, a nearby telephone box became the site of tributes (you can still see some “SHERLOCK LIVES” graffiti on the phone box and the wall next to it).
This occurred even though it was made clear he hadn’t actually died within the episode where it happened – which suggests that at least some of the people behind this stuff are doing it with tongue very much in cheek.
But there’s something else going on with the Ianto shrine – something made clear by the number of “tributes” which rail against Torchwood’s creator, Russell T Davies. Though Ianto Jones may not have been a very good character, he did represent something important to many people: he was involved in a same-sex relationship with the series’ lead character, Captain Jack. That’s something that remains relatively rare in genre television, and, rightly or wrongly, there were people who felt that his death was something of a slap in the face.
The usual things that happen when people get angry about television happened. There were e-petitions. There was a “Save Ianto Jones” website. There was a campaign to send bags of coffee to the BBC (Ianto was often seen making coffee, you see) – albeit one which Davies claims that only nine people actually bothered to take part in. And then, perhaps most interestingly, in a part of Cardiff Bay used as a location on the show, some fans decided to leave tributes. And so Ianto’s Shrine was born.
The character “died” in 2009, but the Shrine’s still there. The owners of the wall it’s attached to appear to have taken it in good spirit, and at some point mounted an explanatory plaque to ensure bemused passers-by understand that the man who died fighting aliens wasn’t actually real.
The shrine has even got its own page on TripAdvisor, though not all the reviews are positive. “My daughter wanted to go here,” notes a visitor from East Hartford, Connecticut, “an absolute waste of time”. Others acknowledge that, while it may have had its moment, it is getting a bit “faded and jaded”, and that it’s time for it to go. These people are wrong.
I hope Ianto’s Shrine persists – not as a memorial to a TV character, but as a memorial to how brilliantly ludicrous people can be when they put their minds to it. Whether it’s the work of nine people or 90,000 people sort of doesn’t matter – either way, the point here is the hours put into the creation of something so essentially futile. This small, silly, human-scale stuff is as much of what makes places places as the grand-projets, garden bridges and gleaming towers. Ianto’s Shrine is a Cardiff landmark.
Click to expand. Honestly, it's worth it.
May the Ianto Wall stand long after everyone has forgotten that there even was anything called Torchwood – has forgotten that there was even a thing called television. Thousands, even millions of years from now, when the sun sets on whatever remains of the human race, they should remember that there was an Ianto Jones, even if they have absolutely no idea what that means. Because it would be quite funny if they did.
It’s got three and a half stars on TripAdvisor, and is apparently the 67th best thing in Cardiff.
All photographs courtesy of Ed Jefferson, who you can also find on Twitter.
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