2015 and all that.

I clicked on that facebook ‘Review of your 2015’ thing and it threw up 4 random photos, 3 of which I don’t even recognise.  So here’s my own pretty random review of 2015’s highlights without the aid of friendface. No world events, no links I clicked or petitions I signed, just things I remember doing. Thanks to everyone who helped make this a memorable year. Here’s to a happy and peaceful 2016.

moonwalk startTHE MOONWALK: The first five months of the year were dominated by training for this overnight marathon through London. Being of an age, Louise Timothy and I took the organisers’ advice and checked in with a podiatrist beforehand. I was ridiculously excited to be told I have mechanically perfect feet, my joy only slightly tempered by the situation from the ankles up. Setting off at the dead of night on 16 May, we crossed the finishing line the following morning, raising £1,593.18 for breast cancer charities through the generosity of friends and colleagues.


19194867530_73454c1ee8_kOUT ALOUD 1: What happens when you put Sheffield’s LGBT choir, the Friends of Edward Carpenter and Radio 2 Folk Music award nominees in a room ten days after the, shall we say disappointing, general election? The perfect musical antidote is what – a full house at Firth Hall for a concert with inspirational new songs written by Out Aloud’s musical director, Val Regan and “exquisite harmonies that truly shine” from O’Hooley & Tidow, restoring spirits, recovering mojo and generally cheering each other up. As an aside, I’d finished the Moonwalk marathon at 8 o’clock that morning and needed to be back in Sheffield for the final rehearsal at 2 p.m. The train guard (sorry, Revenue Protection Manager) spotted all the Moonwalkers heading back up north, asked where each one of us was getting off and stirred us from our gaping mouthed slumbers just before our destinations. What a gent.

docfestSHEFFIELD DOCFEST: There were 20 venues, two opening galas, virtual reality at Site Gallery (the big hit with festival goers). And then there was an hour spent in a darkened room listening to a radio documentary in Danish, with subtitles projected onto the screen. Rikke Houd’s THE WOMAN ON ICE unpicks the story of Karen Roos, a Danish woman who disappeared outside the settlement of Angmassalik in Greenland in 1933. The threads, the voices and the atmospheric soundscape were mesmerising. A deserved winner of the festival’s In The Dark Audio Award.


bette midlerBETTE MIDLER: “I know you’re all going to want to sing along to this one… Please don’t. There’s only room for one diva in this room.” And there was. She worked an Arena crowd like a cabaret room and it was marvellous. If not for Bette my best live gig of the year would have gone to Sharleen Spiteri and Texas on their 25th anniversary tour. Another sound woman who can work a room.



THE SUN AND THE MOON: Oh the portents… moonThe total eclipse was seen via my phone’s JMW Turner mode; the blue moon was via the Impressionist mode. On the night of September’s blood moon I woke at 3.01 a.m. precisely and took it as a message from the gods to get my photographic act together, dig out the proper camera and catch the event in slightly sharper focus.


BRUGES: Remembering the dead. Celebrating life. Visiting the First World War battlefields, cemeteries and the Menin Gate for the first time since a school trip many years ago. We also spent time at Langemark, a German war cemetery. On both sides, the scale is so immense and sobering. Two things in particular evoked the personal stories behind the numbers:

  • Andrew Tatham’s poignant history and art project based on 21 years’ research into the lives of the men captured in A GROUP PHOTOGRAPH – Before, Now & In-Between at the Flanders Fields museum.
  • Meeting a mourner at the Irish Farm cemetery (so called because Irish regiments had been based in the farm buildings just outside Ypres). She didn’t seem that much older than me. She had found the grave of her uncle. She had not known him, obviously. Her mother, just a baby when he left for war, had not known him. In the hundred years since he was laid to rest there, no other member of the family had ever visited his grave. She cried as though she was crying for them all.

Bruges itself was as beautiful, charming, mediaeval, cobbled, beery and chocolatey as you could hope for.

germanyOUT ALOUD 2: Our friends Heart Core in Mönchengladbach were not only celebrating their 20th anniversary but also offering a masterclass in hospitality – food, drink, singing at their homes, singing in the street, singing in a lantern parade, singing at their concert, singing in a crypt. And then there was the cheesy disco. Some of the choir brushed up their German in advance. To my shame, I wasn’t one of them but I tried my best with Arschloch (rude) and the ‘boom boom’ of “Ich gei mit meiner laterne, boom boom”. All the right booms, not necessarily in the right order. Danke.


20151117_144230THE HURST ARVON CENTRE: A week in John Osborne’s former house. Writing, listening and story telling. How lucky was that?No phone signal. No wi-fi. And I imagine the first time Thomas Mann’s ‘Death In Venice has ever been greeted with howls of laughter (charades).



AH openingTHE ART HOUSE, Wakefield: Opened! A Grade II building saved. A community of 34 artists built. Three years of hard work rewarded. Some friends for life made.




WALKS AROUND SHEFFIELD: In all weathers, with the best companions and most wondrous sights.

mud monthA little reminder that pre-Roman Britons called February ‘Solmanath’ – mud month.




jazz in snowA dawg.





agnus deiA mediaeval altar piece – I’m thinking ‘Adoration of the Mystic Lambs’.




SITE GALLERY: My rewards for chairing Site’s board over the past six years have been many. Watching the gallery blossom under Laura Sillars and Judith Harry has been a joy, as has being introduced to the ideas of artists and collectors from around the world, culminating in GOING PUBLIC: International Art Collectors – a collaboration between collectors and Sheffield’s visual arts venues to share the best and most challenging contemporary art and artists. As if that wasn’t enough of a high to stand down on, I was presented with two works by Zoe Beloff, one of the artists in Site’s ‘family’ whose work I most admire. An absolute surprise and joy. Oh you shouldn’t have, but… yes please and thank you. What a lovely way to end the year.


Weds3Arse0“We’ll always have Paris Arsenal. We didn’t have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca Hillsborough. We got it back last night.” As Ingrid Bergman almost said. Happy New Year, everyone.


Going Sober for October



Week One of Sobriety – A rowdy night out, a quiet night at the pub and flashbacks to Family Fast Day.

I’m not saying restrictions on birthday cake and drink opportunities drove me away from religion. That would be shallow. But for many years I carried the burden of my birthday falling during Lent, when all good Catholic folk cut out sugar, chocolate or alcohol for Jesus. (And for their waistlines. Mainly for Jesus though. Really).

While I no longer observe Lent I still carry the abstinence-is-good gene that urges at least a month off something each year.  For a while now that’s been four autumn weeks without any alcohol.  So this year, along comes the Go Sober for October Macmillan fundraising drive, which seems a neat way of abstaining and raising money for a fantastic cause at the same time.

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, or someone you love has, you’ll already know that Macmillan provide practical, medical and financial support and push for better cancer care. I’ve signed up to Go Sober to support their work. Taking time to click here and sponsor me for the price of a glass of wine would be very kind of you.

Week One has been a reminder of how much of work and social life involves opportunities for a tipple. It’s also been a reminder that although there’s only so much sparkling mineral water the human frame can take, you don’t need an alcoholic drink to have a good time. Some highlights:

Thursday: Magical Mystery Tour of Art Sheffield venues.  A sober Laura Sillars, Site Gallery’s Artistic Director,  was tour guide for a minibus full of the great, good and slightly sozzled. The on-board prosecco flowed as we travelled between Graves Gallery, S1 Art space, Bloc Studios, an old pine workshop and Site Gallery. The intriguing snapshots of a city-wide visual arts festival were enough to keep me entertained without lips that touched liquor.

Sunday: “A quiet night at the pub” I were sat sitting in t’local nursing a glass of water when a man old enough to know better smashed a glass. Oh dear. The landlady calmly wheeled out the hoover, plugged it in, switched it on …and the pub sang, “I Want to Break Free”. (Freddie Mercury, the video, remember? There’s a wiki link at the foot of the page). I’m not sure that spontaneity – and willingness to admit knowing all the words – would have come without the disinhibiting effects of alcohol. A shame about that. Very funny though.

Constant flashback: Family Fast Day. Organised fasting has changed a bit since my school days. Then it was all about making a sacrifice to benefit others, although sometimes the detail confused me. ‘Family Fast Day’ involved eating much less than usual and sending what you saved to charities working with children in Africa. We got a little box with a slot at the top and everything. It was some time before I realised that ‘the savings box‘ was for coins rather than uneaten food. Truly. In my defence I did wonder what African children would make of the congealed sprouts, mash and baked beans postmarked London SW19. And my mother intervened before the stamp was bought.

Fortunately for me, the Go Sober for October online resource is very clear about the benefits:

  • Increased energy levels, higher productivity
  • Clearer head
  • No more hangovers
  • Sleeping better / snoring less
  • Weight loss
  • Clearer skin
  • Healthier bank balance / Save money
  • Sense of achievement
  • Fresh approach to alcohol consumption
  • Generally feel healthier
  • Doing something positive for a good cause

Self-sacrifice with a checklist of self-interested outcomes is quite compelling isn’t it? Certainly better than one bullet point: “Your reward will be in heaven”.

It’s not too late to join in, or sponsor someone who has already signed up:

Please Sponsor me by following this link

or visit the Go Sober for Macmillan site to sign up yourself.

And finally, if you’d like an “I Want to Break Free” memory-jogger, follow this link: Freddie declined a blonde wig as it would make him look silly…

A day with the Antiques Roadshow

I have hovered in the background at the Antiques Roadshow. Imagine.

Up to now, the highlights of my broadcast 15 minutes have been raising a hosta/slug enquiry on Gardeners’ Question Time, an animated contribution to Dimbleby’s Question Time and a Radio Sheffield vox pop on the pros and cons of dogs fouling pavements.

Since the demise of Crossroads, the opportunities to walk stiffly across a camera shot on national tv have been painfully thin. I think this explains the popularity of AR. Here the sensibly clothed moths can gather around the flame of a camera light, feign interest at the valuation of someone else’s property and adopt that inimitable expression that says, “I’m not looking at the camera but I know it’s there.”

So after much digging around under beds, in lofts, behind the sofa, the heir-loomed and car-booted of South Yorkshire  assembled at Wentworth Woodhouse today to be greeted by Fiona Bruce wearing a see-through poncho. (For the avoidance of doubt she was fully clothed underneath – the poncho was to keep the rain off). Nonetheless –  a national treasure wrapped in cling film, how BBC marvellous.

The last time I was at WW it was to play badminton in the gallery, the backdrop was stately home statuary and the house was one of Sheffield City Polytechnic’s five campuses. Today I was surprised to see the ugly-even-for-the-70s student accommodation blocks still blotting the landscape. Everything else about the house and gardens looked just about right for a stunning AR venue. And it was raining too. Perfect.

AR involves queueing. First of all to get to the reception desk where Fiona B and others scrutinise your offerings, then to queue for the relevant expert. Tip: ‘miscellaneous’ is obviously a top category for Britain’s heirlooms. Long queue. Ceramics also very popular in the cupboards of the UK. Well, we’ve all got a commemorative mug or two I s’pose.

Jewellery is fairly light, which is why I tagged on the end of that queue, rehearsing the line,    “My trinkets are of great sentimental value, I would never part with them.” While reserving the right to change that opinion etc.

I wonder if the expert realised just how important a moment this could be in her career? I only mention it because I had to brush chocolate crumbs off the valuation table, she gave me her opinion through a mouthful of chocolate and then took mere minutes to tell me the items in my rucksack were probably worth less than a really fine bar of …  you get the picture. Cheek.

What else about today:

  • The preferred mode of carriage for the AR crowd’s family heirlooms is a hessian ‘bag for life’ lined with towels. An honourable mention here for the Eden Project’s merchandisers. Great bag brand presence.
  • When considering a career in antiques evaluation, do invest in a stylish Bavarian jacket or tweeds worked with vibrant prints and a flamboyant hats/scarf/tie combo.

My Top 5 Highlights:

  1. Woman arguing with Eric Knowles when he told her – most tactfully I thought – that the detritus in her Tesco carrier bag was probably of greater sentimental than monetary value.
  2. The man in the queue who told me, on good authority, that WW is currently occupied by one old woman, living in just one room heated by a one-bar electric fire. He was carrying a Tupperware box lined with a towel (see above).
  3. The couple with an intricately carved teak screen; not only had they declined to conform to the tyranny of dusting (it was filthy) but they didn’t drop it on the toes of the woman who remarked that she had one just like it, carved in soap. What?
  4. The “Why Specialists Need to Leave Their Tables” section of the official guide. Especially around lunchtime, apparently. They have bodies – who knew.
  5. And finally, the vicar with the mahogany table.  For it was his filmed tête-a-tête with furniture expert Deborah Lambert that provided my opportunity to hover in the background with a no light behind my eyes expression, straining to hear or even care about what it was worth. So pleased that was caught on camera.

I didn’t see Bunny Campione though, which is almost as heart-breaking as not spotting Hilary Kay. Still, a great insight into the weirdly compelling combination of beautiful objects, social history and pure avarice that is the Antiques Roadshow. Huzzah!

Nice Richard Price prepares to tell a visitor her clock is worth a mint. Get a load of the interior too - house tours available www.woodhouse.co.uk

Nice Richard Price prepares to tell a visitor her clock is worth a mint. Get a load of the interior too – house tours available www.woodhouse.co.uk




Today I saw a lorry outside Leeds Station emblazoned with a company name plus ‘aluminium extrusions’. Nothing else. My vision blurred by tears of joy I couldn’t capture it on my phone camera. ‘Aluminium extrusions’. The sheer relief that there is still one business in the UK that hasn’t locked its staff in a conference room with a flip chart, a facilitator, lukewarm instant coffee and Crawford’s family selection biscuits until – in some hallucinatory state – they agree their rallying cry should be “Extrusion *Solutions* for the Aluminium *Community*”.

I have no idea what extruding aluminium entails. I could look it up – in fact I just have and can confirm it’s a service I’m unlikely to need for the foreseeable. It simply does what it says on the recyclable can for people who know that they need it.

Other businesses seem less confident in accepting that actually not everyone is their market. (Although I must say that as I pass their lorries on the A17, “Lomas Potato Transport” has always struck me as rather limiting).

So what’s with the rash of solutions, communities and random phrases that adorn the livery of so many vehicles and the brochures of so many Arts organisations?  Why do so many of us succumb to some version of “To Inform, Educate and Entertain”, paste it under a logo and call it a brand? I plead guilty to having done that one – “A unique complex offering unrivalled entertainment”. I do apologise.

Although there’s a certain pleasure in having your strap line repeated back to you as a truth by funding bodies, what does it mean and why do we put so much time into polishing adjectives and verbs into a sort of drop down menu to describe what we actually do – all the while studiously avoiding words like ‘art’ and ‘theatre’? Who actually cares about these signs and slogans apart from the people who devise them after a gallon of coffee and a fistful of pink wafers?

Hmm PINK wafers. See how the colour is inextricably linked to the product there? Never mind the trite slogans, a poll carried out earlier this month showed that brand recognition can increase by up to 80% based on the colours used. And Britain’s favourite colour is blue. Apparently. It works for me in terms of Steel City footballing alliances but certainly wouldn’t get my vote in other respects.

So. Back to this morning. It’s a 3 mile walk from Leeds station to Weetonwood Hall. Fuelled by the joy of Aluminium Extrusion I skipped along merrily to meet Nima Poovaya-Smith and Rachel Feldman from Alchemy and Ilkley Literature Festival respectively. I was looking forward to discussing  the successful bid to Arts Council’s Catalyst fund that will allow us to develop private giving investment programmes. Then I came upon this sign on the Otley Road:

iconic psychobabble

“Traditional Values delivered with an Original Outlook…Iconic Beer Garden…” And there’s me thinking it was a pub. Jeez. And it’s not even blue.

It almost ruined my day. But talking to Nima and Rachel over proper coffee and handmade biscuits proper cheered me up again.







day-by-day-by south by: 3

Bright sunshine v air conditioned venue; a day in the dark v a stroll in the park? Lucky that the SXSW programme is flexible enough to give two bites of most cherries. So a bit of schedule shifting later, Day 3 became not only the day I RESISTED the temptation to:

  • Have a second margharita with lunch.
  • Eat TexMex for breakfast, lunch & tea.
  • Buy some vintage Western wear to add to my small but perfectly embarrassing collection.
  • Pick up my free drink at the Registrants’ Lounge (mind you I’ve forgotten to do that every day so far)
  • Buy up all the chilli sauces at the Tears of Mercy store (it’s all they stock, and they stock the lot).

But also the day I GAVE IN to the temptation to:

  • Spend time browsing the ‘Keep Austin Weird’ markets, cafes and bars of South Congress Avenue, with everything from vintage cowboy boots to south american religious art to cupcakes, burritos and stetsons.
  • Take in some of the more random free music venues – including the top of a VW camper.
  • Take a snap of virtually every neon sign along my route.
  • Cross Congress Bridge at twilight and watch the Austin bats taking off for the night.
  • Marvel at the range of chilli sauces -including 3 Elvis inspired brands – at the Tears of Mercy shop.
  • Sit on a stoop with some great beer and even better company watching the fancy dress parade of Austin’s podo (that’s pOdo) cabs cycling by.
  •  Respond to the hot weather by getting my hair cut right off. Oh well, hair grows, hats can be bought, but the opportunity to sit in a 1930s barber shop chair and talk music & film probably won’t come along too often.

I’m trying not to think what I would have got up to if I’d given in to that second margharita. 


day-by-day-by-south by: 2

The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson’s film about Kathleen Hanna, was my Day 2 highlight at SXSW.

Outside punk, riot grrl and feminist circles, Kathleen Hanna may be best known for providing Kurt Cobain with the inspiration for Smells like Teen Spirit – by spraying ‘Kurt smells like Teen Spirit’ (a deodorant for teenage girls) on his wall after a mega-binge. She didn’t drink for 6 years after that, so it must have been quite a night…

The feature-length documentary follows Hanna’s career from a spoken word artist through to a punk musician, becoming an ‘outspoken feminist icon’ en route.  I was sceptical about the icon bit when I entered the auditorium /converted by the time I left.

In short, The Punk Singer is a summary of how a young woman with the voice of Polly Styrene and the looks of Elizabeth Taylor got from here Kathleen Hanna spoken word to here The Julie Ruin featuring Kathleen Hanna

Hanna first rose to attention in the US as the lead singer of punk band Bikini Kill and dance-punk trio Le Tigre. As the voice of the riot grrl movement she also became famous as an outspoken feminist, able to articulate her own inconsistencies and compromises in a way that encouraged other young women to take control of who they are. The post screening Q&A featured more than a few fans who’d been ‘Girls to the Front’ – Hanna’s concert war cry to protect her female fans (and her self) from the growing violence and misogyny of the 1990s mosh pit. And there was one ‘men to the back’ guy, who had done what he was told back in the day but you sensed he still wasn’t quite sure why.

Hanna worked in a strip club to pay her student tuition fees. She struggled emotionally with acknowledging the pain of  her father’s ‘inappropriate sexual behaviour’ in her childhood. And professionally she struggled on through a hectic US and European tour despite being visibly unwell. Laiprepaleset And then she married a Beastie Boy, but in fairness Adam does come across as a very good man.

These compromises and apparent inconsistencies were all grist to the tabloid mill. By 2005, a combination of ill health and having her life torn apart and misrepresented in the media led her to step back from recording and performance. Happily she’s now well on the roads to recovery and the recording studio.

Did I like the film? I thought the Lymes disease doctor (for that is what she was finally diagnosed with) had a wonderful deep and growly yankee voice. But I didn’t need to hear quite so much of it. As for Joan Jett‘s scary deep and growly voice – especially when filmed on the back seat of a limo bedecked with fairy lights – I could have listened all night.

Capturing the musical development of Hanna as an artist was fascinating – from the shaky video of her spoken word performances (better quality on film than the link above – sorry about that) through to the smoother melodies of Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin, it’s all unmistakably and gloriously punk.

A quote from Kathleen Hanna: “Art revolves around creating something that isn’t there.”

Screened as part of the 24 BEATS PER SECOND strand at SXSW, The Punk Singer certainly celebrates 24’s aim to showcase the sounds, culture and influence of music and musicians and their impact on social and political change. Soon to be released on DVD…

The Punk Singer

Director: Sini Anderson

day by day by south by: 1

No More Road Trips? – a silent movie road trip across the USA and the perfect way to realign my brain after criss-crossing time zones and colliding with a switch to daylight saving en route to SXSW Made entirely from home movie clips spanning the 20th century, starting  with a 1930s rich kid filling a bottle with Atlantic Ocean water prior to heading West. If he ever followed tradition and poured the water into the Pacific we don’t know – or at least film-maker Rick Prelinger hasn’t found that particular clip. Yet.

The painstaking work of sifting though collected, found and donated film stock to compile No More Road Trips? has an astonishingly high attrition rate – only 1 minute in 80 making it to the final cut.

Barring the odd diversion, the film’s narrative is a westward sweep across the states, mixing and matching whatever footage from whichever era to map the route. As the 20th century plays out we see Rural turn industrial, Industrial turn suburban and various states of economic rise and fall often within a few consecutive frames. So the Pacific coast is approached via a California of wooden track roads across the San Bernadino mountains,  fields of grainy monochrome oil drills, a youthful Dennis Hopper waving to Hollywood tourists and Jerry Lewis gurning from his Cadillac in full colour.

So that’s what we see. But what we hear is…nothing. Prelinger’s premise is that the audience at each screening makes  a fresh soundtrack. Downwitemnoyris In other words, the audience is encouraged to call out in response to the people, places and situations on screen. On this occasion, despite Prelinger’s prompting presence the ‘soundtrack’was little more than a few observations about location and style. Acknowledging that this element is a work in progress, he is heading back to his base in San Francisco to work on triggers for the audience.

A couple of things stopped me contributing to the sound-tracking experience. One was the editing, which is generally pretty fast moving so the remarkable hat, house or car has moved off screen before the words have reached the tip of the tongue.The other barrier, for me anyway, is that the images as presented simply prompt a bit of an ‘oo’ an ‘aa’ and an ‘Auntie Nellie had one of them’.

Prelinger’s provocation is that question mark at the end of the film title. Have market globalisation and soaring fuel costs junked America’s freedom to get in a car and travel to a new life in a different place with its own unique appearance  and history. It’s an interesting enough provocation but…

Prelinger has taken an editorial decision to remove sequences of film that may be controversial or provocative. Specifically, he has not included clips of Native Americans or African Americans which he believes are culturally  insensitive or stereotypical. It’s difficult to judge his decision without knowing the material. We’ve all seen early (and not so early) white European home movies emphasising the ‘exotic’ natives and lifestyles found on their travels. Are staged or real Native American rituals captured in Prelinger’s film cans? Are these predominantly from the early 20th century or did they extend to more recent times? And why, from memory, was there only one shot of an African American family? (standing under Lincoln’s statue in Washington) even though a much filmed locality was described as a mixed Italian / African American neighbourhood. We wouldn’t have known if he hadn’t been present and told us. How are home movies of people going about their daily lives construed as offensive? Questions Unsaid and Unanswered.

No More Road Trips? veers slightly too much towards the sentimental past of cows blocking country lanes, close knit families and happy campers. The soundtrack of the 20th century is a noisy and discordant one. Reflecting some of that discord on screen might be the participatory trigger Prelinger is looking for.

But having said that, maybe a cinema auditorium – even one as beautiful as the Alamo Slaughter Lane  – a cinema auditorium is not the best place to shout out in public what would have been your asides to friends. Or at least, that’s how I felt when Prelinger asked a question during the screening, I knew the answer and I didn’t call out but I was happy to mutter.

In fact I shared one of the SXSW limos back downtown with the director and I still didn’t strain my vocal chords to put him straight. Rick, if you’re reading – those trees on the corner of the dark road? It’s white paint.

No More Road Trips? Director: Rick Prelinger.

How Much?


“The Donmar season at the West End taught me an unavoidable equation, which is that cheap tickets equals young people…It’s as simple as that.” Producer/Director Michael Grandage. Metro 6 December 2012 All Hail Michael Grandage for keeping accessible pricing in the public eye, but I’m sure Michael is hugely embarrassed that the media cult of him as ‘West End wizard’ [Sunday Times, 9 Dec] airbrushes out the vital role of regional theatre in building his platform. How Much? was a major project run by Sheffield Theatres from December 1998. Subtitled Sex, Violence, Brilliance, Shakespearethe original aim was to investigate the importance of price sensitivity among young people. We soon realised that price was by no means the only, and often far from being the most important, barrier to young peoples’ arts attendance. The first rule of price club is that you must never talk about young people as if they are all the same. expired sites . The project’s focal point was a scheme offering tickets at £3.50 to 16 to 24 year-olds. The initial programme on offer included:

  • The Maly Theatre’s Winters Tale (in Russian),
  • Ben Elton’s Popcorn
  • Grandage’s production of Twelfth Night

I doubt anyone’s first thoughts on seeing this programme would be, “They’re dumbing down for the youth market…” The rationale for the choice of shows was that of all the reasons young people might give for not attending, poor quality and high prices wouldn’t be among them. The first wave of research with new young attenders showed, amongst other things, that they were willing to pay more than we were charging. So the ticket price was edged up to £10

It is difficult not to be envious of those young people in season two whose first experience of theatre was Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II at the Crucible. I doubt any of them remember they only paid £10 for their seat quite as well as they remember a truly stunning piece of theatre with gripping performances from the company led by Joseph Fiennes.

So How Much? found that price is not an absolute constraint to theatre attendance for young people, but the uncertainty of what they will get in return for their money is. One of the key findings concerned young people’s leisure spend: over half expected to spend at least £45 per week on “nights out” (and remember this is in the late 1990s). Clearly then as now, many young people have the money to spend, but many choose not to spend it on the theatre unless say, as in the case of Grandage’s west End season, there is the ‘security’ of stellar casting.

Back in 1998 a New Audiences for the Arts grant of £350,000 over three years allowed Sheffield Theatres to take the Box Office hit from slashing prices, generating edgier marketing materials and changing ourselves and our theatres to be more accessible to young people. Through that public funding we were also able to run a comprehensive programme of action research and original quantitative and qualitative research supported by colleagues from Sheffield’s two universities. How Much? started as a marketing led audience development project in one of England’s regional producing theatres. It was fine-tuned in subsequent years, emulated by the National Theatre, the Donmar and now the Michael Grandage Company’s West End season amongst others. It is still the basis of keynote presentations at Arts conferences around the world.

The irony is that whereas risk-taking outside London provides the case for philanthropists to invest in starry West End promotions, as Grandage points out, “Regional theatres need subsidy to stay alive” I’d disagree with Grandage only to the extent that regional theatres need investment, not subsidy. An investment of £350,000 of public money nearly 15 years ago enabled How Much? to take risks that are still reaping benefits, influencing policy and provoking debate.

So what price public support in the next spending round for the ideas, the energy and the risk-taking of regional theatres? 

Not to mention the sex, violence, brilliance and Shakespeare…

See also: Call it a tenner: the role of pricing in the arts  


After the Goldrush

After the Goldrush MARCH 2011

On Wednesday morning, 1,330 arts organisations across England logged on to their email accounts and scanned their inbox for a message, Sender: Arts Council England, Subject: Application for national portfolio funding.  All had applied for 2012-15 funding under the new National Portfolio scheme. Some had received grants since the (incidentally austere post-war) 1940s when strategic public investment in the arts first began. Others were throwing their hat in the ACE funding ring for the first time. I’m guessing all of them felt just a little bit sick as they waited.

ACE had warned us to expect an email between 7.30 and 9.30 a.m on Wednesday 30th March prior to a public announcement at 10.  Whether you’re girding yourself for bad news or waiting for good, it’s worth doing it in company and with a cup of strong coffee to hand. So at 7.30 on Wednesday morning I was sitting in Gusto Italiano in Sheffield with Laura Sillars, director of Site Gallery waiting for ‘that’ email.  At 8.01 the in-box pinged. Here we go. Good news? Bad news? In fact, excellent news for Site: we’ve been offered exactly what we asked for – which works out as a significant increase across the 3 years. After a scream and a hug, the reality for partners, colleagues and the sector as a whole starts to filter through the networks.

…nothing at all for Museums Sheffield’s contemporary art programme, big hikes for the South London Gallery and Yorkshire Dance…  At 8.30 we listen to Alan Davey, ACE’s chief executive, on Radio 4. The consensus is that ACE have managed the hit handed to them in the Coalition’s comprehensive spending review as well as could be hoped. There have been large cuts, but there has also been investment in 110 previously unsupported companies.

…less than expected for Music in the Round …nothing for Danceworks UK……nothing for the brilliant Third Angel…  At 8.40 I set off for Lincolnshire to meet with some of the venues and agencies who’d submitted national portfolio bids. As we drove, the text alerts kept sounding. Such was the scale of cuts that news of standstill funding (effectively a 5% cut) was being greeted as a victory.…standstill for Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Pilot Theatre…Audience Development Agencies all cut…

10.00 we arrive in Sleaford. Smiling faces all around as news spreads that The Hub /Arts NK / Lincolnshire One venues’ bid has won national portfolio status.  We’re working with groups in Lincolnshire to advise on strategic fundraising. Today it’s difficult for any of us to concentrate as the ‘switched to silent mobiles’ keep flashing...bad news for the Firebird Trust (Music) – bid rejected…

In fact music seems to be taking a hit nationally, with a trend for orchestras to take a 10 – 15% cut.  

…uplift for Lincolnshire Arts Trust (The Drill Hall) and new portfolio status for The Collection

…nothing for Wakefield Theatre Royal…

As we devour texts, emails and online news through the day I’m reminded of the time when all football matches kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday and Grandstand came to a climax with a tele-printer clunking the latest eagerly awaited scores and results across the screen. Eagerly awaited because you wanted to know a) if your own team had won, b) how the teams around you had fared and c) the likelihood of a jackpot on the pools.  In those terms, 1,330 teams kicked off, 638 lost. Of the losers, 206 had been previously been in the ACE premier league. Forecasts for anyone claiming a jackpot are very low indeed.

The arts funding system needed a shake-up, and it’s got one…

But how long will it take to rebuild the infrastructure, creativity and engagement at risk of being destroyed over the coming months?  Channel 4 are gathering a crowd-sourced online map of spending cuts. I have in mind a map of the British railway system before and after the infamous Beeching cuts in the early 1960s. The before map is a slightly eccentric network crossing from north to south and coast to coast, serving rural communities and urban sprawls in equal measure. It’s the reason the railway network carried on running despite continuous bombing in the Second World War – there was no great junction to destroy with a single blow, just lots and lots of mainlines, sidelines, shunting yards and even dead ends that had sprung up to serve communities, enthusiasts and – it’s true – wildly optimistic speculators. By 1961 that splendid diversity of purpose and use was turned into a reason to pull the plug on public investment in the railways and focus on roads instead. Would it be cynical to suggest that the fact the Minister of Transport owned a road building company may have affected this decision?

So who might a cynic suggest will benefit from the equivalent of Beeching’s axe being taken to the arts in 2011? In an age of austerity measures, it’s difficult to argue that arts should be exempt from measures that are being applied across the board. But are cuts of this level and at this speed truly wise or even necessary? We’re told by George Osborne that it’s the only way to address and reverse the dire state of our national finances. We all know the country’s bank balance is in the red, and we’ve all got a pretty good idea of how it got that way. But the UK’s national debt is lower than that of Italy, France, Germany, Japan and USA. So it’s very difficult not to conclude that the cuts, their speed and their targets are driven by ideology rather than economic necessity.





Is ‘culture vulture’ to audiences what ‘luvvie’ is to actors, i.e. an annoying, dismissive and rather lazy sobriquet?  Seeking inspiration for an alternative title, I’ve made a list of this week’s cultural activities so far:

VISITING: Chatsworth House,for an exhibition celebrating the 90th birthday of Debo,the dowager duchess of Devonshire and last surviving Mitford sister. I read The Mitfords: Letters between six sisters (4th Estate) earlier this year and couldn’t resist a hardback copy in the Chatsworth shop bargain pile. things to do So, I’ll be dipping into it again for another forensic personal view of the 20th century’s major events and figures, and to find descriptive gems such as, “I heard the most terrifying sound, just like a hermit tearing calico.” Better still is their facility with nicknames. qa forum . I don’t think ‘culture vulture’ would have made it through their screening process – far too dull. As Debo would say, Get on.

READING: I Know My Own Heart, The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (Virago). Inspired by the BBC tv dramatisation filmed in a Yorkshire where the sun never shines and side-stepping one of her obsessive concerns but hey, good fun. Where Sarah Water’s wears her historical research on her sleeve, Anne Lister doesn’t have to – she’s real. After a gap of 22 years, I’ve taken the book off the shelf again. I doubt the original diaries now archived in Halifax are quite as yellow and musty as my old Virago copy from 1988.

LISTENING TO: Mozart’s 9th Piano Concerto (Warner Classics); Live Lounge (iTunes download) & Radio 4 for news on cuts, oil leaks and guns. Not uplifting but thorough.

TALKING TO: Rony Robinson on BBC Radio Sheffield, where the hot topics were swimming, the likelihood (sorry, inevitability according to a new survey) of first born children being rock stars, and ‘marmalade – for or against?’ I’m very much for marmalade.

SINGING ALONG TO: Cat Stevens. And somehow connecting his folksy anthem Wild World with the sort of song the UK should enter in the next Eurovision. Either that or a boom-bang-a-bang version of Millwall FC’s No-one likes us, we don’t care. Not quite sure how I came to be daydreaming about the desired properties of next UK Eurovision entry.

CINEMA: The Time That Remains, dir Elia Suleiman, at The Showroom. Significantly less time remains after sitting through this; some humour, some pathos and many longeurs. The critics’ references to the story being Tati-esque should have warned me, if I’d known what it meant. A long film to tell a short story. ip on the same subnet The trailer’s quite good though. Click on and have a look.

SCRAPBOOK:”A woman had to be pulled from a rubbish chute by firefighters after she got stuck when she tried to retrieve a packet of cigarettes she had thrown away. She lowered herself down head first into the chute from her flat in Roscoe Drive, Stannington, but got stuck at her waist and could not get out again”

(The Sheffield Gazette).