Two years ago, Brookside creator Phil Redmond sparked joy across Hull when he announced that the city had won its bid to become the UK City of Culture in 2017. Redmond, who chaired the nine-strong panel, said Hull had been the unanimous choice because it put forward ‘the most compelling case based on its theme as “a city coming out of the shadows”’.
Merseyside-born TV producer and screenwriter Redmond, 66, formulated the idea for the UK City of Culture programme following the impact that hosting the European Capital of Culture had on Liverpool in 2008 – in which he played a lead role. His aim was to give other UK cities the opportunity to experience similar social and economic benefits, as well as allowing them to bask for longer in the normally London-centric media spotlight.
Here, Phil Redmond talks to Sam Hawcroft about how Hull stands to follow Liverpool in creating a lasting legacy for many years to come.
Liverpool and Hull are at opposite ends of the M62; they are both large port cities with lots of similarities, but Hull has arguably not realised its full potential yet. Why do you think this is, and how can being the City of Culture in 2017 change things for the better?
You’re talking to a Scouser, so nobody in Hull should beat themselves up if they can’t compete with the centre of the universe! We’re both port cities, we both kind of on the edge of the UK, but I think the difference between Liverpool and Hull is that Liverpool did become that Empire gateway kind of city – at one stage it was called the second city of Empire – and so inevitably it had a lot more going through it, and there’s a lot more history flowing from that. And of course Liverpool is twice the size of Hull. So in a sense, Liverpool has always punched a bit above its weight. Having said that, there are more modern similarities between both cities in that they have both suffered from a change in world trade, and British society and British media has become a lot more centralist, so both cities have suffered in the past three or four decades by not just being on the edge of the UK, but being on the edge of the metropolitan media agenda. The only reason they would ever appear in the media would be because of bad news. Liverpool suffered very badly in the 1970s and 1980s in terms of political and economic instability, particularly during the militant years. I think what happened to us in 2008, with the European Capital of Culture, is we were allowed to think for ourselves about the city and not constantly react to the way other people were trying to portray it – so we were able to rediscover our cultural and historical roots, which gave us a greater sense of self-confidence and belief again. I think Hull will find that 2017 will have the same impact. It’s a year in which everybody in Hull will have the excuse to talk to each other – they can talk about their shared history, their shared culture and at the same time rediscover who they are. Hull is a port city of over 200,000 people – and ports give you the opportunity to look out to the world, not constantly being introverted. You can start focusing on what strengths you actually have, and how you can build on that for the future – so it’s a rediscovery of your roots and dismissing media perceptions.
One of the challenges for Liverpool in 2008 was to reach right out to the extremities of the city, and there does remain a bit of cynicism in terms of ‘what is it going to do for us?’ In 2008, do you think you succeeded in engaging with people in areas where culture traditionally might not reach?
I think we did, but it still remains a challenge, because inevitably, all the infrastructure you need for culture and the performing arts is all usually in city centres. I found that even nine months into the project, people were still saying, ‘What’s it doing for me?’ And my response was, ‘Well, have you actually been to any of the events?’ ‘Well… no.’ So I’d say, ‘Well, I can’t really bring the Philharmonic Orchestra to your living room…’ So you do have to get involved – that’s the point. Having said that, one thing we had in Liverpool, which I think will happen in Hull too, is a very strong educational programme. It will go to every one of the 23 secondary schools in the city, and, as happened in Liverpool, once people realise that it’s a year of permission to try new things – to experiment – they might think, ‘Yeah, I will actually go into the city and see one of these plays.’ They might also be inspired to run their own talent shows, their own art shows. Why not put on their own performances in their own neighbourhoods? Just get on and do it – and have fun. That’s one thing people mustn’t lose sight of. Culture means so many things to so many different people, but it’s actually the sum of all our creativity. Take the example of Hull City supporters chanting, ‘You’re only here for the culture’ – that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? It’s an excuse to have a bit of fun.
Looking back to 2008, is there anything you would have done differently, in hindsight, and what advice would you pass on to the leaders of Hull 2017?
You need to try to find a way of touching every part of the city. If you don’t, it won’t be a success. But that doesn’t mean you have to build a new library, or whatever – you’ve just got to encourage people to use the year to sample things they might not have wanted to think about in the past, and just create their own things. I could go back and say, I wish we’d done this or that differently, but I think we managed, by about month three – and definitely by month six – to correct the idea that it was only for folk in the city centre. You have to keep banging on with the message that this is the year to try things, it’s the year to experiment. Don’t just consume culture – i.e. turn up an event and watch it – but try to create it. Whatever you’re doing in your community, whether you’re organising a sing-song for the old folks, whether you’re doing the Great Hull Bake-Off, 2017 is an opportunity for people to think, ‘Why don’t we do that?’ You get together, you meet people… READ ON FURTHER IN OUR DIGITAL MAGAZINE BELOW