‘Everyone is invited’

Hull’s much anticipated year in the spotlight kicks off this week when it officially becomes UK City of Culture

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It will be street theatre like no one’s ever seen before. A bold claim, especially since the streets in Hull city centre that form the stage have for months resembled a disaster area. Scarcely an inch of concrete has been left intact.

But for Hull the stakes are too high for exaggeration. The surface of almost every street has been ripped up and wired with smart lighting and sound systems. A vast multiscreen cinema was created from the buildings’ exteriors. Onto them will be projected specially made movies, animations, archive footage and interactive live performances, while the streets themselves talk to audiences and narrate the story of Hull. The event, metaphorically as much as literally ground-breaking, launches Hull’s year as UK City of Culture and takes its cues from the tradition of son et lumière, which uses sound and light to transform the public realm with images and stories.

It is presided over by Hull 2017’s chief executive and director, Martin Green, who organised the spectacular opening ceremonies for London’s 2012 Olympics and the 2014 Tour de France grand depart in Leeds. His appointment is a measure of Hull’s stratospherically high hopes for the year.

“The opening week will be thrilling, evocative and thought-provoking.”

“The opening week will be thrilling, evocative and thought-provoking,” he promises. “And everyone is invited. We hope as many of Hull’s 260,000 residents as possible will want to experience this amazing project. It paves the way for a year in which people will look at the city with fresh eyes.”

This desire to change Hull’s image has been central to the project since the city beat Dundee, Leicester and Swansea to win the coveted title. There are some of the most challenging poverty indices in the UK, with 52 per cent of the population said to live in deprived areas, and Hull has often featured at the unflattering end of lists purporting to identify the worst places to live. It never fully recovered from being the most bombed city outside London in the Second World War, and since then the population has been hit by the total collapse of its main industry, deep sea fishing.

But throughout 2017, the negative image of Hull will be not so much airbrushed as artbrushed out of the national consciousness with more than £130 million of spending on a city centre and waterfront makeover, and a dazzling programme that ranges from hosting the 2017 Turner Prize to celebrations of many leading names from Hull in the arts and entertainment world. By end of the year, everyone in Britain will know where Hull is, and not just because it is now shown every day on the BBC’s weather map.

The year has been divided into four distinct seasons. The first, running to the end of March, is titled Made in Hull and shows how much the city has contributed to the cultural and commercial life of Britain. The second, Roots & Routes, explores Hull’s relationships with the world as a great seaport, not least the story of 2.5 million trans-migrants who passed through Hull from Europe, many of them Jewish refugees heading for the US. The third, Freedom, runs from July to September and celebrates the city’s role in ending the slave trade through one of its greatest sons, William Wilberforce. The year closes with Tell the World, which has a more contemporary theme and is designed to project a future role for Hull in the arts world.

Headline events in the first season include the world premiere of The Hypocrite, a comedy by Hull-born playwright Richard Bean based on the true story of how Hull slammed the city gates on Charles I in 1642 and struck the first blow in what became the English Civil War. Then there’s the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing film music like Star Wars and Jaws composed by John Williams, while ex Ziggy Stardust Spider Woody Woodmansey and producer Tony Visconti team up to perform David Bowie’s most famous album. The early months also include a major exhibition of wildlife photography, a Nordic winter festival and a weekend of events celebrating the role of women and girls in UK culture.

But much of the 2017 programme has still to be unveiled, and major names are promised for later in the year. Martin Green says he has learned from the experiences of cities like Liverpool (European Capital of Culture 2008) and Derry/Londonderry (UK City of Culture 2013), which advised him not to try to publicise an entire year’s worth of events in one go.

The programme was virtually self-written thanks to the huge number of arts and entertainment alumni who have a Hull background. It’s simply staggering how many high-achievers come from Hull, says Green. “Take Basil Kirchin. He’s the godfather of electronic dance and ambient music and cited by Brian Eno and others as a complete luminary. There’s one of our greatest poets, Phillip Larkin, and one of the best contemporary playwrights, Richard Bean. And who hasn’t heard of Paul Heaton? He came to us and said he wanted to do a special show of songs he doesn’t usually sing and insisted on performing at the Hull Kingston Rovers Stadium in East Hull. We sold 15,000 tickets for that the day they went on sale.”

Even before the first firework had been lit on 1 January there were encouraging signs the festival had massively engaged the people of Hull. A survey by the local newspaper found that 85 per cent of residents were excited about Hull 2017. Even fans of Hull City began singing at visiting supporters “You’re only here for the culture.” At the city’s prison, the inmates have volunteered to build a replica of the plane flown by another Hull legend, Amy Johnson, who made the first solo flight to Australia in the 1930s.

But how realistic is the hope that Hull 2017 will fundamentally change the city’s image and have a lasting effect on its cultural life?

“Just look at how Liverpool has been transformed since it was European Capital of Culture,” says Jon Pywell, who led the city council’s successful bid for the festival. “They really made it work for them by keeping the momentum and confidence going at the end of the year. That’s what we’ve got to do.”

There’s certainly a new confidence about the city. A few weeks ago, Siemens opened a £310 million wind turbine blade factory on the old Alexandra Dock and created 1,000 jobs to service offshore wind farms. And there are big changes around the waterfront. Its architectural gem, known as the Old Town, is being readied for an application to make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Plans for a cruise ship terminal are being developed. And the old fruit market area, having been mostly derelict for years, has been turned into an arts, bars and restaurants centre.

Green says: “There are 12 million people who live within a two hour drive of the city, but because it’s not generally a city that people pass through – you have to come here for a purpose. So I’m hoping lots of people from the rest of the north will now make the journey and give it a chance. They’ll really be impressed.”

Main image: artwork by Perry Curties for Flood – an imagining of what happens to Hull when the water comes, told across the entire year 

Hull 2017 highlights

Many events have yet to be announced, but these are some confirmed standouts in the year-long programme

1-7 January  Made in Hull. A free, unticketed seven-day winter outdoor festival “where the streets speak and buildings tell stories”. Large-scale picture projections, illuminated skylines and live performances in the city centre starting at 4pm each day.

17-19 February  Mind on the Run: The Basil Kirchin Story. A weekend celebration of work by Hull’s influential electronic/ambient music pioneer Basil Kirchin.

24 February-18 March  The Hypocrite. World premiere of Hull playwright Richard Bean’s new work, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company – a comedy that recreates the crucial role Hull played in starting the English Civil War.

25 March  The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars. The band that played on Bowie’s breakthrough album came from Hull. Now original drummer Woody Woodmansey and producer Tony Visconti perform it in its entirety at the City Hall.

28 April-1 May  John Grant’s North Atlantic Flux, Sounds From Smoky Bay. A four-day Nordic music festival takes over Hull city centre, curated by singer-songwriter John Grant and including Icelandic electronic dance collective GusGus.

4-27 May  Richard III. Northern Broadsides and Hull Truck Theatre present Shakespeare’s twisted villain, directed by Hull-born theatre legend Barrie Rutter.

2-4 June  Where Are We Now? A three-day festival of “cultural rabble-rousers, thinkers and luminaries”, including Mercury
Prize winners Young Fathers, rapper and poet Akala, and Sex Pistols artist Jamie Reid.

3 June  Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, Beauty in the East. A one-off show by former Beautiful South members at Hull KC Lightstream stadium. The Divine Comedy and Billy Bragg support.

28 September  Turner Prize 2017, Ferens Art Gallery. Free admission to this year’s exhibits in the world-renowned arts prize. Hull is only the fifth non-London venue since the prize was established in 1984.

4 December  Turner Prize winner announced at a special ceremony in Hull.

The launch event in the streets of Hull city centre is on 1-7 January from 4pm-9pm. Free entry, no ticket required (hull2017.co.uk)

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