As Liverpool’s reign as Capital of Culture officially ends on Saturday the 10th of January, a cultural dabbler reflects on a busy year.
Living within staggering distance of Liverpool city centre, my cultural basket has always overflowed; there are always gigs, plays, exhibitions and events to go to, so as our city became the European Capital Of Culture in January ’08, I expected a busy year – I wasn’t disappointed.
It all started frantically, the first week of the year saw the new Arena open – right on the waterfront, spectacularly flanked by the Albert Dock and Liver Buildings. The Farm had been invited to play the opening ceremony to an audience of ‘cultural ambassadors’ (good natured and enthusiastic volunteers – but not your usual gig-going punters). It was a surreal night, the place wasn’t finished – I got locked in the car park – the worky carrying the exit sign didn’t know the way out, no one knew how to turn the house lights off – but it was a buzz to be the first band ever to play there.
The official Capital of Culture opening ceremony featured Ringo on the roof of magnificent neo-classical gem; St. George’s Hall – with the great and the good, including us – being paraded out onto a platform to wave down at the crowds. Initially, we sniggered along with the legendary Pete Wylie and ex-footballer Peter Reid as the ‘slebs’ filed past – the various Wags, Les Dennis, The Sugababes and Doddy – but heading out to see the amount of people who’d turned up – and their enthusiasm – was genuinely moving. An estimated hundred thousand waved back up at us. The people of the city were really going for it. The next night was the first official gig at the Arena – billed as ‘Liverpool The Musical’, a spectacular concert with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra backing a wide range of bands and artists – highlights included The Mighty Wah! Shack, and Echo and the Bunnymen. We got the audience up dancing with ‘All Together Now’, ready for Mr Starr and his band to end the night. Despite the cynicism Ringo attracts (usually from dickheads who don’t know what they’re on about), being on stage with a Beatle was a big one – people can make all the snide comments they like about Thomas The Tank Engine – the man is a legend in our house.
Back to the day job. Along with my partner in Hurricane Films, Sol, I was mid-way through producing Terence Davies’ first film in eight years. We’d already been working on ‘Of Time and The City’ for six months, most of the archive footage for the documentary / visual poem had been assembled, next we spent a week shooting contemporary Liverpool. So it was back to St. Georges Hall (Ringo was off the roof by now), along with the magnificent Philharmonic Hall, whose cinema screen (which rises up, out of the stage) provides the film’s opening image.
Amid all the ‘glamour’ and culture came a sobering visit to see Michael Shields in prison. For the past three and a half years I’ve been involved in the campaign to free Michael – a teenage Liverpool fan jailed for attempted murder in Bulgaria, following Liverpool’s famous victory in Istanbul. A string of independent eye-witnesses testified that not only was Michael not the attacker – but he wasn’t even present, guests and staff in the hotel swore he was asleep in his room at the time, and – incredibly – another man actually owned up to the attack (but refused to return to Bulgaria). Michael was eventually transferred back to the UK for a ninety thousand pound ‘ransom’, but remains in prison. Throughout the year we continued campaigned for his release.
Spring came and went, and I ‘cultured’ relentlessly – Tavener’s Requiem at the Cathedral was stunning, Glasvegas rocked the tiny, cramped Korova Bar and Roger Waters enthralled the nostalgically stoned Arena with ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’. March saw a trip to the BAFTA awards – I’d written an episode of Jimmy McGovern’s The Street, which won best drama, Gina McKee – who starred in my episode – was also nominated for best actress, but lost out to Dame somebody. The episode also featured an impressive performance from a young actor called Matt Smith – destined to be the next Doctor Who.
By May, ‘Of Time And The City’ was finished and we rushed through post-production so it could be considered for The Cannes film festival, amazingly it was selected for the special screening category along with new films by Woody Allen and Spielberg. We arrived in Cannes with a low-budget film made as part as of regional scheme, but the press screening changed everything. We were advised not to attend – the International press audience rarely last the course (staying long enough to form an opinion before moving on to the next screening) and the sound of vacated chairs flipping closed can be soul-destroying, but we decided to slip in half-way through (it was the first ever screening, after all). We were amazed to see the place packed. Nobody left – they even stayed for the credits – and gave it a standing ovation. We were like excited kids as we mingled with the departing audience, eavesdropping on conversations – all positive. I introduced myself to Mark Kermode, who said it was one of the best films he’d seen in a long time (he went on to praise the film on Newsnight and the Culture Show). For the rest of the week the ‘buzz’ grew with each fantastic review, Terence spent gruelling days doing interviews with the International media, we were suddenly being taken for long lunches by people who didn’t have time for a coffee at the start of the week. The film now had UK and International theatrical releases lined-up and tickets for the screening were impossible to get hold of, we all trooped proudly down the red carpet and the film received another standing ovation.
Summer came and went, Superlamb Bananas – brightly coloured pieces of populist public art – adorned the city, and a giant Spider ‘La Princessa’ paraded around the packed streets. ‘Of Time and The City’ went down well at The Edinburgh film festival; The Farm headlined the Liverpool Arena (our first full gig in the city for 15 years – and our fourth appearance at the venue in seven months). Peter Hooton dedicated ‘All Together Now’ to the Shields family – who were our guests, but sadly Michael wasn’t there, though he had been granted a Judicial Review – two Law Lords would decide if Jack Straw had the power to release Michael (Straw claimed he didn’t have jurisdiction, despite the Bulgarian government saying it was the UK Government’s call).
Autumn saw the Liverpool premiere of ‘Of Time And The City’ at the Philharmonic Hall, where the screen rose from the stage then the film started with the screen rising from the stage – a surreal moment. The UK release went well, fifty screens across the country and nearly a hundred invitations from festivals around the world – we even out-lasted Bond in Liverpool – 007 played eight weeks, we managed nine.
As Christmas approached, Liverpool were top of the League and Michael’s campaign received support from the Prime Minister’s wife. A trip to London to protest outside the Law Courts and to deliver a letter to Number 10, ended with Michael’s mother, Marie, being welcomed by Sarah Brown who spent half an hour listening their story, before pledging her support. We also persuaded Liverpool FC to allow the players to wear ‘Free Michael’ t-shirts in the warm-up for the West Ham game, and I asked the actress and avid Reds fan, Sue Johnston to address the Anfield crowd on behalf of the Shields family – she thanked the fans for their support and urged Straw to do the right thing.
As the year ended, The Farm’s final contribution to ’08 was to join in with a people’s version of ‘All Together Now’ (firmly established as the anthem for the year) to be screened at the closing ‘Transition’ event on January 10th. The Judicial Review ruled that Jack Straw did have the power to release Michael Shields – who is still locked up, as Straw prevaricates. ‘Of Time In The City’ ended the year on most ‘films of the year’ lists – including the film industry’s magazine, Sight and Sound’s top ten list, Mark Kermode declared it his film of the year and it continues to be released around the world. Liverpool has been a worthy and successful cultural capital and 2008 has been a great year – 2009 has got a lot to live up to. Michael’s release and Liverpool winning the League would do for starters.