Archive for Arts

Join the press gang at Buerk! The Newsical

Buerk The Newsical banner

I’m a sucker for journalism fiction. Wait! Don’t go yet, this isn’t yet another post about the Johann Hari plagiarism row. Instead it’s about those dramatised tales of journalism. If you’re new to the genre, I’d recommend starting with Citizen Kane and Scoop, before moving on The Paper, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, Psmith Journalist and Towards The End Of The Morning.

Everyone thrills at seeing their trade represented on screen, in a theatre or in a book, I suspect, and I find representations of life in a newsroom addictive even where it bears little resemblance to my experiences. I’ve yet to hear anyone shout ‘stop the presses!’ for instance, nor have I seen a newspaper spinning in the way so beloved of Hollywood effects editors.

Given my tastes, I was intrigued to hear of a new comedy musical on TV journalist Michael Buerk, about to be performed in Leeds. I have no idea about the quality of Buerk! The Newsical, but from the title and the blurb on their website it sounds like a winner:

Buerk! The Newsical is a new comedy musical from the minds of Tom Bailey and Greg Jameson. The show whisks us back to the 1980s, a time of hope and innocence when beer was cheap, red braces were in and ska was all the rage. Follow our hero Buerk as he starts his career at BBC News, falls in love with Moira Stuart and becomes the nation’s most beloved newsreader. But it isn’t all jollity and endless refills of Martini Rosso at News Towers. Buerk’s new friend Ian McCaskill appears to be a feckless weather boob, but he has a secret life. What evil plan will he conjure up to get Buerk out of the picture so that he can swoop on Moira?

Of course it would be preferable if it was set in a newspaper newsroom rather than a TV studio. How about a sequel – Robert Fisk The Opera?

Buerk! The Newsical is at the Seven Arts in Leeds on Friday, July 8 and Saturday, July 9. 8pm. £8. Stick it in your news diary. More information from http://www.buerkthenewsical.com

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Northern Art Prize 2010

Lubaine Himid artwork

Lubaine Himid artwork

Leeds City Art Gallery has an impressive collection of modern and contemporary art – plenty of Walter Sickert, Francis Bacon, Sir Stanley Spencer and Wyndham Lewis up the staircase – so it’s the perfect host venue for the Northern Art Prize exhibition.

Last weekend I braved the snow to cross the Pennines and have a gawp at this, the fourth year of the prize.

Here’s how it works: curators at museums and galleries nominate up to 24 visual artists from across the north, who are then whittled down to 4 by a panel of judges. The shortlisted artists’ work is then exhibited across several rooms in Leeds City Art Gallery and one winner receives £16,000.

In fact the Northern Art Prize exhibition hits you before you even enter the first room as Haroon Mirza’s installations can be heard throughout much of the building. He’s piled together a buzzing TV set, a fuzzy, foreign radio broadcast, a looping record player and some chunky furniture to create a dislocating sound that’s intended to play on the boundary between hearing and listening.

It’s clever and well executed, but like much sound and video art it’s intrusive on the rest of the exhibition. Haroon’s soundscape can’t be easily blocked out as you try to concentrate on the other three finalists’ work.

Coincidentally, a few weeks later I was at the impressive Nottingham Contemporary gallery and immediately recognised the piled-up furniture and electronic contraptions as Mirza’s work. It seems his distinctive installations are hot right now, a state of affairs presumably not harmed by the Turner Art Prize being awarded to sound artist Susan Philipz this year.

The pick of the show for me, however, was Lubaina Himid’s dainty miniature figures exhibited next to, and being dwarfed by, ceramic cups and bowls. Make your own mind up as the Northern Art Prize continues until February.

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Metropolis

The name Fritz Lang meant nothing to me until my mid-twenties when I darted into the Filmmuseum to escape a Berlin downpour. Smugly expecting little more than a shrine to David Hasselhoff and a sly chance to dry off, I was instead gobsmacked by how innovative, challenging and artistic early German film-making was, particularly the so-called ‘Golden Age’ in the Weimar Republic period. And the pride and joy of the museum is the section devoted to Lang’s 1927 visual masterpiece Metropolis, the product of one-and-a-half years, 36,000 extras, futuristic filming methods and a then-record budget.

This weekend saw my first chance to see Metropolis on a big screen, at the Cornerhouse in Manchester, having only viewed it on YouTube beforehand (it’s out of copyright so available to view legally online). Even better, this new print has been newly-restored with 25 minutes of seemingly lost footage that’s been rediscovered in Argentina and spliced in. So it’s a longer version than any viewers have seen for 83 years, something Lang would have appreciated as he despaired that the film had been butchered.

The verdict? The difference in the quality of the print is stunning. See this flickering and muddy YouTube version, like it was filmed by torchlight:

And compare it with the bright, bold trailer for the scrubbed-up version:


I’m not convinced the extra footage adds much to the plot, though my former colleague Iain Hepburn insists I’m wrong and there’s a significant difference between the edits. But the restoration has turned footage that was really just suitable for film students to analyse, or as an artefact in a museum, back into a thrilling science fiction that’s hugely impressive on the silver screen.

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More than just a north-south divide

This week, cuts the coalition Government imposed on the Arts Council were passed down to the organisations it helps keep afloat. Many are putting a brave face on the news for now, but this is just the opening salvo: local councils across the country will no doubt look to slash their own funding to these ‘soft targets’ in the coming months in their attempts to balance the books.

All very depressing for those of us who see culture as a vital eye-opening, life-affirming escape from the hamster wheel of work, and of particularly importance in grim times such as these. That’s not forgetting that investing in the arts makes economic sense, too – the chief executive of Manchester’s Cornerhouse is quoted in the Manchester Evenng News as saying it puts £7 back for every £1 of Arts Council funding received. If fewer people go to theatres and galleries, then ancillary businesses like bars, restaurants and taxis will lose out too.

But the list of bodies in the North West in receipt of Arts Council funding, albeit now at reduced levels, depressed me in another way too – namely that they are so heavily skewed towards Greater Manchester and Liverpool. While the MEN article mentioned above listed 47 local organisations losing £850,000 between them, my colleague Tom Moseley had just 5 bodies and £40,000 cuts to write about for East Lancashire.

Rough figures show there are about five times more people in the MEN’s catchment area (2.5m) than the Lancashire Telegraph’s (0.5m), yet it receives more than 21 times the funding from the Arts Council. Even my journo-maths can work that out – there’s four times as much arts funding per capita for Mancunians as Lancastrians.

Of course, there are proportionally more galleries and theatres in Greater Manchester than East Lancashire, and many have higher profiles too. But, while it would be unfair to name names, there are countless examples of contemporary art galleries or youth-focused theatre groups in one area receiving sizeable funding and similar organisations in other areas nothing.

It’s widely acknowledged that the country gives the south most of the cake, and the north is left with crumbs. But within the north itself, the shiny city regions hoover up most of the big crumbs and there’s barely dust left for the rest.

Another example of this imbalance came today, when the Government rejected three separate Lancashire bids to form bodies which would compete for regional growth funding, while the rest of the North West’s plans were waved through. At its best, this decision will mean a delay in Lancashire regeneration projects being able to bid for funds from the Government’s £1.4bn pot. At its worst, it’ll mean all that cash will have already been funnelled to the usual suspects before Lancashire is even in the game.

And the brain drain out of the region will worsen; more people will flee in despair at the lack of opportunities; more terraced streets will lie empty and abandoned; and the south will continue to overheat.

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In praise of small museums

Look carefully and you’ll find oodles of small museums in the North West, some which manage to be every bit as enthralling as the lavishly-funded, better-known attractions through the passion and ingenuity of the staff alone.

I’ve never been to the wilfully esoteric British Lawnmower Museum in Southport or Keswick’s infamous Cumberland Pencil Museum, where presumably most visitors go to see what type of people spend their weekends gawping at Fly-Mos and HB pencils.

Two of my personal highlights are Bacup’s cluttered yet charming Natural History Museum, which seemingly breaks every rule of display and is open just one day a year aside from its members’ meetings. and the Pioneers Museum in Rochdale, where you’re guided round the first-ever Co-op shop by a roaring, avuncular Welshman.

For the recent Heritage Open Days, the annual weekend where venues of various hues fling their doors open for visitors to mooch around for free, I ticked two more of the region’s smaller museums off the to-do list.

I wasn’t aware The Manchester Masonic Museum existed until I walked into the freemasons’ lodge on Bridge Street, Manchester. The museum, on the second floor, is what you’d expect: two rooms of display cases of masonic medals, aprons and books. Very underwhelming for the outsider, unlike the uplifting art deco building itself, all gleaming white and sweeping curves.

The architecture is a stark contrast to the dark, frankly creepy meeting rooms, which I suspect are not usually part of the museum experience. They’re decorated with Latin slogans, strange heraldry and all-seeing eyes, and stuffed with the type of ritualistic objects which caused my furtive imagination to go into overdrive.

Inside the Manchester Masonic Museum

Inside the Manchester Masonic Museum

You may have visited one of Daniel Liebskind’s high-concept, slick Jewish museums in Berlin, San Francisco and Copenhagen. The Manchester Jewish Museum couldn’t be more of a contrast – it’s tiny, pleasantly ramshackled and housed in a disused synagogue built in 1874.

Because it’s so small – about ten panels and glasses cases in total – it gives a broad brushstroke approach to the ebb, flow and lives of Manchester’s Jewish population, which was once heavily concentrated in the streets around the museum but has since dissipated.

Photo of me 'admiring an old iron Singer sewing machine'.

Photo of me 'admiring an old iron Singer sewing machine' by Jamie Lowe of the Manchester Evening News.

The temporary exhibition area, in an annex at the back, allows more in-depth focus, however. On my visit, this looked at the Red Bank area of Manchester, the working class Jewish terraced district on the Manchester/Salford border, a square mile of housing stock which has mainly been cleared by now.

Of particular interest to me, as a journalist, were the examples of shockingly anti-Jewish newspaper reports which could have been culled from Der Sturmer but were in fact printed by a local Manchester title. At the same time, Oswald Mosley set up his British Union of Fascists’ northern headquarters around here (17 Northumberland Street, Higher Broughton to be precise) and his Blackshirts marched between here and Strangeways, goading the Jewish population.

Such a dramatic story packed into a small museum. Well worth the ten-minute walk north of Victoria Station.

* Manchester Masonic Museum is on Bridge Street, Manchester. Manchester Jewish Museum is on Bury New Road, Manchester.

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Victorian heritage of the North on screen

Apparently, the first show in BBC4’s North Of England season was titled The Road To Wigan Pie Shop, so forgive my initial fear it’d just trot out all the usual stereotypes of our region.

Yet, while I’m still not tossing my flat cap in the air at most of the schedule, such as a whole night of programmes about rugby league, there is a real gem nestled in there too.

People’s Palaces: The Golden Age Of Civic Architecture is a two-part documentary on northern architecture of the Victorian age, both the ambitious, lavish neo-classical and the dark, overbearing gothic.

Presenter Jonathan Foyle in a publicity shot for BBC4's People's Palaces documentaries

Much of the first hour-long show pings back and forth between the fierce rivals Liverpool and Manchester as they try to out-bling each other in the neo-classical stakes.

Nowadays Manchester markets itself so rigorously as a shiny, new city that it’s easy to forget the beautiful columns of Greek-style buildings like the Portico Library and the Royal Manchester Institute (now the City Art Gallery).

But Liverpool is surely the North’s most handsome city and nothing can match St George’s Hall, Walker Art Gallery and the City Hall, particularly when filmed by the BBC in brilliant sunshine.

The last ten minutes saw the programme-makers twig that the North comprises more than just those big North West rivals. So it shoehorned in two great Yorkshire town halls – the completely overblown Todmorden version and the jaw-droppingly sumptuous interior of the one in Leeds.

I’ve yet to view the second instalment of the documentary, on gothic Victorian architecture, but I hope it significantly shifts the focus away from the North West. Surely Newcastle, featuring street after street of charming Victorian buildings, my own, unfairly-maligned hometown of Hull, which attracts more visitors than another overlooked city, York, deserve at least a mention?

Jonathan Foyle presents with reassuring authority, but the stars of the show are of course the buildings, many of which you can take a look at any time. But by a handy coincidence, this weekend sees Heritage Open Days take place once again giving access to some places usually out of bounds. Take a look at the website here for listings.

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Thumbs up for new, improved People’s History Museum

The People’s History Museum in Manchester was always one of my favourite haunts. Housed in a former water pumphouse on the banks of the Irwell, it gave a brief introduction to all of the world-shaking ideas and popular causes which sprung out of the region such as industrialisation, Chartism, votes for all, socialism, feminism and trade unionism.

With such a wide scope of topics, and a rather restricted space in which to cram them all into, it was superb news when the museum bosses secured enough funding to allow it to massively expand. Now, three years on, the extension – cased in the rusty metal used in the Angel of the North which looks more appealing the more you view it – is finished and the museum has flung open its doors again.

People's History Museum, Manchester

The People's History Museum behind a forest of direction signs

The verdict? Almost everything about it is a hit.

The permanent exhibition begins on the first floor, covering the 1600s right up to 1945, and continues with the post-war period on the second floor. Some of the highlights I remember from the old museum have kept their place – for instance the selection of trade union banners, a clocking-in machine, and Michael Foot’s famous donkey jacket – but there’s dozens of new intriguing artefacts too. it’s massively more engaging for kids as well, with dressing-up kits, a play shop, computer screens and sound clips all being well used when I visited.

Even though the museum has expanded massively, though, it’s still not big enough to do full justice to all topics. How can you cover feminism, for instance, when you have just two walls to play with? In addition, it’s hard to follow how all the topics flow at times – a section on the slave trade could be jammed between Peterloo and Mary Woolstencraft because of the sheer range that needs to be covered. They have created a diagram showing how the subjects interlock, but you’d need the museum to double in size again before there’d be enough room to do them all justice.

What the PHM does superbly well is give visitors a bite-sized introduction to key themes, usually with some fascinating period objects, and hopefully these will encourage people to dig deeper on the topics which grab them. To help visitors follow things up perhaps there could be more cross-promotion of related nearby attractions such as Chetham’s Library, the Museum of Science & Industry, the Pankhurst Centre and the Working Class Movement Library, while a bigger selection of related books in the shop would also help.

For repeat visitors, the temporary exhibition space is perhaps most important. After all, there are a limited number of times even a huge People’s History Museum fan will want to revisit the permanent collection.

The omens look mixed here. The quality is high – I vividly remember a cracking collection of photography bursting with colour from the Silk Road a few years ago, and the new People’s History Museum opens in similarly impressive style with Carried Away, great black-and-white action photos of protests, strikes and insurrection. But the next temporary exhibition isn’t scheduled for eight months. If you have only one changing space, it seems a shame to move it on a bit more regularly. There are, however, some talks and guided walks to keep you coming back.

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