2016 was almost universally despised as a seemingly relentless barrage of celebrity deaths and major political upheaval dominated the news. By contrast 2017 has been a more low key affair, and though the threat of imminent nuclear war keeps us on our toes, it’s mostly much less dramatic.
But where are we ‘at’ in Leicester? The region got big news back in June as Arts Council England announced £20 million in funding as part of a huge investment in the region in the form of its National Portfolio, supporting the likes of Curve, Phoenix, Attenborough Arts Centre, Soft Touch, Leicester Print Workshop and many more. Then, Just months later and September saw Leicester City Council announce it will be cutting £1 million from their tourism and culture budget – affecting some of those same institutions and reducing the opening hours of several city museums. Despite that, though, the outlook in the city feels resoundingly positive.
“I think Leicester is getting itself into pretty good shape across the board if I’m honest, not just culturally” enthuses De Montfort Hall’s Antony Flint. “Being a non-native, I maybe see it from a slightly different perspective, but I do get a sense that the city has really started to believe in itself.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Kermes’ vocalist and guitarist Emily Teece “I think that, culturally, Leicester is in a pretty strong place right now. It’s a small city and when I first came here five years ago it didn’t feel like there was that much going on, but I think that’s because a lot of the cool stuff happening in this city is very community-level. It’s been really amazing to see groups like INTRSKTR and Anerki coming into their own and providing places for people from different genres and backgrounds to meet, collaborate and do exciting things.”
“On the whole I think we’ve got some really ambitious organisations, festivals and venues doing a lot for the people of Leicester and raising the profile of the city with a supportive council who values arts and culture” explains The Short Cinema organiser Alexzander Jackson. “I guess there could be a little more collaboration and innovation at times but that’s as long as people are respectful to the unique angle of each of the existing ventures.”
“We started the year with our best Comedy Festival ever and so far it’s been on an upward trend since” explains Adam Durnin from The Y. The Comedy festival is clearly something the city is proud to have, and it’s return next year is already hotly anticipated by almost everyone we spoke to.
“I enjoyed the comedy festival more this year than ever” explains folk singer Grace Petrie “it’s really gone from strength to strength and is something I look forward to months in advance.” That sentiment is of course echoed by Big Difference CEO and Comedy Festival director Geoff Rowe, who’s already working on next year’s iteration. “It’ll be our 25th anniversary in 2018 and I’m incredibly proud of all those who have helped sustain the festival over the years.”
April saw the return of three-day music festival Handmade to Leicester’s O2 Academy. “Handmade Festival has been amazing to see grow year-on-year” gushes Emily. “This year’s was the best yet.” Grace echoes her thoughts. “It’s really amazing to see the hard work of the creative community paying off with a festival that is quite rightly earning a big name nationally as one of the best independent festivals on the circuit.”
The city’s music scene seems to have stopped wallowing in the loss of The Charlotte and it feels like it’s back on it’s feet more than ever with big names passing through routinely. “We’ve managed to really put Leicester on the map as a touring destination for music” Grace speculates. “There is so much creativity coming out of the city, especially young artists with political identities which is very exciting to see. We also have places like the Guildhall becoming a respected touring venues for folk acts where before we might have lost out to other places in the Midlands, so that is wonderful to see”
“There’s a new venue, Dryden Street Social, that just opened up recently” Emily points out. “It’s a bigger room than most venues in Leicester so I’m excited to see if it can help pull some bigger touring bands in.”
With Phoenix leading the way, film continues to excel in the city. “There’s been a fantastic season of Cinema Bizarre from The Social Cinema at Phoenix” says Alex “and I was really pleased with the number of programmes we were able to present at this year’s TSC festival and the number of wonderful local filmmakers we had the opportunity to screen the work of.”
Theatre and performance has also had a bit of a renaissance in recent years, but it’s not all about Curve’s big budget shows, though obviously they’re still popular. “1448 at The Y Theatre is one of the best things in the calendar” says Attenborough Arts Centre’s John Kirby “and I really enjoyed the artist takeover of the gallery at AAC in January.”
While enthusiasm is generally running high in the city, it’s not all plain sailing. “For one reason or another, everything feels a bit more expensive right now” muses Alex Jackson. “The cost of living is going up, wages are stationary and funding for arts and culture is declining which makes it more difficult to convince people that your event is worth the investment of their really hard earned disposable income.”
“I think we continually let ourselves down as a city by the lack of national profile / promotion for what is happening culturally in Leicester” explains Geoff, and across the whole of our panel there’s definitely a feeling that while we’re doing great at home, our away performance has not been exceptional.
“There is a lot of really amazing work being made in Leicester but I don’t feel like enough goes out of the region.” Says John Kirby “I feel like we need a shake-up of festivals too. It’s not spread out very well but I think that’s partly down to venues not thinking collaboratively. In short, venues, artists and audiences all need to sit down together and commit to action from that point, rather than leaving it six months then talking about it again.”
“I think Leicester still suffers from the hole left by the Big Session and Summer Sundae” Grace reflects. “The festivals we do have are great, but if we want to just tip the scales into making it an event that people travel to Leicester for rather than something just for the local community, I think we need to be aiming for something bigger scale with some bigger names.”
The loss of Queens Hall was another hot topic, and as the final decision is due to be made on its future is just around the corner, it’s definitely a contentious issue. “I was really sad and angry to hear that Leicester Uni were planning on redeveloping the Queen’s Hall venue into yet another food court” explains Emily. “I hope it can be saved, but it’s such a shame to throw a beautiful old venue away for the sake of rinsing more money out of students.” “Leicester has enough coffee shops” remarks Naomh Cullen from The Y.
We don’t want to end on a downer so we will, narcissistically, give the last word to Antony from De Montfort Hall. “People will think you’ve paid me for saying this, but Great Central really establishing itself has been a highlight! If we’re serious about developing the vibrant cultural scene even further than we have already, an independent, slightly irreverent and above all else, comprehensive listings mag has been needed in the city for quite some time. Bravo!”.
Accusations of bribery remain unsubstantiated, but if you like what we’ve been doing for the city over the last month you can support our continued ability to do that with a monthly donation of just 75p or more over at Patreon.com/GreatCentral.
The Great Central Awards
Being in our infancy it didn’t feel like our place to be dishing out end of year awards yet, so we spoke to some of our friends involved in Leicester’s arts scene to see who they’d give an award to and why…
*Note – It turns out that if you ask people to pick people for awards, some of them might pick you, perhaps out of a sense of obligation. While we’re incredibly flattered, we did consider editing them out. But then we didn’t. Because we’d really like an award.
“Great Central for working so hard for so long to build a sense of ambition and community and LCB and Grays kitchen staff for putting up with me” –
Manager of LCB Depot
“I might be biased here but I would give an award to Phoenix for its accessible and engaging film and digital art programme and their great front of house team who make people feel really welcome in the venue. The organisation is really lucky to have so many multi-talented people on staff, many of whom are artists and/or run creative businesses in the city themselves.”
Education manager for Phoenix Cinema and Director of The Short Cinema
“I would give an award to “big” Neil Segrott, for being the loveliest sound engineer in the world and being Leicester’s best export – his skills are in constant demand nationally for providing not only such great sound but wonderful backstage support to the acts he works with. I love him.
I’d also give one to Handmade for a proper understanding of diversity and commitment to it in booking, which is something you don’t see in promoters and almost never in straight white male ones.”
“The Most Ridiculously Hard-working Community Arts Person Award to John Helps, for editing and writing for a magazine (this one), running a record label and promoting shows (Robot Needs Home), making and producing records with local artists (Kermes, Grace Petrie, etc.), running a three-day multi-venue music and arts festival (Handmade) and a club night (Plug). I really don’t know how he manages to do it all, but he does.”
Vocalist & Guitarist in Kermes
“The Musician for keeping on going and doing what they do so brilliantly. I think they started in 2000 so that’s an incredible achievement. Also Lucy Phillips for having the vision and leadership to move Leicester Print Workshop from Highfields to the Cultural Quarter making a huge contribution to the area.”
CEO of Big Difference Company and Director of Leicester Comedy Festival
“This’ll sound a bit cheesy, but I’d give an ‘Up for It’ award to Leicester audiences in general. They’re always up for a laugh, go “out, out” loads and support all the great venues we have in the city. Without them, what we in the venues do would be an utter waste of time!
Oh, I’d also give an award to our near neighbour, Robin Hood. It’d be the runner up award for Most popular historical/fictional figure linked to the East Midlands. Unlucky.”
General Manager at De Montfort Hall
“I give an award to Dan Nicholas just for being brilliant, onstage and off it, Dave Deverick for Omnipresence, David Wilson Clarke for being Leicester’s answer to Tom from Myspace. Lewys Holt also had a delightful moustache at the beginning of 2017. If there was an award for that he’d take it. I asked the office and the only other response was Jodie Hannis wanted an award for herself so I guess if there is one left at the end of the awards she can have one too, like a consolation prize.”
Creative Learning and Events Programmer at Attenborough Arts Centre
“Nik Sharpe from Future Perfect / The Cookie deserves recognition for putting Leicester back on the touring map in a tangible way. Many others have contributed, but his efforts deserve praise.”
Editor of Great Central
“We would give the ‘Oh there is it is!’ Award to The Y for the most hidden theatre.”
“John Kirby at Attenborough Arts Centre deserves an award for consistently great, weird and brave programming and The Little Theatre deserves an award for its sense of community and the way in which its volunteers consistently pull together to make such a great venue.”
Adam Durnin and Naomh Cullen
Theatre Manager and Theatre Programming and Marketing Officer respectively at The Y