UK City of Culture launched with confidence and flair



Aside from our own unique brand of cynicism, there is bound to be angst on a smaller scale to that which foreshadowed the London 2012 Olympics. For Derry, the word “transformational “ is already familiar and will soon be overworked.  But transformed  already is what will become the main events venue, the old Ebrington Barracks ( see above, the arena depicted  is pending). This is now  linked to the old city via the Peace Bridge, for which the word “iconic” however also overworked, seems inevitable.

The relative scale of events for Derry UK City of Culture will in fact be greater and longer than the Olympics were for London, although hardly comparable in terms of world attention. 148 events of various sizes lasting over a year is quite an undertaking. And there are bound to be the sort of flops associated with any artistic endeavour.

When you think about it, it was improbable and inevitable at the same time. Inevitable that when they came up with the wheeze of adding a UK City of Culture competition  to the successful European one that Derry would be the city chosen to launch it.  Improbable but eye catchingly daring and if a failure, well, there would be special circumstances, from Derry’s small size and supposed remoteness to dissident republican troublemaking.

Although the Turner Prize had featured before with Willie Doherty’s video of a man running along the lower deck of Craigavon Bridge, Derry isn’t the most obvious venue for the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Ballet.  The last symphonic appearance I recall was the BBC Symphony Orchestra in the Guildhall in about 1962, when the men in the orchestra had to change in the gent’s toilet. Changed times in so many ways, even if you smile at some of the hype .

Lonely Planet this week named Derry as the fourth best city to visit next year after San Francisco, Amsterdam and Hyderabad. “I don’t think we’re more interesting than Beijing [fifth], to be fair,” said Michael Bradley, who was – and still is – bass player with the city’s best-known musical sons, the Undertones.

The overall cost is in the region of £25m, with £16m for programming. The lion’s share, £12.6m, is from the Northern Ireland Executive. “It is the biggest single investment on this island ever made for cultural programming,” said McCarthy. “A total vote of confidence.”

So far the launch promotion seems to have made only modest impact and co-ordinated publicity seems to have been a problem. It’s still early days.  One can only hope that the problems that the popped up on the surface only a few weeks ago are being sorted. Public spending in Derry has had its own piratical quality recently.

Who will turn up from further afield than Belfast and Letterkenny and what will the quality of the “visitor experience?  In the vast programme, is there a lack of coherence , too much of letting everyone in on the act for fear of disappointing them,  too many many events for any conceivable audience to sustain and for the available funding? What will Derry contribute to “culture” beyond its traditional fondness for balladry and diddly-dee? What will be the legacy?  One familiar criticism can be treated robustly, that it will do little for community relations. If folk sit back grimly and wait for something wonderful to happen to them, nothing will. The secret of improving community relations is to take part.

Alongside  the sheer exuberance of promotion,  I look forward to hearing more about the “transformational.” case.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London