Archive | September 2013

In the Borders

I’ve been criss-crossing the Scottish Borders for the past few weeks, so I’m going to have to cheat, and instead of a new blog, post a link to what I’ve being writing for that blogsite!


Cultural Days

'Haining Dreaming' at the YES Festival

‘Haining Dreaming’ at the YES Festival

The haunting image of an Indian dancer, projected multiple times on to a length of woven tweed.

A packed audience straining to see the miniscule performances at a flea circus

Seventy children bringing back to life the memory of a 200 year old house through music and dance

An over-60s choir singing joyfully on a busy High Street

Scotland’s Makar reciting The Twa Corbies

One of the witches from ‘Macbeth’ delivering the ‘double double’ speech in the local Coop, as if it was a Nigella recipe

A magical digital panorama of toads creating new life.

These are just some of the haunting, moving, funny and downright bizarre experiences that I’ve had in the last two weeks.

In these difficult times it must take a degree of ambition and sheer nerve to embark on a new artistic venture, so it’s been gratifying to experience not one but two such new enterprises, within the same fortnight, and at opposite ends of the country.

Our first week of consultations towards a Cultural Strategy for the Scottish Borders happily coincided with the launch of the YES Festival  —not a political statement, but a new festival for Yarrow, Ettrick and Selkirk–and then, just over a week later and back home in the north, I went along to the first Culture Day for Forres, Kinloch and Findhorn, which is itself intended to be the forerunner of a new Findhorn Bay Arts Festival to be held in a year’s time.

Despite the geographic distance, these two events had a lot in common.  Though each centred on a Royal Burgh, the programmes of events in each also spread out to surrounding communities. Both transformed the town’s High Street with a range of exhibitions and pop-up events.  Both involved a huge amount of community and voluntary participation, of all ages, but depended at their core on the enthusiasm and commitment of a few key individuals, and thorough, professional promotion, management and coordination.    Both, as far as I could tell, seemed to be generating a lot of local interest and involvement, with sizeable audiences for most, if not all events.

'Culture Day' in Forres

‘Culture Day’ in Forres

The great thing about festivals and special days is that they’re so much more than the sum of their parts.  Throw yourself into the experience, and you’ll quickly forget or ignore those bits that weren’t so good, but feel exhilarated by the sheer imagination, diversity, and surprise of everything else.  And people will move mountains to make such an event work, in a way that can’t be sustained week on week, month on month, throughout the year.

But festivals are also like cake—very tasty, but you can’t live on that alone.  Festivals thrive best when they’re rooted in a mulch of year-round activities.  By a further happy coincidence, I’ve also in this fortnight been to the celebrations of the 15th anniversary of a very special means of delivering such year-round experiences, the Screen Machine Mobile Cinema.  Setting up, and for many years managing, the mobile cinema operation is one of the things I’m proudest to have been associated with, though the lion’s share of the credit has to go to the two guys about to cut the birthday cake in this photo—the driver/operators Iain McColl and Neil MacDonald.  Without their incredible dedication, and sheer love of the job, the Screen Machine would never have become the much-loved fixture it now is, in so many small communities across Scotland.

Screen Machine 15th birthday party

Screen Machine 15th birthday party

In a recent, by now notorious, speech to the Edinburgh Fringe, the English playwright Mark Ravenhill incited his audience not only to prepare for a possible future without public arts funding, but also, as artists, to in some respects feel freed up by not having to make the compromises that he believes are involved in accepting such funding.  But where does that leave the wider community? One central factor that all these ventures have in common—the YES Festival, Culture Day, the Screen Machine—is funding from Creative Scotland, alongside a host of other funders and supporters, regional, national and international.

in these times of spending cuts and tightened family budgets, cultural junkies like me, for whom the value of such activities is self-evident, nonetheless need to make a strong case for the wider impact and benefit of such events and services. Benefits, that is,  not only for those who take part in them, and for those who enjoy them, but also for those who only hear or read about them, and for those running businesses who might see some indirect benefit from them.  Like, for example, the butcher in Forres who was delighted with Culture Day, because he always sells more meat when ‘there’s something happening in the High Street’.

The 70s, Part 2: Coarse Acting

Marking forty years since my first paid job in the arts (Evening Times music critic), this is the second in an occasional series of retrospective (aka nostalgic) blogs, looking at ‘then and now’:

Dundee Rep, 1978

Dundee Rep, 1978

This month, September, it’s thirty years since I took up the post of Director at the Crawford Arts Centre in the University of St Andrews.  One of the peculiarities of St Andrews then (and probably now) was that it had a hugely active student drama scene, precisely because, it seemed, it did not have a Drama department.  Somehow student drama could be more inclusive if there was no division between those who were ‘doing’ drama and those who just wanted to tread the boards.  But the absence of a formal academic qualification hasn’t stopped many of those St Andrews students from going on to successful careers in the performing arts.  One, who also became a good friend, is Philip Howard, so there’s a pleasing circularity that this month also sees the start of his tenure as co-director of Dundee Rep.   Scotland being a very small country, I also have a link with Dundee Rep, but a much more humble one. Having acquired a provisional Equity card through my BBC contract (see Part 1 in this series), when that contract came to an end, I went to the Rep as an Assistant Stage Manager, in September 1977.

Dundee Repertory Theatre had been founded in 1939, and it had had an honourable and sometimes starry past. Cast lists from the 1960s included early appearances by the likes of Lynn Redgrave, James Bolam and Michael York, and Scottish actors of the calibre of Brian Cox and Hannah Gordon had started out there.  But in 1963 its home of almost 25 years had burned down, and the company had moved into temporary quarters in a disused church. Fourteen years later, I found them still there.

Wardrobe, Dundee Rep, 1978

Wardrobe, Dundee Rep, 1978

It’s hard to exaggerate the sheer squalor in which the company was working after existing for so long as theatrical refugees.  Fortunately I’ve still got the photographs I took at the time to remind me. Backstage was no more than a bare passage (christened the anus terribilis), the two communal dressing rooms were simply converted landings on the stairs to the gallery, and the only way to the control box was through the female dressing room and up through a hatch. Oh, and the only shower in the entire building was a single cold tap set at a height of six feet.  To cap it all, some years earlier a misguided Job Creation team had painted the entire theatre—foyer, auditorium and bar—in the same revolting shade of what I believe was technically called ‘thistle’ but looked like maroon on an off-day.

Dundee Rep, 2006

Dundee Rep, 2006

Since 1982 Dundee Rep has been housed in a handsome and well-equipped custom-built theatre, and in recent years it has rightly received considerable critical acclaim for the work it has achieved with the only fulltime company of actors based in a Scottish theatre. Just let that sink in: the only theatre which is able to employ the same company of actors, not just throughout a full season but also from season to season.  In the 70s, it was the norm to engage a company for at least a full season, with a few guests appearing for individual productions. And these were not small companies.  That season of 1977-78, Dundee Rep tackled, among other things, a full-scale Shakespeare (Taming of the Shrew) Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, which needs a cast of nine, and Philip King’s hoary farce See How They Run, which needs eight.  All told, the theatre mounted ten new full productions that season, plus two late-night one-acters, all produced entirely in-house. Nowadays, the unique in-house Ensemble at Dundee mounts barely half that number of productions in a year, the rest of the season being made up with visiting companies.

However, with the thrilling experience of the Edinburgh Fringe only just behind me, I was in for a shock.  Like much in the Dundee of the 70s, the Rep seemed locked in a time warp.  In a year in which London audiences saw the premieres of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party, David Edgar’s Destiny, and Mary O’Malley’s Once a Catholic, Dundee Rep was opening its season with Who was that Lady?, a Victorian musical.  It was not even a real Victorian musical, but a ghastly pastiche which was neither accurate enough to be interesting nor outrageous enough to be funny. But clearly someone felt that Dundee audiences had an insatiable appetite for such fare, for the season would end with an equally dubious recreation of a Victorian Music Hall programme.

Victorian Music Hall performers, Dundee Rep, 1978, including that excellent pianist John Scrimgeour

Victorian Music Hall performers, Dundee Rep, 1978, including that excellent pianist John Scrimgeour

It will be apparent that the productions at Dundee that season did not fill me with enthusiasm. Indeed, with hindsight, it’s hard to believe that the funding bodies, especially the Scottish Arts Council, tolerated such consistently low standards.  While some of the blame must lie with the near-slum conditions in which the company had to work, in the end the choice of programme, and the poor quality of many of the productions, can only be laid at the door of the Theatre Director.  This was Robert Robertson, who would later achieve some fame as the pathologist in the long-running Glasgow cop series Taggart.  He was very much an actor-manager of the old school, a big bearded man with a booming voice, slightly resembling—in character as well—James Robertson Justice in his most famous role as Sir Lancelot Spratt in the Doctor films.

Another facet of the Dundee company, which would now seem surprising, was how many of the actors were not Scottish. This particularly applied to guest artists, joining the company to take the lead for a single play.  The best production of the season—the work of a guest director—was Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady, a sharp New York comedy which had recently been a West End hit for Elaine Stritch. In Dundee that part was taken by Carole Boyd, best known, then as now, as Lynda Snell in The Archers.  Carole gave a marvellous performance, and was a lovely actor to work with, but she is no more American than I am, and there must surely have been more than one Scottish actor around then who was equally capable of impersonating a New Yorker. But that rather summed up how Dundee Rep felt: aspiring to be a middle class theatre lifted from some English provincial town and dropped in the middle of largely working class Dundee. It seems somehow fitting that the largest single group booking of the season was from Dundee’s Dental Association.

Today, Alasdair Gray would probably label the choice of Philip, a Yorkshireman, to be co-Director of Dundee Rep as another example of a ‘Scotophobic appointment’.  But the theatre that Philip heads has opened with the Scottish premiere of David Greig’s epic Victoria, the Rep ensemble company members and associates are almost entirely Scottish, and the visiting programme is largely made up of interesting work by Scottish touring companies. Contrast that with the cultural cringe of the 70s Rep, under a Scottish director, and you’ll see that it’s not that simple.  This is not to say, though, that the approach is parochial: Philip’s first season includes Frank McGuiness’s version of Euripides’ Hecuba and the Christmas show will be an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG.

It’s an intriguing paradox: today’s Dundee Rep may not have the means to mount as many productions as its 70s predecessor, and it may be now the only Scottish theatre with a resident company but, at the Rep as at other theatres, standards are immeasurably higher (of audience comfort as well as of artistic achievement), and Scottish writers and performers are far more prominent.  Gains, it seems to me, far outweigh losses.

© Robert Livingston


Palace Green Library, Durham

Palace Green Library, Durham

Worshipped any good books lately?  I have.  And if ‘worshipped’ sounds a bit extreme, perhaps even sacrilegious, how else would you approach a book which has survived, largely intact, for 1300 years, including evading Viking raids, being taken on lengthy peregrinations across the North of England, and even, according to one popular legend, emerging unscathed from complete immersion in the North Sea?  I’m referring, of course, to the Lindisfarne Gospels, the centrepiece—until the end of September—of a superb exhibition in the Palace Green Library of the University of Durham.

We had taken a flat in Alnwick for the week, with a London-based friend who is an expert in museums management, and our main reason for being in the North East was to visit this exhibition. So on a day that can only be described as Mediterranean, we arrived in a Durham that can rarely, if ever,  have looked more sunny, exotic and welcoming. I felt some trepidation about this excursion.  How do you build an entire exhibition around a book of which, unavoidably, only one page can be seen at any one time?  Indeed, I understand that only two different pages of the Gospels in total are being displayed during the entire three month run of the exhibition.  I needn’t have worried. As we all agreed—including our museums specialist friend—this was a superb and unforgettable experience.

First of all, it was a model of visitor management.  We had booked timed tickets for 13.30.  Arriving a few minutes before our time, we could join the rest of our cohort seated in the sun, while cheery stewards encouraged us that ‘we’ll get you in shortly’.  With the same friendliness and courtesy we were gently ‘processed’ through the entrance stages but, once inside the exhibition proper, we were left to ourselves and could stay as long as we liked.  The results of all this attention to detail were that at no time did we feel crowded, or that we had to move along without allowing enough time for a particular display, and then, when we finally entered the inner sanctum that housed the Gospels, the three of us were able to view the book itself for as long as we wished, without a queue forming behind us.

All of which would have been of little benefit had the exhibition itself not been a triumph of the combined skills of curation, display and interpretation.  Unobtrusively, almost subliminally, we were given a very clear and integrated understanding of the political, historical, religious, social and artistic context for the Gospels.  We came to understand why the Gospels had been made, where they were made, when they were made, and how they were made.  We explored the fusion they represent of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon artistic forms, the world of the book in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, and the tensions between the Celtic and Roman churches that formed the background to the book’s production.  Nothing was ‘dumbed down’—children were offered a host of ways of getting involved in a completely separate space, which also housed a meticulous account of how the book was physically produced.  I doubt if anything in the exhibition could have troubled a believer, but nor was there the slightest hint of sanctimoniousness.

Particularly impressive was the use of video technology.  In the ante-room to that which housed the actual Gospels there were two giant video displays drawing on images of every page in the Gospels, and blowing up the illuminated pages in sequence at a scale that left you breathless with wonder at the skill of Eadfrith, the monk and bishop who is credited with both copying and illuminating the Gospels.    Then, in the separate display at the end, there were several PCs where you could explore each page in similar detail at your leisure.

The third thing that impressed us was the range of people visiting the exhibition.  Folk in the North East are very proud of the Gospels, and that was demonstrated by the diversity of ages and social backgrounds of those going round the exhibition with us.  This was a popular exhibition, without needing to be populist.  I understand there is a campaign to locate the Gospels permanently in the North East, resisted by the British Library.  It’s a campaign that deserves to succeed.

So, when I finally found myself standing in front of the book itself, able to view closely that one visible page, what did I feel?  Awe, of course.  Awe at its survival, at its incredible artistry and technical achievement, and awe also at the evidence it provides (as had the rest of the exhibition) of the richness of Northumbrian culture in the 8th century.  Pace Lord Howell, the North East was no more culturally ‘desolate’ 1300 years ago than it is today.

Warkworth Castle: the Keep

Warkworth Castle: the Keep

And awe, indeed, was what we felt throughout our week based in Alnwick—awe at the magnificence of Durham Cathedral (despite misguided attempts at modern and community art which threatened to diminish that glory), awe at the power and strength of the immense medieval  strongholds of Warkworth, Bamburgh and Alnwick, and at the 19th century industrial might that transformed all three of these great castles, and led to Lord Armstrong building the fantasy that is Cragside, awe even at the ambition that has led to the creation, in the last decade, of the wonder that is The Alnwick Garden.

The Alnwick Garden

The Alnwick Garden

And at all these locations we found hundreds, no, thousands of local people enjoying their heritage, often with a very well-informed perspective. At the Alnwick Garden we experienced a glimpse of the ‘peaceable kingdom’, as hundreds of families—and especially young children—experienced what I can only describe as ‘joy unconfined’ among the marvels that the Garden offers.

In many ways the Lindisfarne Gospels symbolise unity—embracing both Anglo-Saxon and Celtic artistic tropes, and also two languages and two scripts, thanks to the translation in Old English which the priest Aldred added to the text 250 years after Eadfrith’s work.  The Gospels speak of a time when Britain, no matter how fractured politically by warring kingdoms and Viking incursions, shared a culture of belief, literacy and artistic creation. Judith is a Geordie.  The Lindisfarne Gospels, and the architectural wonders of Northumberland, are part of the heritage she grew up with.  But I also feel they’re part of my heritage.  If independence comes next year, how will that change my feeling of a shared heritage?  I wish I could tell.

(all photographs: Judith Livingston)

Durham doorcases

We’ve been in Northumberland all week, of which more later.  Meanwhile, a visual blog:  doorcases around Durham Cathedral close and the South Bailey:

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