I always knew Hull had it in it. But I never dreamt that it would embrace the honour of being the UK’s City of Culture in 2017 with quite such panache. It’s even on the BBC weather map for the first time. This is something of a change. When I was at university here in the mid-80s, things were quite different.
There was no direct train from London, for a start. Passengers changed at Doncaster and caught a tiny branch line that stopped at every station. Hull’s distance from the rest of the country felt epic. Of course, that had its advantages. I have long believed that Hull’s geography, perched on the eastern edge of the UK, with an almost Dutch flatness to its position looking out over the giant Humber estuary to the North Sea, with the beautiful Yorkshire Wolds behind it, gives it a unique voice. But to many, this was the reason that Hull wasn’t invited to the party.
The Humber Bridge
Now, however, Hull is the party. When the city won the bid for the title four years ago, we knew it would be big. Andy Burnham, when he was Secretary of State for Culture, developed the City of Culture honour in 2009, after the terrific success of the European Capital of Culture project that regenerated both Glasgow (1990) and Liverpool (2008). A few months after the win, in 2014, I was created chair of the group bringing the event to Hull. Since then we have been growing and planning our programme.
And what a programme it is. We believed it would be big, and life-changing – but we had no idea how big it was going to be. We estimated that 120,000 people would attend the week-long opening ceremony in January 2017. In the end, more than 340,000 visitors came to see the city centre transformed by a light-and-sound spectacular, Made in Hull, which told the story of this most unknown city in the UK (main picture, above).
That was just the start: since then, the beautiful 90-year-old city art gallery, the Ferens, has reopened to national applause (and a royal visit from the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall). A colossal wind turbine blade made in the new Siemens factory sits magnificently in the central square of the city (pictured below). There’s a brand-new art space, the Humber Street Gallery – and over at the University, a knockout show featuring Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.
The 250ft wind turbine artwork in Hull’s city centre
Every week, something new. The New Theatre is being transformed, and will reopen with a gala from the Royal Ballet in the autumn. Richard Bean’s new play The Hypocrite, produced by the RSC and Hull Truck, had its world premiere in February, while the Women of the World festival takes over the city in March. During the coming weeks and months there is film, dance, sculpture, performance, drama and more music than you can shake a stick at.
When I was a student here, the collapse of the deep-sea fishing industry in Hull had taken its toll and the feel of the place was dark and lonely. Now, the city is gradually getting its mojo back. The Holy Trinity Church in the Old Town will hold concerts, while new shops and restaurants are popping up everywhere.
Hull City Council has got to be saluted for keeping the faith, and putting £100 million into rebuilding the city centre, but so has the population. This windswept city looks out to Europe with a great sense of itself. Cultural icons including the playwright John Godber, poet Philip Larkin, the beautiful Humber Bridge and distinctive cream phone boxes (a symbol of Hull’s independent phone network) remind us that this is a city with wit and independence.
As the year gathers pace, the rest of the country will realise what a fine city Hull is, not just the sports teams and supporters who come to watch Hull City in the Premier League, and the two rugby league teams. Music fans have a treat with 12 festivals this summer, including Radio 1’s free pop extravaganza, Big Weekend, running over the Spring Bank Holiday.
The key is to keep it special; to ensure that Hull doesn’t blend into something akin to other British city centres. I think that will never happen. Hull is too singular. It’s too characterful. And it has those cream phone boxes.
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Gallery reboot: The recently reopened Ferens Gallery has some wonderful shows. They include this year’s Turner Prize and US artist Spencer Tunick’s startling Sea of Hull images, created last July when more than 3,000 people gathered in the city, shed their clothes, painted themselves blue and posed for Tunick’s photographs.
Dancing queens: On 16 September the Royal Ballet will reopen Hull New Theatre, following its £16 million revamp, with a concert and free public events across the city. There will also be a touring production from the National Theatre and a residency from the acclaimed Opera North.
The stage is set: Until 25 March, Hull Truck Theatre is showing Richard Bean’s new play The Hypocrite, starring Mark Addy and Caroline Quentin. In May, it’ll be putting on Richard III, a co-production with Northern Broadsides whose first ever work was a staging of Shakespeare’s history play in a boatshed in Hull’s marina in 1992.
Down at the docks: One of the more experimental pieces is Flood, a story about a North Sea fisherman that will be told online, live in Hull and on BBC television. On 27 February, the prologue was released online. Part two will be performed live on the Victoria Dock from 11 to 15 April, and part three will be broadcast on the BBC in the summer.
BBC2 documentary Welcome to Hull is available on iPlayer until 13 March