I was born in Durham. I like that. It’s a city which I enjoy living in. When my wife and I got married, when we started our family, it’s the place we decided to move. But Durham, like the North East, like the country as a whole, finds itself let down by its political class.
Just as a Tory hegemony at Westminster continues to serve the region poorly, so the supremacy of Labour in the North East does little to further our interests. As with anywhere that finds itself dominated by one political party, at times political discourse in the North East threatens to slip to the level of almost total irrelevance, Labour’s certainty of victory against all comers rendering their capacity for compromise charmlessly unnecessary in all but the rarest of cases.
Last year’s failure of Durham County Council’s County Durham Plan is emblematic of all that is failing about local government in the North East. Called “unrealistic and flawed” by a senior inspector in early 2015, it was swiftly withdrawn by the Council who have, since then, been scrambling to put together a new version which will pass muster.
It is in this context that the County Durham Green Party’s Durham Future City Plan represents an interesting addition to the conversation. As a gauntlet, thrown down. What could a regenerated, revitalised Durham City look like? Can it be somewhere which works for all of its citizens, which offers progressive answers to questions about the economy, housing, transport, the environment, food and social wellbeing? Are we content as a dormitory town for students, many of whom have no interest in or connection to the city other than as members of the university? How do we make Durham somewhere that those talented people want to stay after they’ve finished their years of study? How do we balance those demands against the needs of people for whom this city is their home? How are we going to make Durham more than it currently is?
They’re fascinating problems, important ones. 2016 has been a year which has seen the political establishment challenged, but all too often those challenges have been little more than primal screams of rage. This anger understandable but, like a runaway train, it has the capacity to take us to places we do not necessarily want to be. What is needed now is direction, intellectual engagement, an acceptance that things can’t carry on like this married to a vision for where we’d like them to go.
The idea of a Durham Future City Plan, not just as a rejection of the Council’s ideas but as an expression of a viable alternative, marks one attempt to ensure that the necessary challenging of the political class forms part of a positive contribution to the conversation. Even if you reject the conclusions, any attempt to encourage reasoned debate is valuable. In times like these, with all that is at stake, it is essential.
Richard Callaghan is a member of the County Durham Green Party.
Sunderland musician Ross Millard talks to RICHARD CALLAGHAN about his Edinburgh Fringe debut
Ross Millard is looking relaxed. Surprisingly relaxed, in fact, given that he’s one third (just about, more on that later) of one of more than three and a half thousand shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Guitarist for the Futureheads and Frankie & The Heartstrings, Ross is making his Fringe debut in a show about music, why people stop playing it, and why it’s great when they start again. I sat down with Ross, and asked him about the show, the relationship to the audience, and his first experience of the Edinburgh Fringe.
Putting The Band Back Together features Ross Millard, Maria Crocker and Alex Elliott. It is directed by Annie Rigby. Writer, Chloe Daykin.
RC: So, what’s Putting The Band Back Together about?
RM: Annie’s chosen to describe it as part gig, part poignant show about reconnecting with a one-time obsession in your life. In our case it’s music but it transfers to anything that you’ve had a passion for but which has dissipated.
The original inspiration for the story was Mark Lloyd who was a Northern Stage actor diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, and with the rest of the time he had left the main thing he wanted to do was put his old band back together. And he did it, and they did gigs at Washington Arts Centre and places like that. Alex and Annie were very close with Mark and they wanted to sort of honour that story because it’s quite an important message in life, at the heart of it all what’s your passion? What do you want to do above everything else? But that story’s offset with some quite wild interpretative moments with other people’s experiences about music. And then there’s the House Band element as well.
RC: For those who haven’t seen the show yet, could you just explain the House Band?
RM: So every day at three o’clock at Summerhall we meet up with anybody who’s coming along to the show who plays any instrument, a little bit or a lot, and we’ve got a rehearsal room booked and we go off for three quarters of an hour and run through some tunes and then they get up and they’re part of the show. So far we’ve had quite a good variety, we’ve had a flautist, drummers, keyboard players, quite a few guitarists, singers, people are getting in touch constantly and the band’s different every day, which is great for us.
At the heart of the message it’s that it’s not about ability, it’s not about getting bogged down in the minutiae of being great, it’s just about doing it, and if that’s the message of the play we couldn’t really have that without the House Band.
As an audience member, perhaps even subconsciously, you’re willing them to do well. But there’s a fine line to walk, because people have paid their money and they want to see a quality show, I don’t want to do something where people come along and the theatre element is great but the music falls apart. It’s about trying to arrange it so that people can still contribute regardless of their ability, and so that the show remains strong.
Yesterday we had a guy who contacted us out of the blue, plays keys, he said “I’ve got tickets for the show with my wife, I play keyboards very occasionally, jazz, and it’s going to blow my wife’s mind if I just get up and become part of the House Band without her knowing about it.” So he told her he was at a meeting, and came along to the rehearsal, and her jaw just dropped when he stood up and joined the band. And it was a thrill, you know, for him to be part of that. A big deal to be up on stage, to perform, it’s easy to forget that not everyone does that on a regular basis. It’s a big deal.
RC: You’re used to performing, to playing in bands, but this must be a different experience.
RM: I’ve tried to treat the audience at our thing the way I’d treat the audience at a normal show, and I think you’ve got to hope there’s strength in the story or in the overall experience, and that people take something away at the end. Getting a theatre audience on side isn’t like getting a gig audience on side, it’s more difficult, because you’ve got less opportunity to engage with the audience.
RC: The Fringe is famously a fairly unrelenting experience, why have you chosen to do it?
RM: When I got approached to get involved it was completely out of the blue, but I really wanted to come and play music, and this is an opportunity to still write music, still play, and I couldn’t really say no. It’s flattering as well, somebody coming and saying ‘do you want to write the songs for this show’, too right, yeah.
I think you’ve got to accept that it’s a different experience to playing in a band, and I’m just trying to have my eyes as wide open as I can and take as much in as possible. I’ve enjoyed doing this work and it’s something I’d probably like to do more of, but if that’s going to happen I need to understand the machinations of it and the way that it works.
RC: The devising process for the show involved a lot of work in Sunderland with the Cultural Spring, how did you find that?
RM: The thing that totally terrified us was the workshop, participatory element, because I’ve never done any teaching before, never really had to get large groups of people to do something I want them to do, apart from in Hounds of Love. It’s not quite the same. So that was terrifying for me, really uncomfortable, but as the months have gone by we’ve got to know each other more and more, we’ve got a big band there, and I’ve grown to really enjoy doing it. We’ve got a good chemistry between us all, everybody’s really friendly, we know a lot about each other now, and it feels more like a normal band. Up here we’ve got 45 minutes to make that happen, so I’m really glad we’ve had all those months of preparation in Sunderland because it’s changed my approach here.
RC: If you could describe the show?
RM: It’s quite life affirming and fun, and that strikes me as important. That’s quite a political thing to say, I think, that now more than ever the most important thing is to say ‘what is it that you care about? Let’s go for that, let’s try and embrace that a bit more’.
Annie’s always made these kind of feelgood, life affirming positive shows, and in terms of her work it’s very much consistent with that, it’s an Unfolding Theatre show, she’s got an identity and an aesthetic and I think sometimes you come into a project and there need to be some parameters and some rules to follow, because otherwise you never get anywhere because it doesn’t know what it wants to be.
RC: And finally, what will you take away from this year’s Fringe?
RM: I think I’ll take a little bit more knowledge in terms of how live theatre works, how much of a connect or disconnect there can be with the audience. Personally, if I want to write more music or songs for shows, I know I’m not always going to be in them. I was quite surprised to end up in this. I didn’t really expect that in a million years, but it’s been a great experience, a really democratic process to be involved in, and I know that lots of people don’t work like that. But I think I’ve come away with a much better idea of what works and what doesn’t, how much more economical you have to be with what you’re saying and the way you’re saying it. In a gig you can give backstory, you can introduce things, you can do whatever you like. But in this you’ve not always got that opportunity, sometimes you have to sum up a scene in a short piece of music, or just a song. That context, that knowledge of how a show like this works, that’s really important.
Putting the Band Back Together is part of the Northern Stage programme at Summerhall, Edinburgh (Venue 26, 16:50) until August 27th (not 17, 24). The show will then return to the North East for performances at Arts Centre Washington 0191 561 3455 (September 22nd) and Newcastle’s Northern Stage Tel 0191 230 5151 (September 28, 29, 30).
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