East Midlands Heritage Awards 2017

This year I helped organise the third annual East Midlands Heritage Awards. My remit was to jazz it up a bit and so came up with the theme of ‘Celebrating Creativity’. Rather than have the usual formulaic ceremony, we invited three poets (Lauren Terry, Hannah Cooper-Smithson, Aly Stoneman) a photographer (Chantelle Greenslade) and a filmmaker (Richard Weare) to interpret the winning entries. This had two functions: It gave the winning organisations something tangible to use in their promotion while allowing our ‘creatives’ to perform their work in front of an audience who regularly commission artists.

The second innovation was the idea of a ‘confessional booth’ whereby we recoded Vox Pops from the attendees. These were then collated together to create a short film. The heritage sector runs largely on guts, good will, and bundles of enthusiasm in the face of adversity. We wanted to catch what it’s like working in the sector – the good, the bad, and the ugly – so that we, and others, can identify support needs. For example, one recurring problem for organisations is that due to budget constraints they don’t have enough staff. Nottingham Trent University has a placement programme through the ‘Humanities at Work’ module whereby they can provide placement students from across disciplines to fill a variety of roles.

I’d originally had the idea of a confessional booth for a literature festival, whereby guests could confess what trash literature they had been reading and I’d absolve their sins by suggesting a more demanding title. But like many things, I never got around to it. The Heritage Awards was the perfect opportunity to put this into practice.

For the last decade or so I’ve been working on literary heritage projects which have included mapping out Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (The Sillitoe Trail) a literary graphic novel (Dawn of the Unread) and I’m currently putting together a project called DH Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage set to be launched in 2019 to mark one hundred years since Lawrence’s self-imposed exile. I know how difficult it is to get funding and support and I understand the pressures and dedication required to curate and produce such projects, so I have nothing but admiration for the people in this sector. So to have 150 heritage professionals in one room to celebrate their various projects was an absolute privilege. I hope the ‘Celebrating Creativity’ theme helped them in some way.

The event was also an opportunity to work a bit more closely with Neville Stankley, my colleague at NTU. He’s done an incredible job for the heritage sector and so there’s a lot that I can learn from him. The other core members of our small team were Marc Lupson and Alice Turnbull. Here’s looking forward to next year…

The winning entries were:

Totally Voluntary – Nottingham Industrial Museum

Volunteer Empowerment – Heritage Lincolnshire

Engaging Children and Young People – Erewash Museum

Heart of the Community – Green’s Windmill Trust

Innovation – Chain Bridge Forge

The Wendy Golland Award for Quality Research – Hallaton in the Great War Research Group

Judges Special Award – Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

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REVIEW: Black Beauty at Lakeside

Trot down to Lakeside for some magical storytelling this Christmas

During my early childhood, television – all three channels of it – was bonkers about animals. There was Gentle Ben, a 750 pound bear that lived with a family in the Florida Everglades; The Littlest Hobo, a nomadic Alsatian who solved crime better than the police, and Animal Kwackers, a four-piece pop band who dressed up as a lion, monkey, dog, and a tiger with one eye. And then there was that horse and that irritating ‘da, da-der’ theme tune. I never watched Black Beauty as a kid because my sister loved it; therefore it had to be rubbish. But I’m a bit older now and more appreciative of my sister, and so I headed down to Lakeside to learn a bit more about Anna Sewell’s book that would spurn 52 TV episodes in the seventies – all of which I avoided.

The hapless McCuddy brothers are ‘equine illusionists’ who have carved out a successful career as the head and tail of a pantomime horse, but now they’ve fallen on hard times. Just as video killed the radio star, now everyone wants a cow instead of a horse. They are effectively redundant, living off 5 Coco Pops a day from the travelling horse box they call home. Ahhh.

Fortunately, they are blessed with an infectious optimism, reciting the mantra of their dead mother: There will be good days, and there will be bad days. The bad days are now, meaning they have to sell off their limited possessions. As they work their way through these they come across their mum’s cherished copy of Black Beauty, surely they won’t sell it? Oh yes, they will. Oh no, they won’t.

To pass the time, they begin to re-enact scenes from the book through storytelling, song, comedy and puppetry. There’s chases, bike rides, and a brilliant moment involving audience participation when the McCuddy brothers make their way through the stalls. There’s loads of local references thrown in, as well as weaving in information about the forthcoming Viking exhibition at Lakeside, adding a real personal feel to the performance. As with any good Panto, there’s plenty of references to keep the parents happy. And the kids will get all gushy during the second part when the Panto horse, with ridiculously long eye lashes, pops out to get stroked by those lucky enough to be on the front row. It’s a bit of a dark story, but any potentially harrowing scenes are skilfully dealt with to avoid kids blurting their eyes out.

So is it worth going? Oh yes, it is. At £8.50-£10 a ticket it’s an absolute bargain, more than half the price of Cinderella at the Playhouse.  It’s won awards too, and deserves to win many more. But most of all, it’s just really good fun. I enjoyed it so much that I’m returning this Sunday, with my sister and her three kids, as a bit of an apology for being a knob to her during our childhood.

Da da-der, da da da da da da da da-der…

Black Beauty – Djanogly Theatre, Nottingham Lakeside Arts. Saturday 9 to Sunday 31 December. This review was originally published in LeftLion