Arts Editor Terry Grimley looks back at the noughties.
It’s hard to believe that a decade has passed since the Blair millennium was rung in with a maladroit spectacle on the Thames and the Queen being coerced into linking arms to sing Auld Lang Syne.
A decade which stumbled in with a blaze of over-confidence is now slinking out in an atmosphere of anxiety and dread. The noughties have spanned the transition from Cool Britannia to cold comfort, from a new Festival of Britain to a new Austerity Britain.
How much sadder and wiser we are now than we were then.
The big-head financial institutions which drove New Labour’s hubris have been brought to their knees, only to get up again with the aid of taxpayers’ money to resume paying themselves huge bonuses.
Regular TV images of the latest sad processions through the main street of Wootton Bassett mean that – probably to a greater extent than at any time since 1945 – we see ourselves as a nation at war.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But the old wisdom that even the most seemingly secure and confident politicians are ultimately hostages to events was rarely more dramatically affirmed than by those of September 11, 2001.
You might imagine that such traumatic times would be conducive to sombre reflection and seriousness of mind, but in fact no-one could accuse the culture of the noughties of not being trivial enough.
The other day I heard it described as “the decade of reality television”, and that is difficult to disagree with. You might even call it the decade of Simon Cowell.
The brave new era of deregulated television trumpeted in the Thatcher years has emerged in its full glory of multi-choice, identikit reality shows which might well convince a newly-arrived Martian that cooking and domestic make-overs are a neurotic national obsession. A thought I have frequently had about television in the 21st century is this. Years ago, in the golden age when we complacently took it for granted that British TV was the best in the world, a meeting of executives to discuss new ideas for programmes might have rejected some on the grounds that they were too reminiscent of things that had been done before.
At some point, these criteria have been put into reverse, so that new programmes are now required to replicate tried-and-tested successes as closely as possible. The oddest example I have seen so far is a cut-price version of Channel 4’s Grand Designs with a presenter who reproduced the mannerisms of its presenter, Kevin McLeod.
So watching television since the millennium has often seemed like experiencing deja-vu all over again.
Along with the cooking and the makeovers have come the car-crash television of Big Brother and the talent shows which, beneath the audience hysteria and the instant celebrity fodder, have fundamentally been about retreading material inherited from more innocent, more talented times.
Figures published in the last few weeks show that we are watching more and more of this stuff.
Shows like The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing have brought a resurgence of so-called “big tent” television in which climactic moments become shared national experiences.
It was previously thought that the multiplicity of channels and competition from the internet meant that the days when chip shops did no business during Hancock’s Half Hour would never be seen again.
Throughout the decade, the popular obsession with celebrity continued unabated through several layers of self-parody.
Andy Warhol’s 1960’s prediction that “in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” came to seem uncannily prescient, as fame became increasingly divorced from discernible talent or achievement.
Arguably the most representative celebrity career of the decade was not Simon Cowell’s, but that of the late Jade Goody, whose ticket to fame was the mind-boggling ignorance she revealed as a contestant in Big Brother.
As one commentator put it in 2007: “It was Jade Goody’s belief that East Anglia is a foreign country that set her on the path to becoming the 25th most influential person in the world (in Heat magazine’s eyes at least), not to mention £8 million richer.”
Plenty of evidence, then, for those who despair of popular culture. And yet there are exceptions to prove the rule.
One of the best examples produced in Britain was the comedy TV series The Office, which subverted the clichés of reality television itself with extraordinary subtlety to paint a hilarious and excruciating picture of typically low-key, monotonous working lives. But 30 years ago it would have seemed inconceivable that American television would be setting the pace for innovative TV drama with series like The Sopranos, Lost and The Wire.
If the noughties was the decade of reality TV, it was also the decade of the internet. In the space of ten years the world has put itself online to an extent that would have been literally inconceivable at the turn of the century.
It has put more information at our fingertips than most of us could possibly want or deal with (I’m thinking, for instance, of an obscure Birmingham rock band which broke up in the mid-1970s and now has a MySpace page).
The linking-up of such esoteric data should give comfort to those depressed by the thought of the world being steamrollered by a dumbed-down monoculture. Minority audiences gain critical mass when they are joined-up internationally at the click of a mouse.
And internet communities can influence events in the “real” world – witness the initial online momentum of the Arctic Monkeys, the calling to account via Twitter of Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir’s homophobic column on the death of Stephen Gately, or the successful Facebook campaign to block The X Factor’s route to this year’s Christmas number one.
So if culture as a whole was global and overbearingly dumbed-down, where did “the arts” fit in?
Initially it seemed they would play a crowning role in New Labour’s New Jerusalem, housed in a glittering array of shiny new cultural palaces funded by the National Lottery.
But the conjunction of culture and lottery money ended in tears as well as triumphs, as demonstrated recently by the long drawn-out catastrophe of West Bromwich’s The Public.
Hurried in by the doomed Major government in a last-minute attempt to win some popularity, the lottery achieved some great things. But it might have been far more effective if it had made its debut in less politically fevered times.
Imagine a country with a fine history of artistic achievement but with an infrastructure of theatres, galleries and arts centres which had received little significant investment for many years.
In other words, imagine Britain in the mid-1990s.
Now suppose that a tap could be turned on which would bring a completely new stream of funding – far more money, initially, than anyone had dared predict – to bear on this infrastructure. What would be a sensible way to proceed? Perhaps to draw up a strategy with carefully thought-through priorities.
But what actually happened was something more akin to the California Gold Rush.
The coincidence of the lottery being introduced just as the millennium was looming further muddied the water, particularly with the advent of a new government swept into power on a landslide and keen to declare a new age of optimism.
The Blair government swiftly met its nemesis with its Millennium Festival, better remembered as The Dome.
This attempt to re-do the 1951 Festival of Britain foundered on a failure to define what it was and what it was for, and it staggered on embarrassingly for a year of well-below-target attendances, taking much of the gloss off New Labour even before its agenda was transformed by the planes hitting the twin towers.
Other “Millennium projects” across the country, including Birmingham’s under-whelming Millennium Point, also failed to distil the excitement of the moment for future generations, although there were successes as well, like Cornwall’s Eden Project.
In the case of the arts lottery, an early “loadsamoney” phase when applicants were sent away to make their schemes more ambitious was followed after what seemed about five minutes by the shutters being brought down with the announcement – more or less – that there would be no more money for arts buildings in the history of the world, ever.
No wonder the results were a bit hit-and-miss.
The much-publicised failure of arts and Millennium projects like Sheffield’s National Centre for Popular Music and the Earth Centre near Doncaster (humiliatingly Millennium Point, the most expensive such project outside London, was scarcely noticed at all, even as a flop) should not be allowed to obscure the many successes.
In Birmingham, the Ikon Gallery – a stylish conversion of an 1870s building by the city’s greatest Victorian architect, J H Chamberlain, which had come perilously close to demolition – the radically rebuilt and expanded Hippodrome Theatre, the Drum arts centre and the CBSO Centre were four outstanding developments.
Elsewhere in the West Midlands the New Art Gallery in Walsall, the Courtyard Arts Centre in Hereford, the much improved Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and Malvern Theatres were other examples of new lottery-funded facilities which have given outstanding public service over the last decade.
Plans for a lottery-funded renovation of the Town Hall were knocked back at the point when the Hippodrome plans were given the green light, and this historic building – one of the world’s oldest concert halls – languished for the first seven years of the new century before reopening, beautifully restored, in the autumn of 2007.
Two big West Midlands projects held over from the first round of the arts lottery were to have sharply contrasting fortunes.
The Public (formerly c/PLEX) was a well-intentioned scheme to raise the aspirations of West Bromwich with a state-of-the-art digital arts centre in a landmark building.
But the project, which ironically rallied initial political support as an example
of lottery proceeds being spent on poor people as opposed to the “toffs” for which the Royal Opera House was being rebuilt, drifted into insolvency. The interactive art displays which were meant to be its main attraction not only failed to work but by the end of the decade looked hopelessly dated, a much-delayed legacy of the Millennium moment which had already delivered a resounding flop at The Dome.
The other project – the rebuilding of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon – attracted little public attention as the decade neared its end, simply because it was continuing on time and budget.
Experience of the RSC’s temporary theatre, The Courtyard, suggests that it may well achieve its aim of making the remodelled theatre the finest space in the world for presenting Shakespeare.
It’s easy now to forget how much trouble the RSC was in at the beginning of the decade. Having alienated London critics by its disengagement from its base at the Barbican, by 2002 it was facing criticism of faltering standards and a backlash was building against plans to demolish the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
Under incoming artistic director Michael Boyd the development plans underwent a rethink, while Boyd’s focus on re-dedicating the company to an ensemble system began to win back critics and audiences alike.
When it was discovered that a new auditorium with a deep-thrust stage could after all be accommodated within the existing building, the redevelopment was finally able to proceed. Meanwhile a sequence of acclaimed productions included the 2007 Complete Works festival, when all Shakespeare’s plays were performed by the RSC and visiting companies from afar afield as Japan, the United States and South Africa.
Birmingham Rep also began the decade in need of revival after a period under artistic director Bill Alexander which had consistently won admiring reviews from the London press but meagre audiences from the Birmingham public.
Alexander’s successor Jonathan Church seemed to find a winning formula straight away, exchanging his predecessor’s policy of doing less more deliberately for one of presenting as much work to as wide an audience as possible, deliberately blurring the distinction between home-grown and visiting productions.
Church’s production of Of Mice and Men was a big national success on tour, and other notable achievements of his era included the first major revival of the trilogy of plays by David Hare, first seen at the National Theatre, exploring the Anglican church, the legal system and the Labour Party.
But in December 2004 the Rep unexpectedly found itself at the centre of an international incident when Behzti, a play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti depicting scenes of rape and murder taking place in a Gurdwara, prompted violent demonstrations by Sikh protestors which succeeded in closing the play.
The Church regime never really regained its buoyancy and in 2006 Church moved on to the Chichester Festival Theatre. Under his successor Rachel Kavanaugh the Rep has continued to attract large and often multicultural audiences, but at the cost of a certain blandness and further erosion of its identity as a producing theatre.
It seemed that its thunder might be stolen by the Belgrade Theatre, which reopened in 2007 with an ambitious international season after an extended redevelopment, but a diet of German expressionism proved a bit rich for the Coventry public, and the Belgrade is still seeking an ideal balance between artistic enterprise and populism.
However, its flexible studio theatre, B2 described by Sir Trevor Nunn as one of the most exciting theatre spaces in the country, is a significant new asset for the region and the model for the new auditorium Birmingham Rep will acquire as part of its shared development with the new Library of Birmingham.
The new library was one of Birmingham’s most contentious projects of the noughties, and one in which I have to declare an interest, having been on the steering group for the original scheme in Eastside, which got as far as a concept design by Richard Rogers Partnership. It was then derailed by the incoming Tory-Lib Dem coalition, which suppressed a report from its own independent consultants when it effectively recommended continuing with the Rogers scheme as the best – and cheapest – of all solutions for the library.
The vision for Eastside as a major new cultural and learning quarter has subsequently unravelled, and criticism of the new scheme for a library on Centenary Square, designed by Dutch architects Mecanoo, can largely be boiled down to the fact that its volume has to be accommodated on a site which is scarcely big enough for it.
A vociferous band of enthusiasts for 1960s brutalism fought a gallant rearguard action to prevent John Madin’s existing library having visited on it the fate which it inflicted on Birmingham’s listed Victorian library. After what seemed an interminable wait, secretary of state Margaret Hodge finally refused to protect Madin’s flawed masterwork by listing it.
Doubts were raise by the Government’s architecture watchdog, CABE, as to whether the city could ensure that the quality of Mecanoo’s design would be delivered. If there is an object lesson on the value of not skimping, it is surely to be found nearby in Symphony Hall, where acoustics were always the supreme concern but the physical fabric, already nearly a decade old at the Millennium, still shows little sign of ageing today.
Nearly 20 years of musical history have soaked into the walls there to add to that in the fabric of the revived Town Hall. These two venues, both magnificent in their contrasting ways, are now run jointly with a co-ordinated planning policy.
While the CBSO was somewhat eclipsed on the national stage by the renaissance of the Halle under Mark Elder, it held its own as a major international orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle’s successor, Sakari Oramo. Highlights of the era included Oramo conducting a revelatory performance of Elgar’s The Apostles, written for the Birmingham Festival, at the Proms and an extraordinary poll which identified the complete Saint-Saens piano concertos, with pianist Stephen Hough accompanied by the CBSO and Oramo, as the best-ever award winner in 30 years of the Gramophone Awards.
In 2007 the CBSO revealed that Oramo’s successor would be the young Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons. Already marked down as one of Europe’s hottest young talents, Nelson’s reputation has continued to rise during his first season and a half in charge. His recent CBSO concerts have rubbed shoulders with engagements at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Covent Garden.
The next significant addition to the city’s cultural infrastructure will be the reopening of MAC in Cannon Hill Park next spring. Although some may find its painted corrugated-iron cladding hard to love, its interior facilities should function more effectively and a custom-designed gallery will be an important addition to the city.
The visual arts, historically a poor relation in Birmingham, have show signs of stirring into life – particularly in Digbeth, where the new outpost of Ikon Eastside, the artist-led Eastside Projects and Vivid media centre have started to create a long-anticipated arts quarter.
Birmingham and Walsall were successful in winning a £1 million grant under a new scheme from the national charity The Art Fund, aimed at creating a new collection of contemporary art which could lead to a proposed new museum opening in Birmingham. The Art Fund is now poised to lead a national campaign to secure the Staffordshire Hoard, the sensational collection of Anglo-Saxon gold discovered in a field near Aldridge in the summer, for the West Midlands.
Much of 2003 was taken up with the competition to be named European Capital of Culture. Birmingham eventually lost out to Liverpool and there was a feeling that unlike the favourite Newcastle/Gateshead, which succeeded in transforming external perceptions with the stunning image of the Sage music centre alongside the River Tyne, Birmingham got little out of the bidding process except self-recrimination and a further loss of self-esteem.
Perhaps unwarned by evidence that there is little public affection for the city elsewhere in the UK, Birmingham ends the decade bidding for a similar but smaller prize – UK City of Culture, a new initiative introduced by the Government in an attempt to spread the success of Liverpool 2008 to other cities.
In the final list of 14 contenders just released, Sheffield is the next largest city in contention. Clearly none of the other runners can match Birmingham’s cultural critical mass (it is the only one with a professional orchestra). But the nagging thought remains: how will they stop us getting it this time?