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Manchester Confidential votes MIF a success

Jonathan Schofield exclusively interviews director Alex Poots. Was the Festival a success now we have a bit of perspective on it?

Written by . Published on August 8th 2007.

Manchester Confidential votes MIF a success

David Ward, the Northern Correspondent for The Guardian, has something of the Empire about him. He has the calm assurance of the indefatigable British officer of derring-do stories from the nineteenth century. When he speaks it seems each of his words is carefully measured before being uttered. You listen.

This is how Ward assesses Manchester International Festival (MIF): “It challenged me and it surprised me. The production values were very high and you didn‘t get the feeling that we were being short-changed because we were in the provinces. The programme, using the theme of new work, was clever. When it finished, I had the same feeling I’d had about the Commonwealth Games which was we’ve done well here.”

It was the truly original pieces rather than ones which happened to wash up here at the right time that really got critics and public worked up.

Comparison to the acclaimed 2002 Commonwealth Games is high praise. In fact almost all the people Confidential talked to expressed enthusiasm or at least satisfaction.

So what about the canny Scot who conceived and delivered the Festival?

“I’m seventy percent happy,” says Alex Poots. “I had this idea of reflecting Manchester’s pioneering past by bringing together a festival of new work. That was much easier said than done of course. On the first day of the Festival I felt a lot of trepidation. Now after the reviews and the audience reaction - we had an average of 80% attendance - I feel better.”

Come on tell us the big pluses for you Pootsy babes then?

“Well, for one that so few productions were seen as failures – remember it was a huge risk to commission that much new work. I was also happy with the way the city worked. It was lovely to see Johnny Vegas sat down in the City Inn chatting to international artists. All of whom were saying how pleasing it was to move round a compact city centre, where they bumped into other performers and even the audience. And because of the openness to the Festival, they could experiment more and have more of a sense of adventure than in the more recognised cultural centres.”

And the minuses?

“I think we need to work on the two theatres, the Opera House and the Palace. They are fading, when Monkey moved from Manchester to Berlin and Paris, the backstage accommodation would have been of a very different order. Nor do I think that we used the public spaces in the city centre to best advantage to build that sense of the Festival. That’s something for next time - when it might not rain so much. We also had some problems with Ticketmaster and the admin fees people were paying.”

Poots defends the range of events used in the Festival to pull in a broad audience and you sort of wish he wouldn’t. The acclaim came for the rarefied performances such as The Pianist more than for the ‘yuff’ ones such as dance and video event Industrial Resolution which was at best ok and at worst - on the first night - a shambles. Similarly the ambition behind the family event The Great Indoors wasn’t realised and the audience narrower than desired, on some occasions it looked like a bus had dropped off from Beech Road.

This was entirely predictable of course. As David Ward says, “There were very few of the traditional Royal Exchange and Bridgewater Hall grey-haired mob along. The intellectual age-group was late twenties to early forties for the main showpiece performances.” Big music quasi-festivals are hardly surprises for this generation and done better elsewhere.

In truth, it’s hard not to suspect that Poots knew this, hence the inclusion of vote-winners such as PJ Harvey, Lou Reed, Mark E Smith and even perennial has-beens such as Happy Mondays.

“They fitted the bill,” he says, when asked for the reason behind including these acts. “The album the Mondays performed at the Ritz was new and that was what we wanted. And getting overseas artists with big reputations such as PJ Harvey and Lou Reed was interesting. In effect we managed to steal them for the Festival. Harvey was only doing one UK gig and we persuaded her to do it here during the Festival. Why not?”

Why not indeed? Smart move and good for bums-on-seats given the likely audience, but it was the truly original pieces rather than ones which happened to wash up here at the right time that really got critics and public worked up. They were the ones that will be remembered. That’s why Monkey, the Chinese opera/living cartoon, and even the controversial, Il Tempo del Postino, seemed so exciting.

This enchanting element of the unpredictable was why the first International Festival was in the end a huge success. Which meant it was also a success in terms of profile building for the city and its investment partners: a return on the £6m put into the 18 day celebration. The only problem is making it better in 2009.

“It’s a good problem to have,” says Alex Poots, “but I’m sure we can build on 2007.”

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12 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

DrakeAugust 8th 2007.

You can hardly proclaim it a success if you don't provide the criteria against which you're judging. A year ago the relevant criterion was the number of extra visitors it brought to the city. I think the currenty used criterion is column inches and attention from Edinburgh and London. I can't help getting the feeling that Poots' original pure vision was watered-down through interference--crow-barring in Kanye West, Lou Reed (on tour anyway) and the bloody Fall and Mondays (hardly the most original and new work...), alongside that GMEX gig and the family stuff. Which is a shame.

Rob AdlardAugust 8th 2007.

What typical southern arrogance in the back handed compliment "you didn't feel you were getting short changed because you were in the provinces"! The two oldest symphony orchestras in the country are the Halle orchestra, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. The Halle orchestra recently named as the best orchestra in the country has higher attendance rates than any of the London orchestras. I was part of two perfomances in the festival and its clear it was a great success. The idea of 'new works' I think is an excellent one, and essential to the success of the festival in being unique. Many people made noises about things left out of the festival, complaints of 'home grown talent' ignored, but the idea of only things of 'international acclaim' being included should ensure the highest quality, and I hope a festival fringe develops in future years to showcase local talents than don't make it into the main festival. However, Manchester should remain true to itself and really showcase the things it already has that are truly world-class. The BBC Philharmonic performs and records world premiers all year long, and its a shame it is probably ignored by many festival goers for the rest of the year. The Halle orchestra is really the only international brand that shouts 'Manchester' other than our football teams. It fills concert halls all over the world with fans, and yet its less likely now to gain funding to progress because of the festival. In all the pre-festival material there was hardly a mention of the Halle, I didn't read its name in our own MEN, the Guardian or other reviewers. If we want to show off to the world we have 'world class' arts institutions we should showcase the things we already have. Monkey was a good success, but was it about Manchester? We don't need to invent something new, we already have two world class orchestras that would be the envy of any city in the world, and we should be careful our festival should support them rather than detract from that fact.

SpawnMeister666August 8th 2007.

Any festival with an average attendance rate of 80% over 50 seperate events can only be a good thing.I think next time round they might want to consider bringing on board all the fringe events that took place this year.I personally went to a lot of Not Part of Manchester International Festival events, and found that they were also of an extremely high calibre.Instead of just focusing on 2 and a half weeks of specifically commissioned work, how about in 2009 the organisers actually embrace the events that happen in Manchester week in, week out?These are the events that make Manchester the vibrant and wonderful place that it is. Things like Manchester International Festival should be viewed in the correct context, which is....Nice to have, enjoyable to attend, and a bonus on top of the creative genius that permanently resides here in Manchester!Spawny

LlamaAugust 8th 2007.

"And getting overseas artists with big reputations such as PJ Harvey" What, from that overseas distant land called the Western Country? Now who writes like he's from the Empire?

Rob AdlardAugust 8th 2007.

Wayne, if the quote was actually "the Festival was truly of the first order internationally" as you have written I wouldn't have any beef with it, do you not see how saying we weren't being short changed because it was in the provinces it a totally different tone and intention. It implies that thats perhaps what we're expecting and we should feel glad we weren't - again dwelling too much on this I feel, I really don't have any beef with Mr Ward, its simply indicative of a national media take on our arts. My point is that the Halle, for example, create work of international acclaim week in week out, I'm not suprised at all that the festival was of that standard, it was excellent, and what I would expect from arts in Manchester. Does anyone want to actually comment on my point about our internationally acclaimed orchestras - I don't need to patronise anyone by pointing out that they're also not mentioned in the article here above....When the Halle goes to Vienna they get treated like superstars, they're actually famous there. They belong to our city, always have done, and they are performing new works day in day out all year and yet they hardly get a mention in our festival to celebrate their achievements in Manchester, does nobody else thinks thats a shame?

wayneAugust 8th 2007.

You're missing the point Mr Adlard. What Ward is saying is that in terms of production qualities and general tone the Festival provided entertainment that was truly of the first order internationally. This is not condescending, it is fact, that the level of gallery exhibition and theatrical performance and in the case of a production such as Monkey, technical execution, we are often presented with things that are second best. Poots and his team made sure that this wasn't the case. The Festival I reckon was marvellous. Well done everybody. And it's true that the best things were the original works. Can't wait for 2009.

The Circuit SeriesAugust 8th 2007.

We are having a live debate about this one in the Circle Club in the City Centre at 6:30 on TUE 4TH SEPTEMBER. We have a panel of people there to chat about how the event went, It would be great if some of you guys could come being so opinionated about the event. http://www.thecircuitseries.com

JoanAugust 8th 2007.

An interesting interview and article. I really enjoyed MIF and am excited that its success ensures its future and that there is some consensus about future changes. I hope that in 2009 ManCon will be able to publish more reviews and not leave such gaps in coverage. Rob: I think you’re wrong to insult David Ward. Written by the Northern Correspondent of The Guardian, his articles make reference to working in Manchester City Centre. It’s more likely that he often feels on the receiving end of the ‘southern arrogance’ you suggest he displays. You must be reading a different Guardian from me as I found a reference to The Halle in Alfred Hickling’s review of ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’. Have you found a Tory edition?

Rob AdlardAugust 8th 2007.

Come on now Joan, don't be childish, but yes I probably have saved the part of the MEN where it doesn't meantion the orchestras. Are you some raving socialist lunatic, who mentioned politics? The Gaurdian does good reviews of the Halle's work quite rightly, however I'm talking about the preview of the festival - all national newspapers have a London bias, why do they have to have a 'Northern Correspondent'!Its fine if its not something you're interested in, I'm simply makeing a point and trying to stimulate debate. Forgive me David in that case, its really not about you, however even if meant well, the way of writing that still sounds provincial-apologetic when we don't need to be. The context of the point is everything. Its not long ago commentators in London were suggesting that orchestra in Liverpool and Manchester be merged in order to free up money for 'superior' orchestra in the capital. Its worth making the point always that this is rediculous.

Councillor Mike AmesburyAugust 8th 2007.

Well done to Alex Poots and the team, Manchester International Festival epitomised the city’s ambition to create one of the best cultural festivals in the world.Mancunian Pride will shine in 2009.Assistant Executive Member for Culture & Leisure

Christine KilbyJuly 23rd 2011.

I love and support MIF. I think Alex Poots 70% mark was about right overall. Its a respectable score. Victoria Wood's new play was excellent but The Opera House left a great deal to be desired - scruffy, unwelcoming and dreary. Not a patch on The RX. The crazy young barman in the stalls insisted that we would find our interval drinks upstairs so we spent the interval searching for them only to find them where they would logically be, the stalls bar! Crazy young barman couldn't have cared less. Again, we loved Johnny Vegas' play the week after but I was disappointed to find very little to do in the Pavillion theatre area when the sun finally began to shine for a while. There was a vast tent with a handful of customers, a couple of guys flogging The Guardian and/or MIF banner bags and a half-hearted attempt at a barbecue. I still think MIF should be extremely proud of what it achieved, it puts on a terrific show but it needs to be joined up a bit, made to flow and draw more people in.

1 Response: Reply To This...
Christine KilbyJuly 23rd 2011.

I have realised that this is a very old article - still it's interesting that the same issues are still there...

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