Away from main drag: City of Culture events on Hull's fringe

The Pigeon Detectives definitely aren't doing it for the money. 'It won't be the best-paid gig of the year,' says lead singer Matt Bowman. 'But it might turn out to be one of the most memorable.' The Leeds band, whose debut album Wait For Me sold half a million copies, are part of an eclectic line-up in Hull City of Culture's Back to Ours programme.

“When we are asked to play anywhere it goes through our agent, but when they came to us and said: ‘How do you fancy doing three gigs in Hull, one in a shopping centre, one in a school and one in a community centre?’ there was something which made us go: ‘Oh, go one then, why not?’

“I’ve got a lot of time for Hull. My mum makes me take her to The Deep at least three times a year and I know that there are a lot more good things going for the city than bad. This next 12 months has the potential to do great things for the place and so to be part of that is a really nice position for us to be in.”

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While Hull’s Ferens Art Gallery will host this year’s Turner Prize and Opera North has plans to turn the Humber Bridge into one giant musical instrument, the Back to Ours strand was launched to take the City of Culture programme out into the suburbs.

The idea is that every act will play three different locations on consecutive days and over the seven day-run it is hoped that momentum will build as word of mouth spreads.

“I remember when we were starting out we played in a taxi, we played in an elevator,” adds Bowman. “To be honest, we would have played at the opening of a door if anyone asked us to. I remember one night when there was a power cut in the middle of the gig. We all went outside and it looked unlikely that we were going to get back on stage so we got on top of the bus and played an acoustic set. It’s at times like that when memories are made.”

The Back to Ours programme is the long-held vision of Louise Yates and it’s also proof of the difference that the UK City of Culture tag can make. The arts development officer knew the kind of acts she wanted to bring to Hull and had numerous venues in mind, but funding from the Arts Council England’s strategic touring fund became available only on the back of the wider programme of events.

“It was something that we first began looking at a few years ago, so to see it finally become a reality is really exciting,” she says. “This isn’t an easy thing to stage, but I honestly believe that long term it could have a huge impact because the whole idea is to show people that you don’t have to go to a theatre to see art and you don’t have to pay big money to see high quality acts.”

Tickets prices start from as little as £2.50 and go up to a maximum of £7.50 in the hope of persuading people to take a chance on acts they might otherwise not see. Alongside the Pigeon Detectives, political stand-up Mark Thomas will be bringing his new show inspired by Wakefield’s Red Shed Labour Club, drag king Lucy Jane Parkinson will be making an appearance and there will also be a puppet show which takes a satirical look at the recent changes to Disability Living Allowance.

“We have chosen eight locations in the north, east and west of the city and we have been working really hard with some of the people who live there so that they can be our ambassadors and spread the word,” adds Yates. “They also had an input in the type of acts we booked and we spent an awfully long time deciding the programme because we know how important it is that we get this right. When you get an event like City of Culture there are always going to be accusations that too much of it is focused on existing, popular venues and this is our way of taking art right to people’s doorsteps.

Meet Fred is a great example of the work we want to bring to Hull. Created by Hijinx Theatre, Fred is a puppet who just wants a normal life, to meet a girl and settle down. However, when he is threatened with losing his Puppetry Living Allowance his life begins to spiral out of control. The cast always includes performers with learning disabilities and, given the political climate of austerity that we are living in at the moment, it should be a really timely piece.”

Meet Fred, which the programme points out features swearing and puppet nudity, is suitable for over-14s only, although with the festival running through the February half term much of it has been designed to be family friendly.

“Throughout that first event we will also be turning the various venues into pop-up cinemas and we will be showing three classic Roald Dahl films,” adds Yates. “I hope there will be something quite magical about seeing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and Fantastic Mr Fox on the big screen and we also hope it will give families a taster of what we are trying to achieve.

“Performing in the middle of a shopping centre or on the stage of a school will be very different for all of the acts, but everyone we have approached seems really game.

“Our hope is that if we can pull these three mini festivals off this year then we will have a workable blueprint so Back to Ours becomes an annual event.”

The Pigeon Detectives will be using their Hull gigs to launch their new album, Broken Glances, in advance of the general release on February 24.

“It is terrifying playing a shopping centre. There are no dressing rooms, nowhere to stamp our feet when the rider isn’t right, but I am guessing we will survive.

“When we decided to do the fifth album we knew we didn’t want it to sound like what we had done before. We basically went back into the recording studio and when we came out we had undone all the good work of the last 10 years.

“I played the album to my wife and she didn’t recognise it as us. I played it to my dad and he was gobsmacked. It is deliberately uncomfortable to listen to, but if that’s what you’re after we’ll see you in Hull and we promise we will play a few old tunes as well.”

Back to Ours will run from February 22 to 25 and then again at the May and October half terms. For full details go to hull2017.co.uk/backtoours.