Martin Green is the mastermind behind Hull UK City of Culture 2017. He talks to Sarah Freeman about the year ahead.
Spend enough time with Martin Green and chances are he’ll tell you his Hull-oh anecdote. It goes something like this. When he was first appointed chief executive of Hull UK City of Culture 2017 and swapped his London flat for a bolthole in the old town his friends weren’t exactly sure where he’d moved to.
“For a while I could have been forgiven for thinking the city was called ‘Hullwhere’,” says Green who was behind the various opening ceremonies of the London Olympics, “because when I told people that I was coming here that was pretty much their response. Now those same friends have visited and it’s changed to ‘Hulloh’ as in ‘Oh, I didn’t realise it was so nice’.”
While he may have had no personal links to Hull, from his first day in the job Green was the city’s biggest advocate. He raved about the marina, championed the plans to transform the then still largely redundant Fruit Market and was determined to capitalise on the wave of optimism which secured Hull the UK City of Culture title in the first place.
It was an impressive bid and its tag line – ‘We Want It, We Need It’ – had the kind of blunt honesty, which Green says he has come to love and which has now been replaced by another equally down to earth mission statement – Everyone Back to Ours.
“A marketing company came up with various suggestions which they pinned on the wall of one of our meeting rooms. As soon as I walked in and saw Everyone Back to Ours I knew that was it. This year is, I hope, going to be a giant party and one to which everyone is invited.”
So far only the first three months of events have been announced in full. Green says they took the decision early on not to unveil the whole 12 month programme at once, a lesson he says the team learnt from Derry, Londonderry, which was the first ever UK City of Culture and from the experience of Liverpool which was the European City of Culture back in 2008.
“They both said whatever you do, do it in stages. Anything else is just too much and the danger is that some of the smaller, more eclectic events get lost. We will launch the second and third tranche in February and the final part later in the year, but let’s just say there are still some surprises to come.”
What we do know of the programme shows Green has made good on his word to combine local, national and international artists. Leeds-based Opera North will turn the Humber Bridge into a massive soundscape, the Royal Shakespeare Company will premiere a new show at Hull Truck and then there’s a celebration of the city’s Nordic links with an experimental music festival curated by critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter John Grant who was born in America, but who found a spiritual home in Iceland.
“It is important in terms of profile to have some flagship events and it’s great that the Ferens Art Gallery will be hosting the Turner Prize, but from the outset we were clear that we wanted a programme which truly reflected the spirit and ethos of the city.
“The RSC is not just coming here on tour, they are opening a brand new play about Hull by one of the country’s hottest playwrights, who also happens to be be from Hulland it’s being co-produced by Hull Truck Theatre. That I think says a lot.”
Green is referring to Richard Bean who a couple of years ago was behind the National Theatre’s phenomenally successful production of One Man, Two Guvnors. His take on Carlo Goldoni’s 18th century Commedia dell’arte style comedy Servant of Two Masters not only catapulted its star, James Corden, into the major league, but it also made Bean the writer everyone wants to work with. For City of Culture, he has returned to his roots with The Hypocrite, inspired by Hull’s Sir John Hotham who ended up sparking the English Civil War when he denied King Charles I entry to the city in 1642.
It’s a moment in history the people are particularly proud of, but Green says he hopes the programme shines on some of the city’s lesser known figures and movements. “The first thing I did when I got here was to ask people who we should be celebrating and two names that kept cropping up were Cosey Fanni Tutti and Genesis P-Orridge.
“In the late 1960s these two artists founded the COUM Transmission collective who were labelled ‘the wreckers of civilisation’ by a Conservative MP after they staged their Prostitution show at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts which featured photographs of lesbians, rusty knives, syringes and bloodied hair among the exhibits. They deliberately set out to challenge accepted social conventions and it’s right and fitting that they are celebrated back in their home city.”
Hull and Green pinned their ambitions to the flag early on when it was announced Spencer Tunick would be staging one of his famous nude photographic installations in the city. The appeal went out for volunteers and one relatively balmy June morning more than 3,200 people arrived at Queen’s Gardens, stripped off, painted themselves blue and prepared to pose. The final result won’t be unveiled until the summer but the record turnout showed that UK City of Culture had the public on its side.
“The plaudits for that really go to the Ferens Art Gallery. They wanted it to happen and we just supported it, but yes I think it showed the scale of what we want to do. When were initially talking about how many people would be needed to make it work I’m pretty sure the figure was around 400.
“I don’t think anyone could quite believe how many came down that morning and the vast majority were from Hull. They wanted an unforgettable experience and I hope they also wanted to be part of the story of City of Culture. I still bump into people now who took part in it and who tell me that it was a complete revelation, that something for them changed that day. When we talk about legacy it’s not just about increasing tourism numbers or boosting the economy, it’s also about the memories you create and Sea of Hull is a really good example of that.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Green who in recent months has been asked as much about the endless city centre roadworks as he has the opening event, which will see 70 years of Hull’s history projected onto key buildings. Many businesses lost money as the roads were dug up to create a new public realm and for a while many doubted whether the inconvenience would ever be worth it.
“I live here too and yes, it has been a pain, but I hope that as the barriers come down people will see that the council has done a wonderful thing. In short I hope they will say it was worth the upheaval.”
For the last couple of months, Green says his job has to been to absorb any of the last minute headaches and hitches and let the production team get on with staging the ambitious programme. That has inevitably meant lots of late nights and he has woken up on his sofa in the early hours more times that he cares to remember. However, tomorrow night he will get to enjoy the fruits of his labours as a firework display signals the start of the celebrations.
“We make art because we love art and I think there would be something wrong if we also didn’t get to enjoy it. So yes, I’ll be there tomorrow and I honestly can’t wait.
“This was never about us coming up here and imposing our ideas in Hull. It was about us helping to peel back the fabric of the city and allowing Hull to tell its own story and what a story it is.”
Green says he has already noticed a change in the city and a new, more confident buzz about the place which has been bolstered by Siemens investing £160m in a new wind turbine manufacturing facility, which has brought much needed jobs and hope to Hull.
“It really does feel like Hull’s time,” says Green. “People keep asking me where I am going to go after City of Culture, but who says I am going anywhere? I might just stay.”
Chances are he will go, but wherever Green ends up next there will always be a part of him which will be forever Hull.