Edinburgh Festival Fringe weekend

Now that was fun. Breaking my Edinburgh Fringe virginity at the age of 42 with a short sharp weekend of comedy, haggis, Elvis and an octogenarian light entertainment legend. This is just a few notes on what I saw and given I can’t resist it, some advice for my home city.

[From the outset, it’s worth noting that Matthew Somerville is blogging his long stay at the fringe and he’s doing mini-reviews as he goes along. It’s a great read.]

Who I saw, in the order I saw them:
Nicholas Parsons Happy Hour – It was only afterwards I realised he was 86. That’ll explain both the slight forgetfulness but also the immense warmth that the audience showed towards him. Happy Hour is Parson’s talk show that he’s done for the last 10 years on the fringe. Guests this time around included Nina Conti (a ventriloquist, amusing when her puppet spoke, nervous as herself) and Jason Byrne (very funny, seemed to be able to spark off anything). Overall a lovely introduction to the fringe in the Caberet Bar at The Pleasance.

Reginald D Hunter – Always funny when I see him in brief spurts on TV but for a full hour his material seemed light on big laughs. He was totally thrown when some members of the audience left early and one went for a pee. He chided them for their bad timing but then couldn’t get back on track. He’d lost us by then anyway. He had a general theme about how a bit of bullying in childhood keeps you on your toes in adulthood.

Mark Watson – I knew little about Watson yet he was playing in one of the bigger venues. Reviews suggested he was good so we booked him as a safe bet and indeed he was very good. Full of nervous energy, playful with the audience and reflective about the nature of his comedy (he was a bit ‘meta’, talking about which jokes were working with which parts of the audience). His themes, about being someone people vaguely know and about needing to change direction now he’s a new dad, worked well enough. Big laughs throughout.

Long Live the King – the only bit of theatre I saw (sorry other art forms but I love comedy too much). But wow, this was superb. A one-woman play about Elvis, emigration, family, motherhood and lots more besides. This was actually what I thought the fringe would be like. Small room, few people, Asian woman dressed as Elvis. I think half the audience was in tears by the end as writer-performer Ansuya Nathan switched between various characters from her family and The King himself. I think it’s because theatre done this well packs such an emotional punch that in general I’m a bit scared of it.

Stewart Lee – best of them all. I’d never seen Lee live though always admired him. This show was in a tiny comedy club and was billed as him prepping new material for a future TV show. That material was in two sections, some about charity and some about politics. The former worked best and saw him produce very funny attacks on Adrian Chiles and Russell Howard. Lee has this was of stretching a routine almost to breaking point yet it still working. His imagining of an episode of Antiques Roadshow in which a piss-filled Toby Jug (representing Adrian Chiles) sells for £6million (Chiles current salary) was inspired.

Doc Brown – he has a rap about an O.H.P. projector, who can beat that. Very funny former British rapper who has produced something that’s more of a one-man theatre show than pure stand-up. He’s relaxed and would be hard to dislike. It’s autobiographical stuff, with pictures, and even when he’s light on the laughs towards the end we’ve so warmed to him that we’re hanging on every word.

Grainne Maguire
– an hour in which Grainne takes a not uninteresting idea (why can’t life be like C19 novels) and does nothing interesting with it. It had one promising section in which she plays out a scene in the style of a Victorian melodrama but the rest was short on laughs and high on cringe. The damp-smelling venue and sparse audience (real authentic fringe feel then) didn’t help but neither did her inability to be funny.

Other Fringe Virgins note:
I haven’t too much to say about how to ‘do’ the Fringe. All I’d say is a certain amount of planning helped as you can then leave gaps for food or the off-chance someone thrusts a flyer into your hand for a show you actually might go and see. It also avoids box-office queues. We tried to arrive early at venues so we could get our bearings – our tickets would say ‘Pleasence Courtyard‘ but there’s about 15 venues in that one place so it’s worth talking time to find exactly where you are meant to be. You can bring beer into the venues and some queuing a little ahead of time (about 15 max) helps you get a decent seat. We stayed in a booked-very-very-far-in-advance hotel.

Some thoughts for my home city:
Birmingham will never have an Edinburgh of course but we do have lots of events that together, aren’t far off the ingredients for a whopper of a festival experience. Trouble is we spread them out presuming we’d never gain an audience for them if they ran concurrently. I say to hell with that. For one year let’s put the whole lot on at the same time and see what happens; see how much of a buzz it creates. Give it some vague branding if we must but give it a central booking portal for sure.

I realise that Marketing Birmingham are obsessed with the ‘Business Visitor’ but for one year we should ask that it lays off the marketing it does for that (they’ll still come I bet) and instead focuses on getting as many people to Brum for a one-month Brum-fest.

Next year I say we put all these on at the same time:

Any more? No doubt some stuff will end up with an audience of one man and a dog. So what? That was actually the ‘authentic’ fringe experience I was after (and almost got at the Grainne Maguire show).

And when to have it? March. So that in the middle of it we can have a great big parade.

(pic: thewidewideworld)

Links for August 5th through August 19th

Some links for you:

Birmingham’s Creative Industries – the ‘business case’

Whilst admiring the yellow courgettes growing on my allotment yesterday I thought to myself: “someone should really write a blog post about Birmingham’s Creative Industries and the whole Local Economic Partnerships thing. Hey, that’s something I could write about”. Fortunately, Chris Unitt on the Created in Birmingham blog got there before me and has got some good discussion going. This therefore is the ‘further reading’ to that blog post: some stats to help set the context and a modicum of opinion.

‘Punch Above Their Weight’
We could do with a restatement of the national picture of the size and scope of Creative Industries (CI) and their contribution to the economy. That’s the ‘Creative Industries’ sub-sectors as measured by government since the late 90s. The last economic estimates for CI in the UK puts them growing at 2% above the rest of the economy, accounting for 6.2% of Gross Value Added (GVA) in the economy and responsible for 4.5% of exports. That GVA figure is worth pausing on. In general CIs are a bunch of sectors that are ‘high value’, the goods and services they create are bought at a high price compared to the cost of producing them. So although in scale CI aren’t vast, they tend, in jargon heavy policy documents at least, to be described as ‘punching above their weight’.

Birmingham’s CIs
So what about locally? Back in 2007 there was a report called ‘Making The Business Case’ (not available online), funded by the City Council, commissioned by the Creative Birmingham board, which articulated Birmingham’s case for continuing to recognise the importance of the CIs: “Birmingham’s creative industries are important to its economy. They generate real jobs and income and respectable amounts of GVA.” They reckoned the sector was worth £1bn or 8.7% of the city’s GVA (Manchester has a figure of 10.9%).

An updated report was commissioned in 2009 which used a slightly different methodology so the two reports aren’t comparable. For example, its GVA figure for 2007 is £663m (see below) but is calculated in a different way and, if I recall correctly, the researchers were very sceptical about the accuracy of calculating GVA at city level. Much of this updated report is summarised in a report in the Birmingham Post from October 2009 but the report itself remains unpublished. It’s a good read though, if only you were able to read it.

Here are some tables from it. Stats only go up to 2007 and even if revised again now would only go to 2008:

So in summary, Birmingham’s Creative Industries do just about ‘punch above their weight’ and remain an important part of our economy. But other smaller cities seem to do a bit better than us – we’ve got less creatives than Leeds and less as a proportion of overall employment than Bristol. We have a growing number of employees in micro firms but a decline in overall creative employment since 2003/4. That’s evidence perhaps that policy that focuses purely on start-ups needs to be supplemented with support for growth of larger firms along with a focus on inward investment.

Not a Charity Case
It’s inevitable that whatever LEPs form in and around Birmingham, the ‘Creative’ sector will be articulated within them. But how they articulate them is really quite important. There is established methodology about what the CI are and despite its flaws at least it’s there and established. I worry whenever I see those definitions rejected. Jerry Blackett, current chair of the Creative Birmingham board is arguing for just such a rejection of established definitions and even for a shift in focus towards philanthropy. That feels wrong. Birmingham’s Creative Industries need a business case, not handouts.

I think this position comes from the confusion of thinking that the subsidised Arts sector has much to do with the Creative Industries sector. There’s overlap of course but in Birmingham the two most significant contributors to Creative Industries value have been Architecture (32% of GVA in 2004) and Software (35% of GVA in 2004). Music and Performing Arts are low-value sectors in economic terms (1.1% of GVA in 2004).

Writing in 2006, Calvin Taylor noted that it was:

“significant that the arts lobby mostly uses the creative industry tag. Very few other sector bodies, representing other components of what are taken to be the creative industries, use the tag in their sectors promotion work.”

He went on to warn that in the regions, advocacy for the creative industries must rise to

“the challenge of developing a credible evidence base, without allowing judgements of the attempts made so far to be circumscribed by the pressure to deliver yet more advocacy.”

But this can’t be all about stats. People matter, and how we feel about creativity in the city matters also. There’s a really useful research paper (PDF) that looks at regional creative clusters in Birmingham Newcastle/Gateshead. In their conclusions the authors point out that:

“the city-region is a place for cooperation, not just competition […] personal and emotive dimensions are key factors in the decision of creative practitioners to be located in both city-regions. This personal dimension is often underplayed in the development of creative industries…”

[A version of this, without the fancy tables, will probably make it to my column in next week’s Birmingham Post]

Links for July 13th through July 15th

Some links for you:

Links for July 1st through July 7th

Some links for you:

  • Clay Shirky and the Cognitive Surplus – jon bounds – "What disappoints is that lack of discussion solutions to those problems, it might be that there aren’t any obvious ones but I’d love to see what Clay has to say on the matter — he says how early in his web career he made a mistake in assuming something about people’s behaviour (he didn’t see how people would want poor self-made Geocitites sites after seeing professionally designed sites), perhaps it’s a decision never to predict again."
  • Self-help and civic culture … – Google Books – Looks like a book for current civic minded web types to read.
  • Evernote shared notebook: jhsxswm – Jason Hall's (from Screen West Midlands) notes from a TSB (technology strategy board) event for their Metadata fuding competition.

Walking in the Creative City

View Walking in the Creative City in a larger map

Today (Friday 2nd July 2010) was a great day to be out and about in Birmingham, a quite wonderful creative and vibrant city in case you weren’t aware. Here’s who I met today and who I talked to.

Every morning I face a critical decision. After dropping my son off at his nursery I can either turn right onto the Bristol Road and drive to work in Perry Barr or I go left, park in the station and catch the train. Invariably I go left because I like trains, even rush hour ones, and I have a train pass. Going right means facing traffic usually but actually would get me to work quicker (I have to change trains in Birmingham).

I had a meeting in Birmingham Science Park today so not having the car today meant I had to walk across the city to get from there to where I wanted to end the day, in Birmingham’s best coffee shop, Urban Coffee Co., making use of their wifi and catching up on some tennis. Here’s a list of the great people I talked to today:

At Birmingham Science Park:

  • Met with the good folk at Digital Birmingham about forthcoming events and bored Simon Whitehouse with my masterful mail merge knowledge
  • Loitered in the cafe (free wifi!) and had tutorials (via skype and via phone) with Leland and Simona. Couple of interesting MA projects to come from them.
  • Bumped into Dan. He’s building a business around a great service called civico. He does about a million other things as well.
  • Popped in to see Daden who do a lot of really interesting stuff in virtual worlds.
  • Met two guys from AWM. Both cheerier than you might imagine.
Near Aston Uni:
  • Met with Raj from Digital Birmingham lots to download in a short amount of time. Someone passes and says ‘Hi Dave’ – I haven’t a clue who it is and then feel ashamed when Raj reminds me and I should have known her.
At Old Square
  • I tweet Lee Kemp to say sorry I forgot to chat to him at a conference the other week and thanks for a followfriday.
Near the Cathedral
  • Blimey, if it isn’t Lee Kemp, in person, who needs directions to somewhere. Later, he tweets a really nice thank you for introducing him to someone at said conference where I forgot to chat to him.
Church St.
  • It’s Paul Hadley. A student of mine, a great guy. He’s wearing a suit.
Urban Coffee Co.
Not on the map: I had a nice bacon sarnie at work and had a good phone call with Roy Peters in the morning.

Overall, a great day meeting and bumping into great people in a great City.

Links for June 27th through July 1st

Some links for you:

  • Steve McCurry – Exhibitions and Events – Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery – Must get to this at some point – or send students to it at least. "Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery is the sole UK venue for a retrospective of the work of American photo-journalist Steve McCurry, the man who is responsible for some of the worlds most famous photographs."
  • Regional Economic Development | Policies | BIS – "Following the General Election, the Government is committed to building a new economic model. This includes the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships – joint local authority-business bodies brought forward by local authorities themselves to promote local economic development – to replace Regional Development Agencies. in taking this work forward the Government wishes to ensure an orderly transition which maintains focus on delivery. Detailed proposals will follow in due course."
  • Running, data and community | Talk About Local – Something I wrote for Talk About Local website. Re-reading it I'm almost tempted to start a data.bournvilleharriers.org.uk.

Links for June 17th through June 24th

Some links for you:

  • Birmingham Post – Dave Harte: In love with committees – Piece by me in this week's Birmingham Post based on some observations of meeting reps from other European cities.
  • Evidence base | Digital Participation – "We have published information about Race Online’s key target groups – older people, the unemployed and those in low income families – in the form of powerpoint chart packs. Each pack comprises latest internet take-up figures from Ofcom’s Q1 2010 Digital Participation Tech Tracker survey, as well as information about what these groups say about why they don’t have the internet, and their attitudes towards internet technology. It also provides background social and economic market data collated from national statistical sources."
  • Citizensheep » Legal considerations for people responsible for websites – Most useful: "I’ve drawn up a legal primer for people commissioning or managing websites. This is by no means detailed or comprehensive: it is intended as a starting point and to raise awareness of the issues. I welcome feedback on anything that’s unclear or factually wrong."

Links for April 27th through June 8th

Some links for you:

Links for April 11th through April 16th

Some links for you: