Alex Poots breezes into the red-brick offices of Manchester International Festal looking every inch the 21st century urban European arts mandarin. As artistic director of the inaugural MIF, it’s mere weeks before his programme opens, and Poots has just jetted back from a London launch the night before, The Beautiful North, in which MIF lined itself up with Liverpool’s 2008 European Capital Culture, and its hosting of this year’s Turner Prize.
MIF’s city centre HQ, a former bar and nightclub already reinvented from an industrial revolution era warehouse, is all too fitting as the engine room of a festival that capitalises on Manchester’s musical heritage. Its open-plan airiness too is emblematic of the city’s regenerated urban cool that chooses, both physically and metaphorically, to build on top of its past rather than bulldoze it away to be hastily replaced with some temporary, squeezed-in structure.
“It’s got the most loos in any arts building anywhere,” Poots jokes of a space used to catering for weekend revellers. “We’re only using two of them, but there’s another three rows of the going unused.”
In a programme flagshipped by Monkey, an opera by ex Blur frontman Damon Albarn based on the much loved Chinese tale, and designed here by Albarn’s partner in crime in ‘virtual band,’ Gorillaz, cartoonist Jamie Hewlitt, Poots has a lot more to think about than public conveniences.
“It’s our first festival,” says Poots, “and we don’t have the 50 or 60 years of history that Edinburgh has, so we’re not in the calendar in the same way.”
Much has been written about the arrival of MIF as somehow doing damage to Edinburgh’s reputation as the festival capital of the world. The publication of the Thundering Hooves report suggested as much, while acknowledging the need for greater political will and investment in real terms if Edinburgh is to continue to host and produce world class material.
“The real point of the Thundering Hooves report,” Poots maintains, wasn’t about scare-mongering regionalism. “It was about using Manchester as an example in terms of a city council, pointing out that here was a council investing £2 million before it even had a success on its hands. So it was more about using the report as a mechanism to show the great and the good of Edinburgh what they’ve got under their noses rather than to see us as a particular threat. If we’d set ourselves up at the same time, any fears would b legitimate, but this seems to be more about encouraging political will.”
In actual fact, in terms of both programme and style, MIF is closer to The Holland Festival than anything in Edinburgh. There’s the same emphasis on contemporary music born of post 1960s youth culture, the same maverick mix and match of form and content, and the same love of spectacle. Then again, contemporary reinventions of classical music abound in Jonathan Mills’ own inaugural Edinburgh programme.
As well as Monkey, MIF’s programme features a new play by Stewart Lee starring Johnny Vegas, Steve McQueen’s controversial commemoration of the Iraq war, Queen And Country.
“I’ve always been interested in opening venues out to create new work,” Poots says. “It’s important to do that, otherwise you just end up with a museum culture. Not all of it will work, but we obviously hope most of it does. We might not get it completely right this time, because it’s the first, but because we’re bi-annual we can constantly think about making it better next time.”
On paper, at least, MIF is on a winner from the start. In its brochure, it’s in possession of one of the most attractive pieces of print to have ever flag-shipped a festival. Its classicist typography and blacks, whites and greys have Factory Records designer and MIF consultant Peter Saville’s self-referential signature all over it. A masterclass of clarity, confidence and content, it gives everything on its pages weight without ever looking like its screaming down Portland Street with swirling hues of busy day-glo hoardings more fitting for a burlesque hen night.
Alex Poots grew up in Edinburgh, from where as a boy he’d make the trek to Glasgow’s RSAMD every Saturday morning to learn trumpet as a junior student going. Later, as a professional musician, he played trumpet at shows by The Blue Nile, who remain Poots’ favourite Scottish band, and who feature in their first live concert in seven years at MIF.
“I couldn’t not have them,” Poots enthuses. “Paul Buchanan’s probably got the best voice in the country. I got to know them when I did a session on their album, Hats. Programming them is a bit of an indulgence, but I had to make it my mission to have them.”
Poots studied music at Guildhall, did sessions as a trumpeter for It’s Immaterial and played live with Pulp at Glastonbury. As a student, Poots also worked for Factory Records’ supreme Tony Wilson on their fledgling Classical music label, looking after radical composer Steve Martland.
“I was very impressed with Tony,” Poots says. “There was no bureaucracy. If you needed a fax machine, he’d take one and deliver it to you in a French restaurant.”
Such, then, is the Manchester way.
From Factory Classical, Poots found himself producing a day of minimalist music, and “completely fell in love with putting shows on.”
At Edinburgh International Festival, Poots was Concert Manager for Frank Dunlop’s last year as artistic director, and Brian McMaster’s first two, looking after artists for The Queens Hall and The Usher Hall.
“I asked Frank one day what my job was in one sentence,” Poots recalls, “and he said to make sure that from the moment the artist land at the airport to when they go back to the airport, that everything works fine for them. So my job now is about working with the artist, and about having a sensibility about the anxieties they’re going through and not getting too worked up about the prima donna tabloid image some big artists have. I’ve always found that if you communicate with them calmly and caringly, then a lot of that often dissipates and they start to trust you. Then you’re fine.
“What I learnt from Edinburgh is that it’s relationships with artist that are important. What I’m best at isn’t running a big organisation. I do it, and I’m happy to do it, but what I think they employed me for is that I’ve got good relationships with good artists, and I try and let them come up with the good ideas and not let myself get too unravelled by it. You are almost like an incubator for the artists talent and their work. It’s very much about nurturing that work, and that’s how I’ve always done things.”
Poots continued this policy working on Elvis Costello’s Meltdown festival, and later at The Barbican and Somerset House. Inbetween, Poots and his then boss on The South Bank, David Sefton, saw a lack of contemporary music in Edinburgh, and founded the shortlived Flux festival.
Without Flux, it’s arguable that the now voluminous body of left-field contemporary music festivals in Scotland could never have existed. Without Michael Nyman and Damon Alburn collaborating in a night-club, Pulp playing behind a screen at The Queens Hall and Nick Cave playing Princes Street Gardens, an appetite for such endeavours would never have encouraged T On The Fringe to move in. Despite such an ambitious programme, however, Flux jumped ship when a previously enthusiastic City Of Edinburgh Council reneged on a promise of funding. Having invested their own money and budgeted accordingly, Sefton and Poots didn’t quite lose their shirts, but it came close.
Sefton is now in charge of UCLA in California, where a west coast version of All Tomorrow’s Parties, another festival clearly modelled on Flux, has appeared. More significantly, The National Theatre Of Scotland have just announced that, at Sefton’s behest, their phenomenally successful production of Blackwatch will tour there this coming autumn.
Poots introduced live events to Tate Modern, and had The Pet Shop Boys accompaniment to Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film, Battleship Potemkin, in Leicester Square. At English National Opera, one of his success stories was taking arias to Glastonbury. By contrast, one of his final commissions at ENO before taking the MIF job was the ill-fated Gadaffi – The Opera, with music by Asian Dub Foundation and a libretto by another Edinburgh man, playwright Shan Khan. Khan’s previous stage works, Office and Prayer Room, had premiered, coincidentally, in Edinburgh.
For Monkey, you get the impression Poots is being a lot more careful.
“Damon Albarn said he wouldn’t even think about saying yes until he’d been to China,” Poots points out. “He wasn’t going to just appropriate the culture. He wanted to see what it was like, what it smelt like, what the music was like. Only then did Damon try and find a way into that. The one thing I regret about Gadaffi is taking this job halfway through the process. If you start something, it’s really hard not seeing through. I feel responsibility for that, but with Monkey I’m seeing that through from start to finish. One of the most important jobs of a festival director’s job is getting the right people together with the right ideas.”
In Manchester, Poots’ lieutenants include former Scottish Opera General Director Ruth Mackenzie, who served time as special advisor to cultural secretaries Chris Smith and Tessa Jowell prior to becoming artistic director of Chichester Festival Theatre. Mackenzie’s Manchester role will be akin to her Scottish Opera post. The appointment of outgoing EIF director Brian McMaster to MIF’s board is also a notable scoop.
Outwith Poots’ immediate boundaries, former Mayfest director Robert Robson has long been a fixture at The Lowry beside Salford Quays, while the recent appointment of Jon Morgan, former director of Manchester’s Contact Theatre, as head of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, proves the cultural traffic is at least partially a two-way thing. All of which begs the big question of Poots of whether, once he’s outgrown MIF, could he ever envisage himself returning to Edinburgh to take over Edinburgh International Festival?
“What an honour that would be,” Poots says. “But Jonathan’s got another seven years to go, and who knows what will happen. I’m getting older, so I can’t put club events on anymore. In a few years maybe I’ll be into orchestras and stuff, but I’ve got Manchester to get on with. Brian’s left Edinburgh in good shape and Jonathan’s got some great ideas, so let them fly.”
Manchester International Festival, June 28-July 15; Monkey: Journey To The West, June 28-July 7. For full listings, check www.manchesterinternationalfestival.com
The Herald, June 16th 2007