Harrogate Fringe puts town on ‘cool’ list

Gruff Rhys on stage at Harrogate Theatre as part of the Fringe. (Picture by Stuart Rhodes)

Gruff Rhys on stage at Harrogate Theatre as part of the Fringe. (Picture by Stuart Rhodes)

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ONE night in Harrogate two weeks ago at exactly the same time, writes Graham Chalmers, ’indie’ singer Edwyn Collins was performing with a quintet from the Scottish Philharmonic Orchestra at an art exhibition in Cold Bath Road, Toyah Wilcox was bounding on stage in an outrageous costume at Harrogate Theatre, a weird and wonderful post-rock band from London called Teeth of the Sea were sound checking at Katana bar at the back of Debenhams and cult icon and author Howard Marks was giving a talk about crime writing and his drug dealing past at the Old Swan Hotel.

At that precise moment Harrogate was probably the most happening place in the UK, outside of London.

This unlikely scenario was partly the result of the Fringe and partly the result of Harrogate International Festival which gave birth to the Fringe.

Mostly it was the work of a small band of Harrogate people from a variety of backgrounds; art gallery owners, music promoters, bar owners, web designers, poets, playwrights and musicians such as Andrew Stewart, Richard McTague, Nicola Everill and John Haxby, who gave of their own time and talent.

The most heartening thing about the second annual Harrogate International Festival Fringe to me was that in 12 months it has progressed from being a “good effort“ to something which not only met high creative standards but also made a modicum of genuine impact both inside and outside Harrogate.

As artistic director, programme co-ordinator, fringe supremo or whatever title you deem appropriate for such a DIY effort, I would not have been in the position to lead the Fringe without the patience of my employers the Harrogate Advertiser Series or the support of the festival’s incredibly dynamic chief executive Sharon Canavar who first asked me to take on this, er, ‘spare time’ role two years ago.

Though part of the festival, its much bigger, hugely respected sister, Harrogate Fringe is already virtually independent, as all good fringes should be.

The festival very generously produced the colourful, shiny mini-programme which you may have seen dotted around town in shops and bars but, otherwise, it was down to the wit and resources of the good people mentioned above.

It seems a long time since I first met up with everyone on cold winter nights in December at the West Park Hotel to begin six months of planning for four weeks of events.

Being a bit of an idiot, I gave our illicit rendezvous the pretentious title FAC or Fringe Advisory Committee.

In truth, it was a bit of an anti-committee with the emphasis on advice and creative ideas.

It felt a bit like we were planning a bank job.

What came out of it were three main aims:

1. Create events which bring out the talent of Harrogate people not usually regarded as ‘mainstream’.

2. Match the quality of the festival but in modern artistic areas the festival rarely focuses on.

3. Attract new audiences within Harrogate and change this fantastic town’s stuffy cultural reputation outside Harrogate to bring people in from outside.

Even before this summer’s events started, Metro had already used the word “cool” in a headline about the Fringe and Harrogate (surely the first recorded incident of this since the early days of the Kursaal?)

Leeds Guide described the mini programme as “a truly inventive and madcap month to rival even some of the more established fringes in the UK.”

As piles of lists of things of do turned into things which were actually happening, The Guardian gave a glowing review to indie genius Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals’ fringe show at Harrogate Theatre while inspirational musician Edwyn Collins could be heard on Radio 2’s arts show talking about how much he had enjoyed putting on an art exhibition at Harrogate Fringe.

If such publicity is worth its weight in gold, and there was a lot more than I’ve mentioned, what really matters is whether audiences actually turned up and enjoyed themselves.

At a rough count, the 15 events directly organised or inspired by FAC attracted approximately 4,000 people.

Not that there were things which couldn’t have been done better or areas where improvements could be made.

But there were so many moments which surprised me this year I could go on for hours if anyone would let me.

One of my favourites was the smallest but biggest - Across the Town: Hidden Harrogate, an amazing evening which ended up with people wrapped in white sheets on a gallery floor.

Like a barmy version of the Midnight Walk, it consisted of mostly normal artistic events (poetry, drama, music) performed in unusual locations for a ticket-only audience of 30 hardy souls with fearless hearts and stout walking boots.

Held in sequence in different parts of Harrogate in often spectacular spots, there was poetry way up. . .ah, I’d rather not tell you where, and mad social commentary to an electronica background at. . .nope, I can’t mention that one either.

I am able to mention both 108 Fine Art and Redhouse Originals galleries for their incredible support and Alison Lyon from Drumsagogo and Tim Ellis and Mark Ellis and Rod Castro but I’d really rather not say anymore.

We did it without regard to bureaucracy or the authorities or the million little impediments to action which make our beautiful urban oasis a little frustrating at times.

We did it to show it could happen, that Harrogate can be more than tea rooms and classical music.

And you know what, it is.

graham.chalmers@ypn.co.uk