The Journal Culture Awards – the ninth – took place in Sunderland Minster in an atmosphere of expectation and celebration.
Sixteen awards were presented, mostly rewarding the creative achievements of 2014 but with two special awards acknowledging a great contribution to the cultural life of the region over a longer period.
These went to Great North Run Culture, whose 10th anniversary was marked by the spectacular GNR Million ceremony on the Tyne, and Hawthorn Primary School in Elswick, Newcastle, who embraced the Government-funded In Harmony project which made orchestral music integral to school life.
A group of the children showed the progress they have made on the musical instruments they were given as part of the scheme, performing Vivaldi’s ‘Autumn’ and the Star Wars theme.
In 13 categories, shortlists of three had been drawn up. There could be only one winner in each category but it wasn’t always easy to choose, as the judges would tell you.
Here are some of the things – serious and less serious – that we learned during the course of an inspiring night.
1. Sunderland Minster is a beautiful building at the heart of the city’s burgeoning cultural quarter. Atmospheric stage lighting from the R&B Group combined with the sun streaming through the stained glass windows to create an evocative blend of ancient and modern.
2. Alfie Joey*, stepping in at the 11th hour to host the awards, not only co-hosts BBC Radio Newcastle’s breakfast show but is a comedian and ex-monk. In Sunderland Minster, he offered to start proceedings with a prayer... but then said he was joking. Many more jokes followed as he delivered a masterclass in compèring skills.
3. David Almond’s An Opera for Sunderland is to be called Miracle: An Opera of Two Halves. Having received his prize as Writer of the Year, David read from his libretto – a story about a footballer called Angelo who transforms the fortunes of Sunderland FC. The opera, commissioned by Music in the Minster with Arts Council support, is to be premiered in this building next year.
4. Ukeleles always strike the right note. Sunderland’s Dam Ukes performed a medley of upbeat numbers while watching pupils from Hawthorn Primary School looked as if they were itching to have a turn.
5. Sunderland could be the “Celtic tiger of North East culture” suggested Joe Docherty, chair of Arts Council England North, while presenting the Arts Council Award – won by AV Festival. The city is to bid to become UK City of Culture in 2021 and is a host port for the Tall Ships Race in 2018.
6. Hyde & Beast, who performed a crisp set with backing from the Whitburn Singers, sport brilliant beards.
7. Peter Mortimer, shortlisted in the Writer of the Year category, didn’t get the chance to flash his heartfelt ‘Thank you Jackie’ T-shirt. It was a tribute to Jackie Fielding, director of Peter’s First World War play Death at Dawn (also shortlisted for Performance of the Year), who died suddenly in May.
8. Death at Dawn is to be revived later in the year – and it didn’t go empty-handed. Young actress Heather Carroll, who played all the female parts in the play’s initial run, won Newcomer of the Year.
9. Film director Magali Pettier, also shortlisted for Newcomer of the Year for her film Addicted to Sheep, had bought a Swaledale ewe and lambs to the Minster. Well, fake ones – though very life-like, with real horns and fleeces and, she revealed, a real skull inside the ewe’s head. Her film is poised to get a theatrical release, meaning it will be in cinemas soon.
10. Folk singer Richard Dawson, not up for an award, produced his own little trophy and put it on the corner of the stage – before raising the Minister roof with a performance of vocal power and dexterity. One song featured the fate of a “poor old horse”. Definitely one to watch.
11. Nadine Shah, winner in the Performing Artist of the Year category, said she was returning to the North East after several years in London. Evenings like this, she said, made her realise she had made the right decision.
12. The children of Hawthorn Primary School, Elswick, after three years of the In Harmony programme, are on a school tour, spreading the message that classical music is for everyone. Having secured Arts Council funding for this year, staff are keen to ensure the good work – now reaping clear benefits – can continue.
13. White gloves aren’t just for snooker referees. So lovely and shiny were the trophies, sponsored by Historic England and made by Gateshead artist Corinne Lewis-Ward, that each came with its own set of white gloves to ease careful handling.
* Actor Chris Connel, who was due to host the awards for the third time, was taken ill on the eve of the ceremony. He is on the mend and we wish him all the best.
(The Journal Culture Awards 2014 were held in association with See It Do It Sunderland, Sunderland Bid and North East Cultural Partnership and with Grants for the Arts funding from Arts Council England. Category sponsorship came from Ward Hadaway, Barbour, University of Sunderland, Newcastle University, Northumbria University, Teesside University and Durham University.)