“A change from murder and mayhem”: UK City of Culture on Television

Socially distanced performers at Coventry Moves (photograph author’s own).
Kat Pearson considers the role of television in Coventry's year as UK City of Culture, from BBC programming to local events that enabled residents to engage with the city's history through the TV archives.
[Ed. note: this article is part of a dossier on television cities.]

Why study television cities? Anyone who has watched television in the UK will know that our regions, towns, and cities are an ever-present feature. Watching the regional news for where I live in England, Midlands Today (BBC, 1964-), means that I see all events, even those of global significance, through a local lens—whether it’s the war in Ukraine from the perspective of a Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Wolverhampton, the significance of an Olympic medal-winner being from Coventry or Birmingham, or even, on the anniversary of 9-11, “the Worcester man who was having his breakfast in the Twin Towers just minutes before the attack.”1This episode of Midlands Today aired 9th September 2021 on BBC1 West Midlands. Quiz show contestants, or callers to magazine shows such as This Morning (ITV, 1988-) or The One Show  (2006-) are often introduced by their name and location. These interactions with place, many of which are casual and incidental, happen frequently on our television screens. While many of these reminders of location are seemingly insignificant, there is a huge potential for television to create and reinforce perceptions of place. This article will consider television’s engagement with place and placemaking using the UK City of Culture, and especially Coventry 2021, as a case study.

The UK City of Culture competition was created by the UK government, in large part due to the perceived success of Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture year in 2008. The UK City of Culture launched in 2010 with the announcement that Derry/Londonderry would become the first host city in 2013. The stated aims of the scheme were to promote culture as “a catalyst for change” and to use the arts to bring tourism and investment to an area and “change perceptions.”2Department for Culture Media & Sport, UK City of Culture consultation document (December 2014) https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/uk-city-of-culture-consultation, 4. This indicates that while the scheme is based on a specific locale, it is also outward-facing, and is not just about the impact of arts and culture on local residents. It is important to note here that the UK City of Culture does not usually come with any funding from the UK government. Instead, the scheme relies on support from key cultural partners including two major UK broadcasters, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Channel 4, and for Coventry 2021, Sky Arts.

In the introduction to her book Television Cities: Paris, London, Baltimore, Charlotte Brunsdon writes that “the historically low cultural prestige of television works against recognition of its power to contribute to our understanding of cities.”3Charlotte Brunsdon, Television Cities: Paris, London, Baltimore (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2018), 8-9. This is certainly true when it comes to UK City of Culture research and evaluation. While there has been a complex analysis of factors such as visitor numbers, events, economic growth and social impact, the same attention has not been applied to television. Instead, there seems to be an assumption that simply appearing on television changes national perception of the host cities. When engaging with television, official evaluation has predominantly selected key programmes or televisual moments to demonstrate successful encounters with viewers. For the second UK City of Culture, Kingston-Upon-Hull (2017), a commonly cited example was the BBC’s commitment to “put Hull on the [weather] map.”4Culture, Place & Policy Institute, Cultural Transformations: The Impact of Hull UK City of Culture 2017: Summary of Preliminary Outcomes Evaluation, (Hull: University of Hull, 2018), 116. While there had always been space for Hull’s name to appear on the national weather map (showing large, recognisable, towns and cities) it had previously been absent. This addition was welcomed in Hull, but there has been little or no evaluation of what this geographical visibility actually means. To take a quote from the post-event evaluation (chosen to articulate residents’ views), “it’s put Hull on the weather map, with people coming here they’d be looking to see what the weather was like because they’re coming here so they want to see if it’s raining or not, so now they know where Hull is.”5Ibid., 116. At first the sentiment of this comment (and the fact that the quote was selected for inclusion in the report) suggests an instinctual, positive response to seeing Hull named on the map alongside places such as London, Newcastle, and Birmingham. However, it also hints at the difficulty — encountered by both the resident interviewed, and those compiling the evaluation report — of articulating why this is significant beyond more people knowing what the weather is like in Hull and being able to identify its location on a map.

Hull on the weather map. Screenshot from BBC News, 27 July 2017

While television is often considered to be of lower prestige than cinema, as Brunsdon notes, for me it is precisely the everyday-ness and the ubiquity of television which makes studying its contribution to our understanding of cities so interesting and so challenging. For those of us living outside of capital cities or frequently filmed metropolitan centres, it is much more likely that our locality will be seen on television than in feature films. Despite this it is difficult to define exactly why people want to see familiar places on television, although this is something that is assumed to be important in the City of Culture evaluation documentation. It certainly feels significant (and often exciting) to me as a viewer, and probably to many people who have seen a well-known location on television, and this is especially true on a programme that is broadcast nationally. One possible explanation is that television allows us to have a shared understanding about a place with people who have not experienced it personally, or rather the feeling that people seeing your town or city on television will in some ways have a better understanding of you. In his article “My house was on Torchwood!: Media, Place and Identity” Brett Mills describes his personal experiences of television fandom, and his excitement that the series Torchwood (BBC, 2006- 2011) was filmed in Cardiff, his former home city.6Brett Mills, “My house was on Torchwood!: Media, Place and Identity,” International Journal of Cultural Studies, 11, no.4 (2008), 379–399: 394. Mills describes the importance of Torchwood to explain to people who are not from Cardiff about himself and his associations with the city. Relating this to UK City of Culture programming, television might provide people from Derry, Hull or Coventry with a televisual shorthand to explain what being from those cities means to them and why. In relation to Mills’s article then, how does the inclusion of Hull on the BBC weather map allow residents of Hull to describe their relationship to their own city, and what is being represented to viewers who only engage with the city via the medium of television?

May 2021 marked the start of Coventry’s tenure as UK City of Culture. Derry began its year with “the largest firework display the city had ever staged”7Department for Culture Media & Sport, Fireworks for Derry-Londonderry City of Culture 2013 celebrates (January 2013) https://www.gov.uk/government/news/fireworks-for-derry-londonderry. against the backdrop of the recently opened Peace Bridge. Hull’s year launched with a waterfront fireworks display and Made in Hull, a seven-day light and sound installation which drew an estimated 342,000 visits over seven days.8Culture, Place & Policy Institute, Cultural Transformations: The Impact of Hull UK City of Culture 2017: Summary of Preliminary Outcomes Evaluation, 36. The launch of Coventry 2021 was different. Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, there were no opportunities for mass gatherings, fireworks or audio-visual displays. Alongside this, the launch of the whole year of celebrations was delayed until mid-2021. Even by the summer, Government restrictions meant that at the time of the formal launch event Coventry Moves (in June 2021, three weeks after the City of Culture officially started) social distancing was still in place, masks were compulsory inside, and a maximum of thirty people could gather outside.

Footage of crowds watching spectacular cultural displays against the backdrop of recognisable city sites had formed the backbone of the key television programmes in both Derry and Hull’s years, demonstrating what can be seen as a visual language of cultural mega-events. This language utilises fireworks and aerial displays, performers, parades, huge crowds and close-up shots on faces expressing wonder, joy and excitement, often followed by vox pops describing civic pride and engagement with the event itself.

Screenshot of opening credits, Welcome to Hull – City of Culture 2017 (BBC, 2017)

The lack of in-person events undoubtedly impacted the footage available to television broadcasters covering Coventry 2021, and therefore represented a shift away from the visual language which had prevailed across the first two UK City of Culture years. It also meant that television became an important aspect of Coventry 2021. The launch event Coventry Moves on 5th June included a parade through the city and music and dancers on the streets. However, the celebrations were “designed to be enjoyed from home online, on the radio and on your timeline”9“Coventry Moves,” Coventry 2021: UK City of Culture, last accessed 26 May 2022, https://coventry2021.co.uk/explore/coventry-moves/. with people being asked not to congregate. The live event focused on radio broadcasts, but another key feature was the BBC programme Curtain-Up on Coventry (BBC, 2021) which combined footage from the day with pre-recorded interviews. It was put together in under 48 hours and broadcast on 7th June on BBC1 in the West Midlands, before being shown nationally on BBC4 two days later. Therefore, in Coventry 2021 television was utilised to not only to disseminate and record cultural events happening in the city, but also to create cultural content in a way that responded to COVID-19 restrictions.

Footage of Pauline Black performing for Coventry Moves in Curtain-Up on Coventry

Furthermore, the City of Culture had officially launched on 15th May, three weeks before Coventry Moves. The first opportunity for people to engage with Coventry 2021 was via television, with three BBC programmes broadcast in May and June 2021. These were: Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes (BBC, 2021), Classic British Cars: Made in Coventry (BBC, 2021) and Coventry Cathedral: Building for a New Britain (BBC, 2021). While it will be interesting to assess from future Cities of Culture how much of this focus was a result of the pandemic limitations, it is clear that Coventry 2021 provided an opportunity for the broadcaster to commission films looking specifically at Coventry. This is something which otherwise might have been difficult due to the BBC’s remit to represent the whole of the UK.

It is perhaps worth noting here that because the scheme is predicated on bringing about reputational change, the UK City of Culture has predominantly focused on positive representations of place, resulting in some histories being deemed more appropriate for inclusion than others. An example can be found in Classic British Cars. The motor industry forms a central part of Coventry’s recent history. Because of the reliance of Coventry’s workers on the motor industry (as well as another declining industry of the time, coal mining) the 1970s and 1980s will be remembered by many in the city as a time of economic decline, strike action and trade unions. However Classic British Cars is told from the perspective of the owners of the companies, and the drivers of the cars. Company archives make up a significant amount of the footage used, and the effect is to show Coventry’s motoring past through a lens of pride and nostalgia. Only ten seconds of archive footage in this hour-long documentary features striking motor workers. There is little doubt that if a film on the same subject was made using a news archive such as that held by the Media Archive for Central England (MACE), a very different impression would be given, one based on the coverage of strikes at the time. While the idea of different archives creating an entirely different programme might seem like an obvious one, it is not reflected in the way that the film was marketed by the BBC, who described it as “the full history of the classic cars made in Coventry.”

Coventry on TV (photograph author’s own)

Alongside enabling us to view the city on our TV screens, Coventry 2021 has provided opportunities to encourage visitors, many of whom are familiar with Coventry, to engage with television archives. As part of my research on UK Cities of Culture on television, I curated screenings using footage from the collection of MACE, all of which took place in the city in the year up to, and during Coventry 2021.10 These included Foleshill Screening in October 2020 (which is also available online), and Coventry on TV in April 2022. These interventions were designed to facilitate, and indeed encourage, reflections on Coventry and how the archive corresponded with personal understandings of the city. Many viewers used the archives to discuss personal memories with researchers and other event attendees. A commonality between the screenings was the use of the archive to navigate architectural changes to the city. Discussing which familiar locations remained, which were no longer there, and which had changed was something viewers—both newly arrived and those with a longer engagement with Coventry— had in common. Unlike many of the large-scale art events of the City of Culture year which often feature on television, these archives present the everyday lives of people in Coventry. One visitor, when asked about how a screening fitted in with their engagement with Coventry 2021, said “It was refreshing to see something celebrating the everyday life of our city and the rich history.”11This corresponds with the conclusions of the Ghost Town project which has been screening archive footage in the city since 2018.

Protest march by GEC workers, broadcast on ATV Today in 1975 (still from MACE)
Steel band competition in Coventry Cathedral. Broadcast on ATV Today in 1980 (still from MACE)

Something I had not anticipated, perhaps because of the positivity within UK City of Culture scheme, was the willingness of people to engage with the more difficult aspects of Coventry’s televisual history, such as the implicit and explicit racism within some of the news broadcasts screened. While watching this was uncomfortable for some, the responses generally indicated a desire to better understand the city’s history and their own place in it. While the City of Culture celebrates Coventry’s diversity and status as a city of welcome for refugees and asylum seekers, there are not many opportunities to look back at times when this wasn’t the case. This reflection was present in some of the comments at the screenings with one person noting that it was “more authentic than some of the tropes that have been portrayed as part of the CoC programme.”12Response collected by researchers from attendees at Coventry on TV, April 2022.

With the differences between regional and national programmes, and the sheer scale of what is broadcast each year in the UK, it is difficult to consider the impact of an event like Coventry 2021 on viewers’ perceptions. Even within the city, only half of those questioned at a screening (towards the end of Coventry’s year in April 2022) had seen City of Culture related programmes on television. Those who had, felt like it was a positive experience, that it was “good to see Coventry being highlighted on national media.”13Ibid. Perhaps, then, the UK City of Culture creates televisual moments for a city which allow people to demonstrate a sense of civic pride, an opportunity to celebrate place, and a break from the news cycle. When asked about the impact of seeing the city on television during Coventry 2021 one person commented, “Always great to see positive and fun time in Coventry. Change from murder and mayhem.”14Ibid. Coventry on television has traditionally been about the Blitz, football and mentions on the news, but as in Mills’s example, seeing Coventry on screen during the City of Culture gave Coventrians a new way of explaining to people who they are and what their city is like. As one viewer said, it presents “more positive coverage of a city with a poor reputation to those from the outside.”(Ibid.)) While this brief analysis of Coventry 2021 demonstrates the difficulties of using television to reflect on a year-long mega-event, I have presented a case for the importance of doing so. Understanding the significance of our engagements with cities via television allows for a rich understanding of place both from people within the city and for those newly discovering it on their screens.

Notes[+]

Pearson, Kat. "“A change from murder and mayhem”: UK City of Culture on television." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 2 (June 2022)
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