There is probably a good reason why no previous host of the Tour de France’s Grand Départ has ever attempted to stage a major cultural festival alongside the main event.
The logistics of masterminding a route to challenge the world’s best riders while maximising marketing opportunities are complex enough. Add in the need to deliver a memorable spectator experience while convincing sceptics that the millions spent will be far outweighed by the long-term benefits and just the sheer effort needed to turn a two-day bike ride into an economic success would have most reaching for the headache tablets.
However, ever since Yorkshire sneaked up on the rails and pinched the right to host the 2014 Grand Départ ahead of a rival bid by VisitScotland, which had the backing of both the Government and British cycling, the plans have always been ambitious.
Welcome to Yorkshire announced early on that it was determined to stage a major cultural festival to complement the cycling and a few weeks ago the official name was unveiled – Yorkshire Festival 2014. It might be straight to the point, but today the final piece of the jigsaw falls into place as the full programme of events, spanning 100 days, is revealed. If they can pull it off, it will be almost as impressive as Bradley Wiggins winning both the Tour and Olympic gold in the same year.
For starters, there’s the Ghost Peloton which will see illuminated cyclists ride in formation across the Yorkshire landscape under the direction of one of the county’s leading dance companies. Or how about a high wire tribute to Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, two of Italy’s greatest cyclists. Then there’s the performances by the Tour de Force orchestra where all the instruments are made from old bike parts and over in Calderdale a team will attempt to answer the question, ‘how many people does it take to pull a piano up the longest continuous ascent in England?’ During the six mile haul, local and international pianists will attempt to perform a specially commissioned music cycle.
The programme will be launched this morning at Trinity Leeds and somewhere in the crowd will be the festival’s executive producer Henrietta Duckworth. She will no doubt be in the background, allowing the performers to take centre stage as they give a flavour of what’s to come, but listen carefully and you might just be able to hear her take one very big deep breath.
“Yes, this is where it all begins,” she says. “The commissioning process began last year and we had more than 400 applications. To stage all of them we would have needed £18m which I think shows the scale of ambition and the real desire to be part of the Grand Départ. Yes, we could have done a 10 day festival, but the Tour de France is a real opportunity to showcase Yorkshire and while it’s going to be challenging, it will be absolutely worth it.”
The festival, which is being funded by Yorkshire Water, Arts Council England and the various local authorities, has a more modest budget of around £2m and between March 27 and July 6, that money will be used to bring 47 projects to life.
“Having kept the details under wraps for so long, it is so good to be finally able to share the secret,” says Henrietta, deftly side-stepping the question of which event she is most looking forward to. “I can’t possibly say, it’s like asking someone to pick their favourite child.”
Nevertheless there are some definite highlights. Not least, the decision to commission Maxine Peake to adapt her radio play about Leeds cycling legend Beryl Burton for the West Yorkshire Playhouse stage. Beginning her career in the 1950s, Beryl dominated women’s cycle racing in the UK, winning more than 90 domestic championships and seven world titles.
The Shameless actress may hail from the other side of the Pennines, but having also written the radio play Queens of the Coal Age based on the story of the story of four miners’ wives during the bitter strike of 1984, she knows how to capture that distinctly Yorkshire voice.
“I was given Beryl’s autobiography as a gift from my boyfriend a few years ago now and I was struck immediately by her strength and determination,” she says. “The ordinary and extraodinariness of Beryl. She was an amazing woman, yet it felt to me outside of cycling circles very few people have heard of her.
“Her achievements were nothing short of remarkable , her dedication, talent and sacrifice as a cyclist was incredible. Here was a housewife and mother from Morley who was also the top athlete in her chosen field. How did she balance all of those things? I originally developed Beryl as a radio play for the BBC, but what better place to do the stage play than in her home city.”
The festival hopes to build on the success of the Cultural Olympiad staged in the run up to London 2012 which set out to prove that the twin disciplines of art and sport had more in common than many thought.
“What happened during the Olympics was transformative. It saw people working together in a totally different ways and that’s what we want to do in this festival. Take the Ghost Peloton. It will be performed by cycling enthusiasts, but it is being choreographed by Sharon Watson, the artistic director of Phoenix Dance. One of the really exciting things about large scale events like this is the chance to forge partnerships between people who would never normally come together.”
As with the Olympics, organisers are conscious of two watchwords - “accessibility” and “legacy”. There has been a deliberate geographic spread of events, one which takes in areas like Scarborough, which are not on the Grand Depart route. Also those bids that didn’t make the cut are being invited to register as a fringe event which will mean they can use the festival’s official branding and there are also plans to photograph and film some of the projects to ensure they reach as wide an audience as possible. What then of legacy?
“It is something we have thought a lot about. There are some concrete legacies like the fact we have commissioned a song which we hope choirs will adopt and perform long after the Grand Depart has moved on and schools will be able to access various educational downloads which we hope will bring the events alive in the classroom.
“However, there is a much more subtle legacy. Yes, we hope the festival will boost tourism and economic spend, but we also want people to feel that they own this festival. As much as anything, it’s about fostering a feeling of pride in Yorkshire being able to deliver projects of real scale and ambition.”