Arts review 2014: Fun and games for Scottish arts

Biffy Clyro play T in the Park. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Biffy Clyro play T in the Park. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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BRIAN Ferguson looks back over a year of highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies, in Scottish cultural life.

The Kelpies

It took almost a decade to bring Glasgow sculptor Andy Scott’s vision to reality, but in April his towering horse heads were finally unveiled – in a blaze of fire.

French pyrotechnics experts were called in to help welcome The Kelpies, the two sculptures billed as Scotland’s answer to The Angel of the North, at their home next to the M9 motorway.

Commissioned as the centrepiece of the new Helix public park in Falkirk, which was given the go-ahead in 2007 after the town’s successful bid for £25 million from the Bid Lottery Fund, they were inspired by the area’s horse-powered industrial heritage as well as themythological Scottish sea horse.

More than 650,000 people flocked to see The Kelpies in six months, which were named national treasures in November following a poll to mark 20 years of the National Lottery.

T in the Park

Scotland’s biggest music festival stands at the crossroads at the end of 2014 after bidding farewell to its long-time home at Balado in July.

Festival favourites Paolo Nutini, Biffy Clyro and Calvin Harris all returned for headline slots, with the latter joined on stage by Hollywood star Will Smith, who made a surprise appearance as the festival celebrated its 20th birthday.

However the run-up to this year’s event was thrown into chaos when it became clear that the festival was having to move from Balado due to long-standing safety fears over an oil pipeline. A hastily-arranged press conference was held at Strathallan Castle to announce that the event would be heading to its 1000-acre estate in Perthshire.

But although thousands of tickets have been sold, the relocation is yet to receive planning permission from Perth & Kinross Council and organisers are battling protests from hundreds of objectors concerned about the impact on local Wildlife from the 85,000-capacity event.

Bannockburn Live

There were eerie echoes for the Scottish Government and VisitScotland in the run-up to the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn.

Five years previously, the centrepiece of the first Year of Homecoming – a huge clan gathering in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park – ran into major financial problems and left a trail of debt.

It looked as though lessons had not been learned, as poor ticket sales were blamed for a decision to scale back the Bannockburn celebrations from three days to two and reduce capacity from 45,000 to just 20,000.

VisitScotland was forced to under-write the event, already subsidised to the tune of £400,000, to ensure it went ahead, while the National Trust for Scotland walked away from any involvement.

A late flurry of tickets allowed organisers to claim the event was a sell-out, but many who did attend complained about lengthy queues.

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Nicola Benedetti

A decade on from her victory in the BBC Young Musician of the Year contest, violinist Nicola Benedetti was barely out of the limelight in 2014.

The 27-year-old began the year on Desert Island Discs, followed by her debut performance at Celtic Connections, starring in the opening gala with a preview of an album inspired by Scottish folk music. Its release in May saw Benedetti become the first British violinist to enter the UK top 40 in almost 20 years.

Weeks later she performed at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, during which she also staged a flashmob event for 80 young musicians at Kelvingrove art gallery and led Scotland’s orchestras in an all-day musical marathon at the Royal Concert Hall.

Other highlights of her year included her debut with the New York Philharmonic and travelling to India for a tour with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and performing at the Hydro in Glasgow during the BBC Sports Personality of the Year ceremony.

GSA

Those at the opening party for Glasgow Scool of Art’s new £50m Reid Building at the beginning of April could never have imagined what would become of the landmark across the street two months later. The school’s famous library was destroyed when fire swept through the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed building and many students lost their work, but firefighters won huge praise for preventing the destruction of the building and rescuing most of its contents.

A £20m fundraising campaign, backed by Brad Pitt and Peter Capaldi, has been launched for restoration, as investigations concluded the fire was caused when gases from a canister of foam were ignited by a projector. But the year ended with a spate of good news, with graduate Duncan Campbell winning the Turner Prize, the school securing a deal to return to McLellan Galleries for the first time in 100 years and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon choosing a GSA Christmas card rescued from the fire for her first festive greetings from Bute House.

Billy Connolly

Less than a year after revealing that he had undergone cancer surgery and was being treated for Parkinson’s Disease, Billy Connolly appeared to be busier than ever.

He started the year presenting a documentary series on the customs surrounding death, in which he revealed he had been given his double diagnosis in the same day.

Connolly headed back to his home city of Glasgow as an official ambassador for the Commonwealth Games, recording a special welcome message for the opening ceremony.

In the autumn he made a critically-acclaimed return to the big screen with a role in the comedy What We Did On Our Holiday, then the 72-year-old was back on tour in Scotland for the first time in five years. His shows coincided with an appearance on the BBC show Who Do You Think You Are?, in which the comic followed the footsteps of his ancestors to India.

Still Game

When the SSE Hydro arena opened its doors in September 2013, no-one could have predicted that its biggest selling act would be two Glasgow comics who had not performed together for years and reportedly hardly spoken due to a bitter feud.

Such was the demand for Still Game’s reunion that Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill’s plans for four shows were swiftly extended to a 21-night run, generating more than £6m in ticket sales, while BBC Scotland broadcast highlights of the show, which were also released on DVD.

Kiernan and Hemphill were named the hottest ticket of the year at the Scottish Music Awards, and BBC Scotland revealed the comics would be getting their own radio show on Christmas Day, while Still Game’s many celebrity fans would be featuring in a TV documentary to be shown as part of its Hogmanay line-up.

The James Plays

Laurie Sansom may have inherited Rona Munro’s scripts from his predecessor as artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, Vicky Featherstone, but there is little doubt he made his mark in the job when he took the helm of The James Plays, the playwright’s epic historic trilogy.

After Sir Jonathan Mills’ infamous declaration that his swansong programme would contain nothing related to the Scottish independence referendum, he sprang a major surprise at the beginning of the year by calling a press conference to announce that the festival would be hosting the world premiere of the joint production between NTS and the National Theatre of Great Britain.

With Sofie Grabol, the star of Danish crime drama The Killing, and Blythe Duff, who had won a clutch of awards for her Fringe theatre roles in recent years, heading up the cast, it was no surprise that tickets were in short supply by the time of the first previews in early August.

Critics may have been somewhat divided on The James Plays, but they were the talk of Edinburgh this summer, particularly among those who had signed up for the chance to see all three in one day. And before the dust had the chance to settle, the cast and crew were heading to London for a hugely successful run either side of the independence referendum.

Culture at the Games

The nation’s sporting stars may have been the headline grabbers, but Glasgow delivered on its promise to stage the city’s biggest ever cultural celebration.

From the starring roles for local heroes Rod Stewart, Lulu, Nicola Benedetti, Deacon Blue and Dougie MacLean in the opening and closing ceremonies to the street parties and late-night shindigs in the Merchant City, and buskers thronging Buchanan Street, this summer the city was awash with the kind of buzz usually reserved for the Edinburgh Festival.

Thousands flocked to live zones at Glasgow Green, Pacific Quay and Kelvingrove Bandstand, finally refurbished just in time for the Games.

Highlights included The Tin Forest – the National Theatre of Scotland project which transformed a neglected rotunda building on the banks of the Clyde into a celebration of Glasgow’s industrial heritage.

The Empire Café comprised a week-long event led by author Louise Welsh and architect Jude Barber to explore Scotland’s historic links with the North Atlantic slave trade, while Sound to Sea, a two-night event staged on and around the Clyde, saw boats and ships acting as live stages for more than 150 performers.

Some projects branched out around Scotland, including Tam Dean’s Marathon Storytelling Challenge, which saw the actor cycle around the country reading the works of children’s author Julia Donaldson.

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