Why does York get its big nights out so wrong?

Illuminating York – not a patch on previous years
Chris Titley reflects on a bad few days for local families, let down by their home city

 
I wasn’t at York’s two al fresco autumn disappointments, for very good reasons. We had reluctantly opted out of Illuminating York, considering the entrance fee too pricey and an affront to the whole spirit of this city celebration.

And we didn’t make it to Knavesmire for the Gunpowder Plod run and fireworks because we’d opted instead to go to the Kaboom pyrotechnics at Rawcliffe Country Park the night before. This was a more successful evening, although not without its dud moments.

But I know people who went to both events. And they were not happy.

Illuminating York, at least the Vic Reeves Wonderland part of it in Museum Gardens, was “awful”, “poor”, “a huge let down” according to those who coughed up.

In place of the spectacular light show last year, where the Castle Museum appeared to shape-shift before a spellbound crowd’s eyes, the Vic Reeves version made little use of the historic background onto which it was projected. It might as well have been beamed onto the front of Stonebow House. Or a bus shelter.

And the content wasn’t up to snuff either, according to the many who took to the Press’s comment section to vent their dismay. “A real let down”… “what a shame after being so wonderful in the past”… “I paid over £20 for 4 adults and 2 children and it was a complete waste of good money”… “load of tacky rubbish”… And these weren’t the usual suspect Press commenter trolls who would libel their own grandmother if she appeared in a news story, but people who had praised past events expressing genuine bafflement at this year’s feeble offering.

[column width=”55%” padding=”5%”]Now I’m a huge fan of Vic Reeves, considering him and partner Bob Mortimer to be, at their best, the modern version of Morecambe & Wise. But there’s a huge difference between the artfully rehearsed slapstick silliness we know from The Smell Of Reeves And Mortimer and the dull and artless electronic daubings I’ve now watched on YouTube.[/column][column width=”40%” padding=”0″]

Why can’t York do as other cities, and put on a free event or two just for the residents?

[/column][end_columns]

And I wasn’t trying to watch the show while being herded in and out of the park in accordance to the tight time slot on my ticket.

It wasn’t a real friend who tipped me off about the fireworks fiasco, but my online pal, Twitter. Sitting in the warmth in front of a glowing laptop I started to pick up the misery on Knavesmire via the hashtag #gunpowderplod:

 

 
Comments on organiser Rat Race’s Facebook page make for even more eye-watering reading. It was a tale of massive queues, massive delays, a massive let-down.

What do these two events have in common, aside from taking money from hard-up families and not delivering? They both demonstrate York’s repeated failure to look after its own.

Everyone of a certain age vividly remembers the fantastic fireworks nights held in the city centre. Thousands of people gathered on the streets to watch rockets shoot from Clifford’s Tower. No one paid for the event, which was subsidised by the council. It was a night when the city came together.

Even when the event was shipped off to Knavesmire by a police force who wanted an easy life, it remained free. But then the subsidies stopped, and so did the fireworks. The one and only night out for the residents of York disappeared off the calendar.

When it came to the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot we’d forgotten how to do it, and Guy Fawkes’ birthplace failed miserably to mark the event properly. And now, instead of one, free, unifying Bonfire Night organised by the city, we outsource to commercial organisations, and this is what happens.

Clearly the organisers of the Gunpowder Plod had good intentions. The fireworks, when they finally arrived, were impressive. But how much better would it have been if a single fireworks extravaganza was commissioned by the city, and put on by the pooled talents of the Rat Race and Kaboom?

More recently Illuminating York has emerged. Suddenly it was back: a night out that cost nothing and brought York families together to enjoy a shared experience. Public money was invested in high art (although no one called it that), and works were put on by fantastically talented light artists.

Then this year it all went pear-shaped. Someone – possibly a councillor with family connections – thought that the ancient city of York should team up with the tacky resort of Blackpool.

And pay for a celebrity (famed for jokes rather than art).

And end free admission.

And make us rush to meet our designated viewing time, rather than stroll round at our own pace, meeting and greeting friends on the way.

Suddenly something that put a smile on the city’s face has made most of us grimace. It was a spectacular own goal. Why didn’t the city learn from last year’s dreadful “Santa’s grotto” shambles, when we threw away our critical faculties in the rush for a fast buck?

It’s a mystery to me why York can’t do as other cities, and put on a free event or two just for the residents. In Leeds they have a series of free bonfires and firework displays, which our family has gatecrashed and thoroughly enjoyed. It seems our city is so focused on tourists that residents can go hang.

True, York came together in a different way for the York 800 events this summer. Of course, these only worked thanks to the active participation of hundreds of residents. In other words, they were by York families for York families.

We’ve got a year before Illuminating York and Bonfire Night returns. Will York’s leaders apologise for failing to do the right thing by residents and promise to give the city back to us for at least a couple of evenings next autumn?

Or will they just let us pay through the nose to stand shivering with our children in a muddy field for hours on end – like the suckers they apparently believe us to be?