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How the arts, comedy and sports are bringing people to Southport

PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 October 2015 | UPDATED: 20:53 21 October 2015

Lord Street

Lord Street

Archant

It may be a classic Edwardian town but it has a 21st century approach to entertainment. Martin Pilkington reports.

Stephen Whittle (Principal Manager) and Emma Anderson (Director) at The Atkinson Stephen Whittle (Principal Manager) and Emma Anderson (Director) at The Atkinson

One area of the Atkinson, Southport’s fabulous arts and library complex, explains how the town first began as a simple bathing spot thanks to its wide, clean sands. These days, bringing in the crowds requires more creativity and energy, both qualities found in abundance.

The Atkinson itself is a case in point. A major redevelopment has recently transformed the vast facility on Lord Street. ‘As a consequence of the £20m refurbishment we now have world class facilities, so we can bring exhibitions of the finest works by the finest artists in the land here,’ says director Emma Anderson.

Antony Gormley’s show, Elemental, takes pride of place throughout October. ‘There are 51 pieces, two different bodies of imaginative, meditative works, giving a broader sense of what Antony Gormley is about,’ says museum and gallery manager Stephen Whittle.

‘The drawings made in the Coniston area have been exhibited before, but it’s a world premiere of the Norfolk pieces, a coup we’re delighted to have pulled off,’ adds Emma. ‘But as well as internationally recognised names we’re keen to encourage young artists, and local artists too with the Southport Artists Exhibition in the Community Gallery in October.’

Southport Festival organiser, Brendan Riley Southport Festival organiser, Brendan Riley

Other events there this month give a snapshot of the Atkinson’s eclecticism - a tea dance, the arrival of new material for its Dan Dare display, a Klezmer quartet playing in the Cake and Classical series, the mixed-media Ghosts of the Restless Shore exhibition, the children’s theatre piece Scarecrow’s Wedding and ballet in the form of The Snow Queen.

The Atkinson theatre is also one of the venues of another October draw, the Southport Comedy Festival, run by local comedian-turned-impresario Brendan Riley. This is his fifth year in charge. ‘The first year we kept quite small, only about a dozen events. Since then we’ve grown it and learned how to improve,’ he says. ‘This year it’s packed with big TV names, but we don’t just bag anyone touring - it’s specifically tailored to a Southport clientele.’ He’s not joking (sorry) about the big names - Mock the Week regulars Gary Delaney, Jo Caulfield, Sara Pascoe and Rob Beckett feature along with Sean Hughes and Fred MacAulay.

Brendan’s Edinburgh experience is reflected in the range of venues used, including The Bold Hotel, Playtown where there’s a children’s event, Nando’s, home to the Southport New Comedian of the Year final, and even Southport Station for a free family happening. Some venues, however, are kept secret – the Mirthical Mystery tour takes in four pubs on a comedy pub crawl.

An impressive 23 local organisations sponsor the festival. One of them is the Southport BID (Business Improvement District) team, headed by Andrew Sloman. ‘We hit the ground running last year with Halloween happenings and the Christmas lights,’ he say. ‘And this year we’ve again organised the Hallowe’en parade and festival – we’re Spookport for a week. And we’re investing in other events like the comedy festival to take it into new venues, and to put on activities that wouldn’t otherwise be viable for the operators.’

Jonathan Seal (Chairman of Championship) at Royal Birkdale Golf Club Jonathan Seal (Chairman of Championship) at Royal Birkdale Golf Club

Much of what the BID does, like gum removal and improved signage, is about sprucing up the town. ‘Every lamppost along Lord Street now has a hanging basket, something not done for ten years; and over 100 trees are fully branch-wrapped in lights - we wanted Lord Street to be a boulevard of light, it’s changed the evening atmosphere. Footfall this summer has increased, the visitor economy is expanding again,’ says Andrew.

Something that will make a huge difference to Southport’s economy in 2017 is golf’s Open Championship, coming to Royal Birkdale for the 10th time then. ‘We expect between 150,000 and 180,000 visitors, and a boost of £40 million or more for the area,’ says Jonathan Seal, Birkdale’s chairman of championship. ‘We are in a state of constant preparation here, liaising with the R&A who are responsible for the management of The Open - we work on any course redesigns with them, for example. Twenty years ago a fairway bunker would be 240 yards from the tee, now for pros you want them at 310. That’s fabulous for the members!’

Being a championship course means both sacrifices and benefits for those members. ‘For The Open we’ll come off the course about three weeks before the event, will stop visitors for a rather longer period than that, and reduce members’ ability to bring guests for about six weeks before,’ explains Jonathan.

‘But a lot of the members are involved in marshalling and scoring, and management of the clubhouse. It’s fantastic for the club, marvellous for the members to see the best golfers in the world play the course.’ And with that huge extra income it’s pretty good for the town in general.

Back at the Atkinson there’s a display dedicated to Southport as The Sporting Coast. ‘The original developers here built the golf courses speculatively on land that was not used for much more than rabbit warrens, and the houses sprang up around them,’ explains Stephen Whittle. ‘They were very canny, building the leisure resources first to attract the people to the area.’ The nature of some of the leisure resources has changed, but that creative drive to bring people to the town clearly remains undiminished.

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