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Arts and culture in Newcastle and Gateshead

Get Carter and the Angel of the North

There is so much more to Newcastle-Gateshead than the clichéd image of underdressed men and women enjoying a bawdy night out on The Toon. A discernible air of creativity and Geordie camaraderie sits together with world-class museums, art galleries, dance, theatre and music venues, that far from being hidden away in some elitist cultural quarter happily co-exist melded with Tyneside’s famed nightlife, shops, accommodation and businesses in a refreshingly egalitarian mix.

There was a time when people would have laughed if you had used the words ‘art’ and ‘culture’ in the same sentence when talking about Newcastle-Gateshead. Tyneside was seen as a place of soot blackened buildings, grimy landscapes, crumbling back-to-back terraces, derelict warehouses, seedy, smoked-filled pubs and leaden skies, inhabited by equally dark and brooding characters who spoke an unintelligible language of their own. It was an image that arguably Britain’s greatest ever gangster movie, Get Carter, did little to dispel. Starring Michael Caine and filmed on Tyneside at the start of the 1970s, Get Carter has become notorious not just for its vicious portrayal of corruption, mob justice and the criminal underworld, but for the grim, poverty stricken urban backdrop the story was played out against. It’s a movie where neither the hero of the piece nor Tyneside is shown to have any redeeming features, and which for many reinforced the ‘grim up North’ stereotype.

Angel of the North

Visit the iconic Angel of the North

What was then is most definitely not now, however. Just as Jack Carter brutally swept aside Tyneside’s noxious criminal underbelly, so too have successive politicians, developers, art lovers and philanthropists over the near five decades since the film was shot, brushed away the decaying, filthy, post-industrial environment depicted. Even the famous Gateshead multi-storey car park which played a pivotal role in Get Carter and dominated the skyline on the south bank of the River Tyne for more than 40 years, has been demolished. The Tyneside of today would be unrecognisable to Jack Carter. In its place has emerged a vibrant, creative, booming, Bohemian metropolis full of architectural delights, beautiful streets, a picturesque and hip waterfront, world-class museums and art galleries, outstanding theatres and concert venues, and top-notch restaurants, pubs and clubs. It’s a transformation that has mostly been wrought in the last two decades. And at the heart of this road to renewal has been arts and culture.

It is Gateshead on the south side of the River Tyne that has really led the way. It started in 1998 with Antony Gormley’s now iconic Angel of the North sculpture. Standing 20m tall and with a wingspan of 54m, this stunning contemporary sculpture is now as famous a work of public art as the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Statue of Liberty in New York. Overlooking the A1 at Low Eighton in Gateshead, the Angel stands on the site of the former Teams Colliery miners’ baths, and is seen by a staggering 33m motorists a year, making it one of the most viewed pieces of art anywhere. Getting up close and personal with the Angel is an experience every first time visitor to the area should make time for, not just because it is a truly breathtaking work of art, but because it helped kick-start a renaissance that has seen Newcastle-Gateshead elevated from a place of disdain to an area that is now regularly cited as a global must-see by the travel industry.

Just as Jack Carter brutally swept aside Tyneside’s noxious criminal underbelly, so too have successive politicians, developers, art lovers and philanthropists over the near five decades since the film was shot

Galleries and landmarks

The arts and culture revolution that has swept Tyneside was initially centred around the uninviting and dilapidated Quayside. Buoyed up by the success of the Angel of the North, it was here that Gateshead Council opened the lyre-like pedestrian Millennium Bridge in 2001, linking both the north and south sides of the River Tyne in a renewed act of friendship with Newcastle. This was followed a year later by the opening of the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, which stands just metres from the south side of the Millennium Bridge. Then in December 2004 BALTIC was joined on the Quayside by the eye-catching Sage Gateshead concert venue.

Housed in a landmark former flour mill, BALTIC is the UK’s largest dedicated contemporary art space. The place to view cutting-edge works by world renowned artists, since opening it has presented more than 190 exhibitions over its four art spaces, as well as the 2011 Turner Prize. Here you can experience provocative and innovative new art and fresh ideas, listen to talks, see live performances, have fun with the family with an eclectic programme of holiday and weekend activities, or just relax over a coffee while watching the comings and goings on the Quayside. Equally impressive is the fifth floor viewing box which offers a stunning and ever-changing picture of the Newcastle-Gateshead river side and cityscape.

Baltic 39 is an outpost in Newcastle’s High Bridge, a publicly accessible hub for practising artists, academics and researchers based in a Grade 2-listed former printing warehouse. The Sage Gateshead was rather scathingly described as a ‘giant slug’ by Private Eye when it first opened. But this lithely curvaceous concert venue designed by Norman Foster, long ago won over any critics. Internationally recognised, it is home to the Royal Northern Sinfonia as well as three world-class concert halls renowned for their superb acoustics, which attract the top musicians, bands and orchestras. It is also the base for the Folkworks programme, which aims to develop interest and practical involvement in traditional music, song and dance in all ages through unique performances, weekly and weekend classes and courses, one-day workshops, and a summer school. Thousands of young musicians have been inspired thanks to Folkworks, among them Becky and Rachel Unthank, Nancy Kerr and Robert Harbron, all of whom have gone on to have successful professional performing careers.

A short walk upriver from BALTIC and the Sage is Dunston Staiths. Built in 1893 and believed to be Europe’s largest timber structure, it was used to load coal on to waiting colliers. Once a vandalised and rotting reminder of Gateshead’s industrial past, the Staiths has now been restored and between March and September is open for visitors every Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday. The surrounding area is an important saltmarsh garden, while the structure itself is a roosting area for lapwings, grey herons and red shanks. Gateshead is also home to the Shipley Art Gallery, the North East’s leading such place for contemporary art and design, and boasting one of the best collections of ceramics, wood, glass, metal, textiles and furniture, outside London.

The arts and culture revolution that has swept Tyneside was initially centred around the uninviting and dilapidated Quayside

Theatre and dance

Across the Tyne, Newcastle has been no less ambitious – if more understated – in its artistic and creative projects. The first perceptible signs that change may be in the air came as far back as 1977 when the Royal Shakespeare Company began making annual visits, starting what has become a very special relationship with the city. Newcastle became the RSC’s Northern home, with a raft of acclaimed productions – featuring acting stars like Jeremy Irons, Charles Dance, Derek Jacobi and Dame Peggy Ashcroft – playing to packed audiences for several weeks at theatres across the city. As Newcastle has developed a richer cultural offering, that relationship has evolved into a more relaxed, almost middle-aged affair, with no annual season now but plenty of one-off chances to catch up with an old friend. That early RSC link-up has opened the door to so much more.

Dance City is the region’s leading development organisation for dance in all its forms, from flamenco and fitstep to ballroom, jazz, Egyptian belly, tap, ballet, street and Brazilian capoeira. You can join in one of the workshops or catch a live performance featuring home-grown talent or one of the many touring companies – like Ballet Wales – who are drawn to Dance City. Live Theatre on Newcastle Quayside has an international reputation for its new writing, and has expanded in recent years. In 2017 its production of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour – written by local lad Lee Hall of Billy Elliot fame – won an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, and has completed a West End run. In the same year The Red Lion by Patrick Marber, starring Stephen Tompkinson, had successful runs at both Live Theatre and in London’s West End.

Newcastle is home to the jewel in the North East’s stage crown, the Grade 1-listed Theatre Royal, which hosts everything from West End musicals, to leading dramas, ballet, comedies and panto. The Tyne Theatre and Opera House is a fellow Grade 1-listed playhouse which offers a busy programme of family entertainment, comedy and music. There’s Northern Stage with its innovative and cutting-edge productions; The Stand comedy club; Alphabetti Theatre which creates, produces and shows new and original works from emerging artists; and Boulevard, Newcastle’s top cabaret venue. On the music front the Utilita Arena is the largest concert venue in the North East attracting all the top touring acts, while the O2 Academy in the centre of Newcastle showcases indie groups alongside live sport.

Newcastle City Hall is the region’s longest running concert venue, and has been welcoming the world’s top acts, whether they be rock, pop, classical or comedy, since 1927. It has become renowned for its stand-up comedy shows, and is a favoured haunt of Newcastle-born funny man Ross Noble. The independent Art Deco-influenced Tyneside Cinema is the place to head for arthouse productions, classic movies, cult films and the latest new release big hitters. Equally quirky is the Star and Shadow Cinema, a community-led, volunteer-run cinema and arts space. An alternative artistic hub, it screens indie movies and hosts unique events and workshops. Newcastle has no shortage of top class art galleries and museums.

Live Theatre on Newcastle Quayside has an international reputation for its new writing, and has expanded in recent years

Science and contemporary art

The Laing Art Gallery is home to an important collection of 18th and 19th-century paintings with works by John Martin, Paul Gauguin and William Holman-Hunt (his pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, Isabella and the Pot of Basil, hangs in the upstairs gallery), as well as the Northumberland-born engraver and naturalist Thomas Bewick, the Beilby family of glass engravers, and sculptures by Henry Moore. The nearby Hatton Gallery holds important pieces from the 14th century to the present day, including key compositions from Francis Bacon, Eduardo Paolozzi, and Richard Pasmore. Visit the Great North Museum: Hancock to see a menagerie of stuffed animals, a life-size T-Rex skeleton, the planetarium, and mummies from Ancient Egypt. The Discovery Museum tells the area’s maritime, scientific and technological history, and is home to Charles Parson’s famed Turbinia steam-powered ship.

Curious minds will love the Centre for Life. Here over various zones, the magic of science is brought to life with hands-on activities, experiments, exhibitions and installations, including a planetarium and 4D motion ride. In the Ouseburn Valley just a short walk from Newcastle city centre, is Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books, where enquiring minds of all ages can explore their own creativity through writing, illustration and crafts, or uncover a world of enchanting storytelling.

The Biscuit Factory

Art lovers must take a trip to the Biscuit Factory, the UK’s largest independent commercial art gallery

Nearby is The Biscuit Factory, a large, airy and welcoming space housed, as the name suggests, in a former Victorian biscuit manufacturing warehouse. The UK’s largest independent commercial art gallery, the work of more than 200 artists and makers is showcased over two floors in seasonally-changing exhibitions. With so much culture to immerse yourself in, you may want to take a step back and wander into the welcoming arms of the Literary and Philosophical Society, a short walk from Newcastle Central Station on Westgate Road. The largest independent library outside London housing 160,000 books, it started in 1793 and has over the years opened its impressive doors to many literary greats, including Oscar Wilde and Edith Sitwell. Only members can take out books, but visitors are free to stroll in, buy a cup of tea and a biscuit, and settle down in one of the comfy leather armchairs to browse through a periodical or two, soak up the relaxed, gentleman’s club atmosphere, and rest their weary feet before absorbing more of the art, culture, design and innovation that Tyneside is becoming justifiably famous for.

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Image credits: ©Chris Owens/The Biscuit Factory; Getty Images/iStockphoto; Mark Savage; NUFC; Niklas Rose/Unsplash

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