ILLUMINATE – the first-ever late night arts festival we’ve held in Oldham town centre – was a sparkling success.
Now that the Old Town Hall is back in business and revitalising the area, exciting new opportunities are opening up that enable us to offer completely different types of events for the public.
And Parliament Square – the new public space adjacent to it – is a perfect new location to host these events given its central location, street furniture, space and vistas.
It just gives us a whole new civic focal point where families can gather and be entertained.
Illuminate was the first of our new regular events designed to capitalise on this and we were delighted by the public reaction.
Even though it was a four-hour long ‘drop in’ show, it was busy throughout the evening as hundreds of people braved the wintry showers. The Old Town Hall and its Lightbox made the perfect backdrop for the array of spectacular performances of drumming, lighting, choreography and dance.
A major highlight was the children’s lantern parade and there were some great street arts to see including the Spark! illuminated drummers, Global Grooves’ carnival arts version of The Tempest and The Bureau of Silly Ideas.
Gallery Oldham held an installation of ‘Shakespearian curiosities’ in its gardens, plus a visit from an illuminated vintage bus and a Stomp to the Light dance display from Oldham Theatre Workshop. It stayed open late and it was great to see so many people milling around it on an evening.
It was also fantastic to see Oldham Parish Church playing a central part.
In recent times this Grade II* listed church – which dates back to 1830 in its current form – has felt somewhat ‘left out of things’ on the periphery of a quiet area, but not now.
For Illuminate it was beautifully lit up with spectacular 3D projections accompanied by a bells and pipes soundtrack from the church itself. Outside an installation of sound, water and mechanics by Oldham artist Mike Green added to the ambience, and I know many people kept going back up for another look.
Tours were also held in the crypt beneath the church and there was a real sense that this jewel has finally re-entered the town centre ‘scene’.
In that crypt, of course, lies the Oldham Giant, whose five-metre puppet persona was a main attraction for the evening.
Earlier that day I had the great pleasure of meeting Tom Scholes-Fogg and his granddad, John, who had travelled from London and Slaithwaite respectively to see Illuminate.
Tom had contacted me via email after the Old Town Hall opening event last year when he was astonished to hear how his sixth great grandfather – Joseph Scholes – had been brought back to life in puppet form.
Known as a “gentle giant”, ‘Dody’ was said to have been around 6ft 7in tall and 37 stones when he died in 1814. Instantly recognisable for obvious reasons, he was probably the best-known Oldhamer of his time: especially given his work as a military recruiting sergeant and his time as governor of the Oldham weavers’ workhouse where he stood up for the rights of underfed local apprentices.
Tom showed me some of the research he has been doing into this story and shared some fascinating anecdotes.
There were thousands of people at Dody’s funeral – he’s been buried three times, which is another story in itself(!) – but it was only able to take place after the windows of his Henshaw Street home were removed once the funeral director realised he just couldn’t get his casket outside. Once on the streets it had to be carried by several groups of 12-strong coffin bearers who constantly rotated, such was the weight of the task at hand.
The Scholes family are rightly proud that their ancestor’s story is finally getting a wider audience and it was a wonderful moment on Friday night when Tom and John met up with locally-based Debbie and Amelia Scholes – four generations of the family – to have a unique ‘selfie’ with the Oldham Giant puppet.
Tom continues to research this story further so, if you have any information or anecdotes passed down amongst your family about him, then please get in touch and let us know via an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject ‘Oldham Giant’.
Finally, if you want to see ‘Dody’ and others there are now regular public openings of the Oldham Parish Church and the crypt on every second Saturday of the month from 9.30am to 1pm. Group/party visits can be made by prior arrangement with the church, and light refreshments are also available. I can highly recommend a visit.
Next week, I’ll be returning to more serious matters as I blog about our final Council Tax proposals for 2017-8 and the continued crisis in national underfunding for adult social care.