Opinion: Southampton’s creative community will leave lockdown loud and proud

Opinion: Southampton’s creative community will leave lockdown loud and proud

On Thursday, Nuffield Southampton Theatres closed, having gone into administration in May, with a suitable buyer unable to be found. But Liam Gifford, the theatre group’s youth director, believes there is still a great deal of hope for culture in the city as he celebrates recent artistic collaborations and projects, and looks forward to more to come.

by Liam Gifford.

Across the south of England, prominent landmarks are dotted around the centre of towns and cities which, when seen, are warm reminders to residents that they are homeward bound from their travels. There’s the Spinnaker Tower in Porstmouth, the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, and here in Southampton, we have the Civic Centre clock tower (also known as Kimber’s Chimney, after the influential local councillor and politician who helped to make Southampton what it is today). This clock tower has been an impressive icon on the Southampton skyline since 1933, proudly marking the location of our city’s rich Cultural Quarter. 

As well as being a symbol of the centre of our community, the clock tower has been a reliable timekeeper, with its powerful chimes reverberating throughout the city. Its bells pay homage to one of Southampton’s greatest creatives, Issac Watts, playing the first verse of his hymn Our God, Our Help in Ages Past on every fourth hour. It is the ringing of this tune which truly makes this clock tower so unique, as the city celebrates the creative talents of the father of English Hymnody. This tolling has run like clockwork for nearly 90 years – give or take a few interruptions due to maintenance. 

However, Sotonians will have noticed that, as of late, there have been no chimes. During the first few weeks of lockdown, the once recognisable pattern became as discordant and unfamiliar as our own lives. It was on 5th April that Southampton City Council then silenced the bells. They have not rung out since. 

Nevertheless, Kimber’s Chimney and its bells continue to stand at the centre of the city, proudly overlooking Southampton’s thriving Cultural Quarter: a jewel in the city’s crown which has developed over the years. Proud to call this space home are the City Art Gallery, Central Library, Guildhall (and its adjoining Square), Solent Showcase Gallery (Ed – which has temporarily closed), NST City, Zoie Logic, Mayflower Theatre, John Hansard Gallery, Sea City Museum. The Art House and City Eye. 

It is probably no coincidence that when these locations closed their doors in response to the COVID-19 epidemic, the impressive landmark which shelters them under its wing suffered and fell silent, too. 

Above and main picture: Liam Gifford

While the Cultural Quarter has remained muted, the whole city has been put into lockdown, where we are all bound to both our homes and to the new restrictions placed on our lives at this unusual time. Our keyworkers have worked tirelessly to keep us safe and supplied, and it has been heart-warming to see creatives of all ages and abilities crafting rainbows in united gratitude for our NHS. This unifying act of kindness and support is just one example of how creativity has a positive impact on both artist and audience – whether it’s prepared and presented in isolation or as a collective. 

Since these beautiful rainbows sprung up in windows, on pavements, on buildings and roads, more and more creative projects have been launched across the city: ArtfulScribe and Mayflower Theatre’s Life in Lockdown competition; ‘a space’ arts’ Homemade Mango Chutney online exhibition; Solent Showcase Gallery’s Art to Go project; ZoieLogics Fuzzy Logic boys creating their dance piece on solidarity; and NST Young Company’s The Noise We Make radio play (which is being devised in isolation) are all keeping us creative, connected and celebrating our city while we’re all ‘homeward bound’. 

As well as local and public art, we have been treated to work from bigger names and organisations within the national creative industries, helping us all to escape from the devastating impact of this pandemic on our communities. There’s been the dramatisation of the ‘coughing Major’ scandal in ITV’s Quiz by the playwright James Graham; Kate Tempest’s night of poetry on the BBC; the joyous Tim’s Twitter Listening Party, where classic albums are played in full by listeners in households around the globe; and Grayson Perry’s Art Club on Channel 4. All of these are gifts from leading cultural figures which we can consume and engage with as we wish – and people have, in their droves, in Southampton and beyond. 

These many opportunities and experiences provide great hope and reassurance that the creative buzz in Southampton is very much alive and ready to take flight again once lockdown is over. It also exemplifies the strong engagement work by the cultural organisations of Southampton which has been a longstanding aspect of their work offered at both their venues in the Cultural Quarter and within the communities across the city. 

Despite so many negatives, there are a few positives that have come from lockdown. This exceptional artistic work, which often goes under the radar for many when the shows, exhibitions and gigs are taking the headlines in our venues, has found its way into the limelight. The engagement we’re seeing from the citizens of Southampton throughout the lockdown also proves that our city is full of talent and passion for creating. This is our chance to harness this thirst and drive and make more art for our city, from our city. 

Southampton has a bounty of extraordinary stories from across history, and it is energising to think about the work our communities will be creating and collaborating on when we can all work with and for one another again in person. Work such as Antony Gormley’s One and Other, National Theatre Wales’s The Passion and Jeremy Deller and Richard Gregory’s What Is the City But the People? could easily serve as inspiration for projects that Southampton’s cultural organisations could work on together with the people of Southampton, and bring to our stages, concert halls and gallery walls. 

It’s through this collaborative approach that we can create art with our city, for our city, enabling us to establish both an even wider pool of creators and work to be enjoyed by those who visit our Cultural Quarter to consume the art on offer. It will also help us to pave the way for the next wave of artists from Southampton who will join the likes of Kate Prince MBE, Laura Carmichael, Craig David and Issac Watts in putting our city on the map. Although none of us set out on our engagement work with the community solely to find the next great artist, it is important to provide these opportunities because, as the incomparable Ratatouille says, “a great artist can come from anywhere.” 

When those bells of Kimber’s Chimney ring out again, they will be announcing that our Cultural Quarter is open and ready for everyone in Southampton to come together to create, participate and escape together – just in time for our bid to become the UK City of Culture in 2025. 

This situation might seem like it’s never-ending, but we will all soon be able to take the lessons we’ve learned from lockdown and put them into action; Kimbers Chimney will proclaim a new era for art here, and we will once again be homeward bound to our beloved Cultural Quarter. 


Picture: Luke MacGregor

Liam is a theatre-maker, director and workshop leader from Devon but now based in Southampton, UK. He is currently the Youth Theatre Director at Nuffiled Southampton Theatres.

Having gained a BA Hons. at Dartington College of Arts and a PGCE at Aberystwyth University, Liam has a wealth of performance experience as director and performer which has seen his work performed at festivals and venues across the UK including Theatre Royal Bath, Nuffield Southampton Theatres, Exeter Phoenix and Arnolfini as well as at the Neu/Now festival in Vilnius, Lithuania. He has been the founding member of three theatre companies in the South West, creating work in response to key social issues and performing new writing by young playwrights. His website is: liamgifford.wixsite.com/liamgifford