“We’ve got a group of people called SceneMakers…”

“The minute the stage starts to rise you can see it’s not a conventional performance. It’s epic,” he says.

“How would you describe it?” I ask.

Simon thinks for a second. “Imagine you are stood on the top of a multi-storey car park looking down at what was going on way below you. Well it was like that but it was all in front of you, in the air.”

CS_281114_0011-EditIt’s a grey November afternoon and Simon Thirkill and I are on the edge of the cricket pitch at Heckmondwike Sports Club. He’s telling me about a demonstration of Wired Aerial Theatre that he’s recently seen in Blackpool.

“They did a little sequence with an actor on each corner of the stage, hung upside down doing a dance routine. It was as if they were in zero gravity with magnetic boots, just dancing upside down. Amazing.”

There’s a site visit today to investigate the possibility of ‘Wired’ doing a show here, on this little cricket ground half way between Huddersfield and Leeds.

“Here they are,” I say as a couple of cars pull up. There’s Nancy and Vicky from Creative Scene and Jamie, the technical director at Wired with Anaïs, from the production company, XTRAX. It’s as if the away team has just arrived.

Introductions are made as we make our way to to the clubhouse to meet Brian and Terry, the club’s chair and steward.

“We’re working for a project called Creative Scene,” begins project director, Nancy Barrett.  “A couple of years ago Kirklees Council, the Lawrence Batley Theatre and the Batley Festival successfully applied for some funding and so we’ve now got quite a large amount of money – £2 million – to spend in North Kirklees in the next three years.

“Part of the programme is to support local people in thinking about the kind of things they want to see in their areas. So we’ve got a group of people called SceneMakers – and Simon here is one – who have been visiting different places to see what inspires them.

“It’ll be the SceneMakers, people like Simon, who’ll help us make decisions about what we put on in Heckmondwike and elsewhere.”

CS_281114_0020-EditNancy explains that Creative Scene invited Simon to see Wired in Blackpool and, with no less enthusiasm, Simon describes yet again what captivated him: “It’s staggering to say the least. We saw it in the daytime, without lights, projection or music so I can only imagine the full production would be just awesome. If we brought it here to Heckmondwike, well, people would remember it for years, it would inspire people.”

I can see that Terry and Brian are intrigued and Jamie is now telling them about a new production they are working on. “It’s very early days for the new show,” he says, “but essentially it’s a play on light and features a young boy going on a journey…”

CS_281114_0035-Edit“What size of audience are you imagining?” asks Terry after everyone has ‘pitched’.

“A couple of thousand people?” suggests Nancy.

“That’s a lot of people,” says Terry. “And would you be thinking of putting it on the cricket or the football pitch?”

Both Terry and Brian look more relaxed when Jamie suggest it might work better on the football pitch, if it were to happen here.

“Shall we go and have a look outside?” says Brian, as everyone makes their way back under the darkening skies.

CS_281114_0045-EditIt’s been a short discussion but a productive one. As Jamie asks Brian if the football posts can be removed, I imagine coming back here in ten months time, rubbing shoulders with several hundred others as the place is transformed into the venue for a spectacle of outdoor theatre. It’s an exciting prospect.

As we head back to our cars, I ask Simon what he thinks. “If there’s an opportunity for it to come to Heckmondwike, or anywhere in North Kirklees,” he says, “then I’ve got to get involved and do what I can to make that happen. That’s why I’m here.”

Moving forward, making history

The psycho burger sounds intriguing but in truth the Blue Moon Café is singularly famous for its ‘Hecky breakfast’. That’s any combination of 12 breakfast items including black pudding, spam and hash browns. “You could have a dozen rashers of bacon if you really wanted,” explains Simon.

CS_060115_0166-Edit“Or 12 portions of baked beans?” I suggest, surveying the 50’s memorabilia that adorn every wall.

Although not as legendary as his all-day breakfast, Simon Thirkill has made an impression on Heckmondwike since he and his wife took on the café some years ago. He heads the Christmas lights committee – they’re older than Blackpool’s illuminations – and is passionate about bringing people together through culture.

“From day one the café has been a lovely little hub with really nice customers,” he says, “and we got involved in the community straight away.”

Sadly we’re not here to eat. The café is now closed for the day and Nancy from Creative Scene has organised a reccé to discuss some of Simon’s ideas. Chris from Impossible Arts is here too, to give his professional opinion.

We negotiate the traffic on Westgate to stand outside the HSBC Bank in front of two forlorn-looking red phone boxes. Simon’s idea – which came out of a conversation with customers – is to adopt the boxes and convert them into some sort of beacon of creativity on the high street. A traditional icon with a cutting-edge twist.

“If we can preserve these by doing something that is modern and up-to-date, that’d be perfect,” he says.

“I think they’re great,” says Nancy, “it’s about keeping the old structure but doing something totally contemporary… maybe with digital imagery.”

“It’d be good to have something back-illuminated, some sort of glowing images,” say Chris.

As I take some photographs in the fading light the three of them discuss the possibilities and the potential for getting young people involved in the project: “You could create some game-based console which you could play, control or affect it in some way. That could be fun,” says Chris.

CS_060115_0230-EditNext we walk a few yards to the site of the new bus station. Sparks fly as a workman with an angle grinder helps install a brand new shelter. We’re looking for potential walls on which large-scale digital projections could be thrown.

“The space in the middle will be open and landscaped,” Simon explains, “and we’ll be moving our Christmas lights switch-on here from next year.”

There are dark stone walls on two sides but a stretch of white wall along McQuinn’s Bodyshop. “It’s harder to get the contrast and detail on the darker walls but that’s wide and flat,” says Chris, “so that might work.”

We’re across the main road again and into Westgate 23, the newly-refurbished pub next to the Blue Moon. Ben is behind the bar and the banter flies between them as Simon asks his neighbour if we can have a look in the function room.

“Smells like it’s been newly painted,” I say as we all troop in as if we’re inspecting wedding reception venues.

“How many could it seat, do you think?” asks Nancy and Simon begins to pace the brand new carpet.

“35 or 40,” he says, “with others propping up the bar.”

One of his customers has passed on a reel of Super 8 film which apparently includes 1960’s footage of the famous Heckmondwike Christmas lights. The plan is to show the film as the first in a series of workshops to get local people involved in some, as yet unspecified, art activity.

“Creative Scene is having the film digitised,” explains Simon. “We’ll see what’s on it and take it from there.”

What with the café, the phone boxes and the Super 8 film I can see Simon has a strong sense of nostalgia and local history intertwined with his love of art. “History’s not something that’s gone,” he tells me. “We’re creating history all the time as we move forward. And that’s something I’m just beginning to appreciate.”

Julie Andrews, Santa and the Hecky Heads

I first met SceneMaker Simon Thirkill on a soggy cricket pitch this time last year. He and Creative Scene were over the way at Heckmondwike Cricket Club investigating the possibility of staging a theatrical experience at deep square leg.

Money, space and time thwarted that particular extravaganza, but in these last 12 months Simon has – in many other ways – thoroughly embraced his role as a SceneMaker.

CS_241115_014-EditThis afternoon, I’m sitting in his Blue Moon Café eavesdropping on a planning meeting for this weekend’s HeckmondLIGHT event. It’s the annual Christmas lights switch-on, with a Creative Scene spin.

“At 6.30 we’ll have the countdown and, as soon as we hit zero, Santa and our special guest will push the plunger and the lights will come on,” Simon is telling creative producer Vicky.

CS_241115_022-EditHeckmondwike’s illuminations are legendary. A gas-powered version first appeared in the town in 1893, beating Blackpool as the earlier illuminations: a cheeky first back then for a small town that felt more confident than its larger industrial neighbours.

This year, to boost the stage show and fun fair, Creative Scene has booked a number of alternative performance artists to bring some creative chaos to the town’s green.

“Look, the lights are going up,” says Simon as two hi-vis-clad workmen walk past the café window with a frame of coloured neon. I’m besides myself at this bizarre scene and, grabbing my camera, race down the high street after them.

CS_241115_039-EditVicky and Simon are working their way through the running order on my return. There’s talk of dance troupes and X Factor finalists. “For the blog piece,” I interrupt, “can you describe some of the new acts that’ll come to Hecky this year?”

Vicky tells of an ice cream van that gives away tea lights in wafer cones; illuminated stilt walkers and a street orchestra; a digital fun fair, and a giant coloured heart that only lights up when two people hold hands to connect the circuit.

“And then there’s the Hecky Heads,” Simon says, “which are three enormous plastic heads onto which people’s faces are back-projected. Chris from Impossible Arts makes the lips move, eyes blink, that sort of thing. Hopefully they’ll be talking, singing and humming tunes. This town’s got quite a few famous musical connections, you know.”

I didn’t know but I’m about to find out a whole lot more about this West Yorkshire town that punches above its weight.

In the corner of the bar next door Chris is introducing the Hecky Heads idea to two women I haven’t met before. “Three giant heads… illuminated… people come along and have their faces projected…”

“Sounds wacky,” says one of the women.

“Yes, it is quite wacky,” says Chris, “and then we manipulate the lips to make them say things… hopefully some of the things you’ll tell me.”

“So it will be someone else’s voice?” I ask, only just keeping up.

Erica Amende is Secretary of Spen Valley Civic Society and Kathryn Harrison is Chair of Spen Valley Historical Society. Chris has brought these two knowledgeable women together to sit in front of his microphone. Theirs will be two of the voices coming out of the giant plastic heads on Saturday night.

The bar is too noisy for recordings so I ask if we can use the function room. “It’s a bit cold,” says the manageress, “I’ll put the heating on for you.”

For the next twenty minutes we hear about some of the famous people who have come from these parts. There’s a chairman of the National Coal Board; the ‘inventor’ of rugby league; the composer of the Archers theme tune and a Sunday school teacher who used a novel way of teaching illiterate children and adults to sing.

CS_241115_047-Edit“There’s a plaque in the middle of The Green to John Curwen,” says Kathryn, consulting her notes, “who was born in Heckmondwike in 1816. He developed the radical do-re-mi teaching method that was made world famous in The Sound of Music.” Erica sings the line in accompaniment.

“Singing would have been a big thing in Heckmondwike a century ago,” explains Erica. “The Green was surrounded by well-attended chapels and singing was very popular.”

“As it will be again… on Saturday night,” I suggest.

“This is really good stuff,” says Chris, “so thank you. I’ve got some great material for the heads now.”

Check out our next post on Making a Scene to read what happened to the Hecky Heads.

“My mindset has shifted dramatically.”

“Did you get very, very wet?” I ask on the phone.

Heckmondwike café owner Simon Thirkill has been a SceneMaker for twelve months now and I’m keen to hear his reflections but first I must get an update from Saturday’s event.

“I got soaked through to the skin,” Simon laughs. “Four changes of clothes in one day.”

Driving wind and torrential rain forced other West Yorkshire towns to cancel their weekend Christmas lights switch-ons, but not Heckmondwike. I’d already heard that the Hecky Heads had to be dismantled and moved into the market hall for safety.

An Evening in Hecky

“Presumably you didn’t get a big crowd because of the weather?” I ask.

“Not at all,” says Simon, who I can almost imagine still dripping, “We had a fantastic turnout. In previous years we’d have 4-5,000 people. I guess there were upwards of 2,000 braving it on Saturday.” Not bad for a town with a 17,000 population.

“What was your highlight?”

“I think having Conner pushing the plunger with Santa.” Conner, Simon explains, is a young man with learning difficulties who volunteers at every Heckmondwike event. “He’s always really enthusiastic, a real asset to the community. It was good to acknowledge a local person rather than wheeling in a celebrity… and he was made up.”

“Did you imagine the last twelve months would turn out the way they have?”

“Back then my motivation was commercial: to get as many people into the centre of town to support the businesses. But my mindset has shifted dramatically. Now the focus is on staging quality events for the community to come together and enjoy. It’s their experience that’s critical, not footfall.”

“And what feedback have you had so far from Saturday night?”

“After past events there’d often be some criticism,” says Simon. “This time the first person I heard from was the cashier at Morrisons. She told me everyone coming in the store after the event was absolutely buzzing. In fact, I’ve not heard one negative comment and that’s fantastic.”

Part of Simon’s SceneMaker ‘training’ has been a series of investigative trips to other art festivals and big events. He’s been to see light bulb clouds in Durham; shadow theatre in Bromsgrove and aerial choreography in Greenwich.

“It’s not like visiting a gallery or seeing a play. I want to know how these events are produced, what’s gone on in the background. For Luminaire in Durham, Creative Scene arranged for me to go early to see the set-up. Now I can transfer all that knowledge to my own community.”

“Do you remember back on the cricket pitch you told me your tastes were quite traditional?” I say.

“I was a purist,” he says, “but now all that has changed too. Bizarrely I’ve developed a passion for urban street art and am in touch with street artists all over Europe.”

“So, has the SceneMaker experience changed you personally?”

“A year ago things were a bit mundane,” Simon admits. “Now we,” – he and his wife, Kimberley – “go to the theatre at least once a month and spend weekends on creative breaks to different cities: we’ve seen three Gormleys now. It sounds corny but art now feeds my soul.”

I was aware Simon had been on his own cultural journey but hadn’t realised just how transformational it had been. The whole idea behind the SceneMakers programme is to build skills and confidence amongst local cultural entrepreneurs like Simon, that will sustain and inspire them. Does he, I wonder, feel he and his fellow volunteers could stage quality local events post-Creative Scene?

“HeckmondLIGHT – and HeckmondFRIGHT before it – have been massive learning curves. It’s opened my eyes to how much detail there is organising events like these. I’ve still got a lot to learn. My priority now is to get more local people to volunteer but we’re on the right road and maybe in two or three years we could – subject to funding – be putting these events on ourselves.”

HeckmondLIGHT photographs courtesy of Charlotte Graham

Getting fired up for HeckmondLIGHT

“I like the smell of fireworks,” says Simon as the smoke from a lobbed firecracker wafts towards the pavilion in the middle of Firth Park.

Already a dozen or more have gathered for tonight’s launch event for HeckmondLIGHT, a new light festival that is being built around Heckmondwike’s historic illuminations event and Christmas lights switch-on at the end of next month.

Local café owner Simon Thirkill is the driving force behind some new light art commissions and, with his partner Kimberley, is a ferocious supporter of all things creative in North Kirklees. “Tonight is another step in the process,” he says as we move inside, “we’ll be explaining what we’re hoping to do and encouraging more people to get involved. We’re expecting a lot of new faces.”

cs_311016_008-editMore gather. There’s John from the local civic society; Councillor Steve Hall; Yong-Geun from the Salvation Army; Creative Scene supporters, Sonja, Duncan and Julia, and indeed lots of faces I don’t recognise.

Artists Rozi Fuller and Liz Walker are grappling with a sand drawing and shadow projection set-up in the corner – a demonstration of their contribution to the festival – while newcomers help themselves to mulled wine.

cs_311016_011-editFollowing a short intro from Creative Scene’s Vicky, Simon explains the historical significance of the town’s illuminations which pre-date Blackpool’s. “I think it’s our community’s responsibility to prepare HeckmondLIGHT for the next 150 years,” he says.

Next up is Eleanor, one half of the Bradford-based Brick Box duo whose art, she says, often finds its way onto the street. “We love the big spectacles at light festivals but we also like the intimate experiences too, so we’re bringing our electric fireside to Heckmondwike.”

The ‘fireside’, she explains with a short video, is an amalgamation of electric fires around which people gather to share their stories. Love it.

Chris Squire of Impossible Arts is now on his feet. He and Simon have history. Last year, HeckmondLIGHT commissioned Chris to make the ‘Hecky Heads’ that literally put words into the mouths of the audience and projected them onto giant screens. Since then the Heads have been seen at light festivals all over the country.

This year, after a successful bid to Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts, Simon and Chris will bring something new to the festival.

“It’s called the Momentum Wheel,” explains Chris excitedly. “Imagine as part of the countdown to switch-on, some big blue touchpaper is lit… it hisses and fizzes, and then finally flames erupt from this giant sculpture…”

As he waves his arms to suggest flames erupting, the local firework lobbers send a loud one towards the pavilion door that makes us all jump. It is Halloween after all.

heckylight_edited-1-editAfter Vicky has given us a flavour of other artists on the festival line-up – glowing jugglers, a walk-through LED installation and a luminous brass band – she introduces Dr Steve Millington, tonight’s star turn.

“Steve and his team at Manchester Metropolitan University has been researching light festivals and their place and tradition in communities worldwide,” she says.

“There’s nothing new about light festivals,” Steve begins, “they are part of many communities’ cultural inheritance.”

For the next 20 minutes the senior lecturer in Human Geography has us all enthralled about light festivals. We hear about their social and cultural significance; their potential to produce a wide range of emotions: the ‘transformative capacity of light’.

Steve and his colleagues have already researched why local residents deck their homes with Christmas lights – the most basic of light festivals, he says – and why Blackpool maintains its allure for the thousands who visit the Illuminations year after year.

He introduces us to his colleague Gail, herself a producer of a community lights festival in Salford, and between them they’ll be chatting to festival-goers in Heckmondwike to help evaluate the event.

“What did you think about that?” I ask Simon afterwards. “He talked a lot about creating a space for people to come together.”

“That’s really important and that’s exactly our motivation for putting on HeckmondLIGHT. He’s put into perspective all our thinking. That talk has been really good for me.”

HeckmondLIGHT is on Saturday 26th November, from 4.00 to 8.00pm