Reflecting on Coventry UK City of Culture, by Lee Corden

It’s not far off seven years ago to the day that Adam Dent and I were called into a meeting at Coventry City Council House to discuss the possibility of working on a bid for Coventry to be UK City of Culture in 2021.

That meeting, literally, changed my professional life.

Winning the title would, it became clear, have a major positive impact on the city where Advent has been based since it was formed in 1998. We definitely wanted to be part of it.

Our first task was to help take the temperature of the city. Would residents back a bid?

The first message we had to convey was that this wasn’t just about the local authority but a whole city bidding for a truly special, game-changing prize. That was reflected in our first contact with the media and our first press photo – David Burbidge, the bid chair, and Pauline Black, pictured in a graffiti-ridden underpass.

It definitely struck a chord – and did look like an album cover from an unlikely duo!

After the initial announcement, the Coventry Telegraph ran a poll to see if local people wanted the city to go forward with a bid – 80 per cent said they did.

The campaign was underway and we never looked back.

The regional media were hugely supportive and I maintain, to this day, that they played a massive part in the decision to award Coventry the title.

National media needed a bit more of a hook, and just the fact that the city was running for the accolade was not strong enough as so were many other cities. We had to do more to be ahead of the opposition and we quickly realised that we had to find stories that would stand on their own two feet but that would also emphasise why we should win the title.

Unearthing brilliant stories including Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello and a theatre manager in Coventry, brought national and international coverage, out-stripping other contenders.

The cold night in Hull when Coventry was announced as the winner of the next UK City of Culture is one I will never forget. As the city celebrated, Rob Milne and I were still organising interviews on the freezing dock-side in Hull. It was worth it.

The city had, it thought, three years to prepare but Covid struck in 2020 and plans changed.

The year was launched with a film in May 2021 and Coventry Moves – the signature event in June – presented a media challenge. Events would be taking place across the city but because restrictions meant crowds were not allowed to form, we couldn’t say where or when!

The regional media, once again, were amazing and helped that day go off perfectly, bringing the events to the people of the city.

As restrictions started to lift, people could finally begin to come out to events and there are so many highlights to mention from Faith to Ghosts in the Ruins and from Choir of Man at the Assembly Festival Garden through to the incredible closing month of May.

For me, however, the year and the time leading up to it, was not made by the events – as incredible as they were – but by the people involved. I’ve met too many people to mention through this process who I now count as friends and who have all played a huge part in such an amazing time for the city.

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