Prepare for Launch

2019 was a pivotal year for me. It was my 40th anniversary of working in the arts. Back in ’79, riding the post-punk wave of independent music I put on my first gig at Kettering’s Corn Market Hall. Prior to that I’d always aspired to being a writer and an artist but the Punk revolution was a game-changer for me. As a working-class youth with limited prospects living in a rural backwater there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to realise my lofty ambitions, but Punk showed me you didn’t need to be rich, you didn’t need to be experienced or qualified or even any good. And you certainly didn’t need anyone’s permission – you could just decide to make it happen. So I did.

Forty years on the Threshold Studios team were planning the fifth edition of the Frequency, Lincoln’s International Festival of Digital Culture. In 2018 we had formally incorporated the festival into our Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation agreement. It was the company’s 21st anniversary, and I realised for the first time that more than half my career in the arts had been spent working within Threshold.

From working with a band I shifted to making film projections for live gigs. From there I moved into touring my artist’s 8mm films through festivals and making music videos on 16mm for Beggar’s Banquet, Creation and RCA America. At 31, I took a gamble and closed what was a successful independent music video production company to go to the University of Westminster Film School – the most prestigious undergraduate film school in the country. I’d applied before but my lack of qualifications made it a tough nut to crack. This time I was successful, my lack of formal qualifications were compensated for by my appropriate life experience as a professional music video producer – I’d had my work on heavy rotation on MTV both in Europe and the States and I already had my official Director’s card from the Film & TV union so how could they say no?

On completion of that first degree, a Masters Degree in Screenwriting at the Northern Film School followed. One thing I quickly learned about the film and TV industry during my time at university was that I didn’t like the way it worked. The British Film Industry back then was propped up by Deferred Payment Schemes – the expectation that crew would work for just basic expenses plus a share of mythical future profits. And the broadcasting giants only paid lip service to diversity. I could see little evidence of genuine working class voices in film or TV production. The working class were either absent, tokenistic or relegated to regional production and only then if they spoke about direct working class experience. The situation was only going to change if we could open up the doors of the industry to more people from underrepresented communities.

The question I asked myself back then was; where is there an organisation for people like my younger self, people with ambition and aptitude but no money, no experience and no contacts in an industry in which success was heavily based on your networking? Threshold Studios was my answer to that question, but I had no idea that answer would come to dominate the second half of my career.
I’ve loved everything I’ve done with Threshold, from creating a fast-track development programme for women directors with ideas for horror feature films in partnership with WarpX, Training Linked to Production initiatives that commissioned short films by Artists for festivals and DVD distribution, and youth media initiatives which led to hundreds of young people making their first short film for broadcast on BBC2. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

We’ve achieved many things I’d never have thought possible – including the day in 2017 when my Co-Director Uzma Johal received her MBE. But, as Director of an organisation with a year-round artists’ support programme and responsibility for the development and delivery of Frequency Festival, it has been necessary to put some personal ambitions firmly on the back burner for a long time now.

At the beginning of 2019 I was 60, and a new question was forming in my head; have I got time for one more great adventure? Could I at this late stage in my career still find time to realise one more dream? Thankfully, we at Threshold had been preparing for such a moment. A few years back we engaged our board in the process of designing a succession strategy, a mechanism by which the company could pass into the hands of the next generation. Sam had been with us for seventeen years. She knew the workings of the company inside out. We knew at some point she deserved to get promoted to full Co–Director. And now it’s Sam that leads on some of our most ambitious projects, most notably Digital Democracies, the new Three Festivals Commissioning Partnership between some of the UK’s leading festivals: Frequency Festival in Lincoln, Brighton Digital and Hull Freedom Festival.

With Threshold in safe hands I could begin to scope out a different future for myself. I’d shared my thoughts with Co-Directors, Uzma and Sam, and with Harriet, our Company Chair. I also discussed it with my friend, Mike Stubbs. He’d just returned to his own artistic practice after twelve years as CEO of FACT in Liverpool. I met with him and Arts Consultant Simon Poulter at last year’s Frequency Festival in Lincoln and, over pool and whiskey, we discussed the predicament of people like myself, in the latter stages of their career, firmly established, with a wealth of experience behind us but with a yearning to burn some bridges and catch up on some personal ambitions.

I had just made my first bid to the ACE Develop your Creative Practice fund to prepare for my transition from Co-Director of an ACE NPO to freelance writer, artist and arts producer. Then Covid struck and the funding pot was cancelled.

Covid has accelerated social change for all of us. It’s going to be brutal. Many arts businesses will not survive it, but in adversity there also lies opportunity. The post-punk cultural revolution of the late seventies and eighties proved to me that, where there is a cultural vacuum, Creativity will fill it with exciting new forms. That’s why I’m positive about our collective post-Covid future. Covid also reminded me that life is shorter than you think and it’s time to bring those back-burner ambitions to the front of the stove.

Covid, for all its challenges, has presented Threshold and myself with an opportunity to make radical structural changes, to let the organisation find its new shape for the next twenty years. For that to happen I need to get out of its way and that offers me the launch pad for my next adventure. Writing fiction was my first passion and it remains so. Lockdown gave me the rare opportunity to invest my time into the first draft of a novel I’ve been thinking about for at least a decade but could never find the time to write.

While Threshold will always remain a part of me and I’m sure we’ll work on things together in the future, I am sad and elated in equal measure to say I’m leaving for new and completely unfamiliar lands.

At 62, I can afford to take a creative risk – in fact, I can’t afford not to. So, in that great punk spirit of reaching for the stars on a zero budget, let’s get it done!

Ad Astra.