Manchester international festival launches with parade of locals

Opening ceremony sees local heroes, celebrities and ordinary people from all backgrounds take to catwalk erected in Piccadilly Gardens, under guidance of artist Jeremy Deller

The owner of a taxi company that offered free rides to those caught up in the bombing at the Arianda Grande concert last month was among the stars of the opening show for the Manchester international festival (MIF) on Thursday night. Sam Arshad, 35, was one of 147 Mancunians chosen to take part in a special catwalk show devised by the Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller.

Also involved were a 100-year-old woman who worked as Field Marshal Montgomery’s driver in the second world war, a five-day-old baby boy (carried by his mother), a survivor of the Kosovan war, a family of bakers, a cleaner at the town hall, and a woman who vowed to say yes to everything after her husband died.

What Is The City But the People? kicked off the sixth edition of the biennial festival on a 100-metre-long catwalk erected in Piccadilly Gardens in the centre of Manchester.

All 2.5 million residents of Greater Manchester were invited to take part in the show. Several thousand turned up in the square to watch for free: laughing, whooping and sometimes weeping at the diverse inhabitants of the reliably rainy city.

Beekeepers on catwalk
There was a real buzz around the launch of this year’s event. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/for the Guardian

Some participants needed little introduction. Bez, of Happy Mondays fame, was without his maracas, but danced his way down the catwalk. The poet Lemn Sissay appeared in the purple robes given to him when he was voted chancellor of Manchester University: “Not bad for a lad brought up in care who didn’t know his own name.” Two brave souls taking part in the Guardian’s Blind Date series met for the first time on the runway.

Arshad, who earlier said he would be channelling Beyoncé, worked an extra 24 hours without sleep after the Manchester Arena explosion on 22 May when his firm agreed to offer free lifts to those stranded in the city. At least 30 people accepted a ride, including a woman who had lost her wallet in the panic and needed to get all the way back to Blackpool with her small daughter.

The festival’s new creative director, John McGrath, is determined to answer MIF’s critics, who argue that it appeals primarily to white middle-class people. All colours and creeds appeared on the catwalk, including youth worker Kemoy Walker, 26, who as a teenager saw his 15-year-old friend murdered in a Moss Side park. The audience was told that Walker wanted to be prime minister one day.

Beforehand he admitted had never heard of MIF until he saw an advert for the open casting call for Deller’s show. Walker, a music teacher and youth worker, said the festival previously hadn’t cut through with people from his community. “These things don’t necessarily connect with local communities,” he said.

  • The Guardian is a sponsor of the Manchester international festival


Helen Pidd North of England editor

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