Last night, it was a real privilege to witness the rebirth of Devonport Column. The place had been crowded all day apparently, with too many people queuing to be able to make their way up to the top of the newly refurbished tower. Never mind, there will be plenty of time for those who couldn’t get in to come back. We got there in the evening when the tower had been closed in order for the pyrotechnic team to stuff it full of fireworks. The place was going to go off with a bang.
But before it did, around 9.30pm, there was a magnificent projection show. It is difficult to describe now quite how good it was. For about ten or fifteen minutes, the column itself was used as a screen to show the history of Plymouth and its place in the world from the time of its first opening in 1827. Using words and music and a beautifully crafted video show, we watched both a history show and a cheeky cultural overview, with witty cross-references: John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (surely a key Plymouth cultural reference if ever there was one) to Scott of the Antarctic, via World War One and even a touch of Kraftwerk (does anyone remember the brief 1977-ish phase of robot dancing in pyjamas in Union Street?).
The Real Ideas Organisation have been working hard to develop this area, and last night was a celebration of their vision of a restored Devonport. There was a genuine sense last night that this could be the start of something very new and very exciting. Project leader Ed Whitelaw spoke about the mix of people who had attended the day: from the Mayor to local councillors and MPs and the top Navy brass to local people curious both to see the restored icon and also, clearly, to express a sense of ownership of this scheme. This didn’t have the feeling of a top-down, hegemonic arts installation; it felt like an area expressing its identity. If we are to be considered for City of Culture in 2017, then yesterday will hopefully be shown to the judges as an example of what we can do here.
Obviously these are early days, and Devonport itself has a long way to go before it recovers some of the pride and swagger of the 19th century, pre-Plymouth years. But this, and the restored Guildhall, is a start, and last night’s show should be welcomed by everyone in this city. It was a triumph.