Billy Bragg: Never Buy The Sun

MOSTLY FILM: Manchester International Festival 2011

Manchester skyline as seen by Mr Scruff: note Band On The Wall in the centre foregroundFor a while there, it was nearly going to have the title Tits, Festival And United. Thankfully, common sense prevailed prior to publication. Besides, my latest article for Mostly Film isn't just a bit of standalone nonsense: at least two of MF's regular writers (plus an occasional one) were attending this year's Manchester International Festival, and so there are going to be two separate reports coming out of it.

Some time next week, MF's art critic Ann Jones will be discussing what's going on in the city's galleries for the Festival. But today, you've got me talking about what The Belated Birthday Girl and I saw when we went up to Manchester for the opening weekend of the fest. Three reviews of three very different musical performances, all stripped of the rambly travel writing that I sometimes lapse into when I'm covering stuff away from home.

If you'd like to see that rambly travel writing, then press the red button now.

So, the bonus content for Spank readers is a few paragraphs about our accommodation and subsistence arrangements while we were in Manchester. I can't claim to have any special knowledge as a result of spending my formative years in the city: in fact, I'm pretty sure that not one of the items I'm going to mention here even existed when I last lived in Manchester in the early eighties.

For example, we didn't have Premier Inns back then. Looking for a central Manchester base for the weekend, we settled on the Portland Street branch of the chain. Online booking never really gives you a proper feel for the area, so it wasn't until we arrived that we realised we were on one of the busiest corners in the centre of town, directly on top of a gargantuan Wetherspoon's pub and a casino. In a reversal of the usual state of affairs, I started to panic, while The BBG was in a state of unnatural calm: "it'll be fine. We have a guarantee of a good night's sleep, don't we?"

I've always considered the Premier Good Night Guarantee to be pure and simple marketing guff, but the simple fact remains that it's a commitment they've made in public, and they're set to lose shedloads of money if they don't stick to it. So I was delighted to discover that our room, despite its location above one of central Manchester's meat markets on a Friday night, was airtightly soundproofed (with decent aircon added to compensate for the airtightness). The usual corners are being cut to reduce costs (a kid asks at reception if there's free wi-fi, and is openly laughed at), as well as some unusual corners (the lobby's introduced self-service check-in kiosks reminiscent of a Japanese love hotel, with the aim of reducing night staff down to a single security guard). But as I've said before, the basics you need for a city centre crashpad are all present and correct, for a total of £115 for the weekend.

That price doesn't include breakfast, which would have been in the downstairs Wetherspoon's if we'd taken them up on the offer. Instead, we headed out towards the Northern Quarter to see what was available elsewhere. In most other circumstances, Simple would have seemed like a delightful enough place for brunch: staffed on a Sunday morning by a cartoonishly diverse trio (tall black guy, short white guy, one waitress), their menu may be short but it does the job. However, it's an operation that's effortlessly outcooled by Teacup, the cafe part-owned by notorious tanninoholic Mr Scruff. Plenty of fine brunch options, a bewildering variety of teas, a charmingly laid-back vibe, and lots of Scruff stuff on sale (including his new single Wobble Control if that appeals). Shame we were there a week too early for Scruff's latest DJ set at Band On The Wall, but you can't have everything. Oh, wait a minute, you can.

For more substantial nosh, we had pretty good Japanese at Samsi on Whitworth Street (can't go wrong with chicken katsu curry rice, really): but the best meal of the weekend was at Albert's Shed in Castlefield. The most whimsical starter I've ever eaten - 'mini steak and chips', a two-ounce piece of beef accompanied by parmentier potatoes and shallot onion rings - was followed up with a beautiful bit of Gressingham duck breast. Meanwhile, on the non-meat side of the table, The BBG had her own tiny starter of seared baby scallops, followed by a heftily cheesy Lancashire cheese and onion pie. She was pleased to discover that the wine list was partly sourced from Hanging Ditch, a splendid local wine shop we'd been looking at just a few hours earlier: she picked a fine Portuguese Azamor Red from their recommendations.

Aside from a family engagement in the eastern part of town (one of my nephews had just turned 21, and there was booze to be had), and a quick post-theatre drink with a trashy blonde at the Cornerhouse bar (I remember it when it used to be a porn cinema, you know), that pretty much covers our non-Festival activities for the weekend. It's a shame we couldn't have seen more of the fest, to be honest. The Punchdrunk/Doctor Who collaboration The Crash Of The Elysium sounded fascinating, but the family-only performances during our weekend there would have required us to kidnap a child first. Similarly, we were there too early for Johnny Vegas' new play And Another Thing..., though I'll be looking forward to catching its televised component on the Ideal World shopping channel. (The trick is to tune in approximately 45 minutes after the start of each scheduled performance of the play.)

But enough of the regrets: we saw three shows of varying degrees of interest at MIF 2011. If you want to find out what they were like, read Manchester International Festival 2011: Choon! on Mostly Film right now. (And all the other stuff that's there too.)


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