Legacy programme announced for award-winning film telling astonishing North East stories from the Somme

The award-winning film Asunder, which premiered at the Sunderland Empire on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in 2016, has been awarded funding by 14 -18 NOW for an extended run of screenings and a project with Sunderland schools.

The legacy programme will be delivered by Sunderland Culture and will include screenings of the film and the soundtrack at local and national venues, along with an educational resource project for Sunderland schools. Full details of the schools programme, delivered in partnership with Sunderland Music Hub, and screening dates will be announced in the spring.

Asunder tells the powerful story of the North East’s involvement in one of the most traumatic battles in military history through largely unknown personal experiences. 

Written and produced by respected music writer, film producer, curator and member of best-selling pop band Saint Etienne, Bob Stanley, the film was directed and co-produced by award-winning artist and filmmaker Esther Johnson and is narrated by Kate Adie OBE with Alun Armstrong as the voice of the Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette. The soundtrack to the film was scored by two renowned North East bands: Field Music and Warm Digits, performed with Royal Northern Sinfonia and The Cornshed Sisters.

Bob Stanley explains, “Asunder gave us a chance to dig into some rarely accessed film archives and tell some astonishing stories. At school, I learnt about the Somme through the eyes of the military and war poets. What I was interested in was telling the story through the people left behind, away from the front, getting on with their daily lives in straitened times. 

“There were food shortages, riots, suffragettes smashing the windows of tea rooms, and ‘conchies’ locked up in medieval conditions. Meanwhile, fish and chip shops stayed open and women’s football boomed, and people still got married. I wanted to create a film and a soundtrack that showed the humour, magic and mundanity, as well as the tragedy.”  

Artist and filmmaker, Esther Johnson, saysI wanted to focus on the stories that you don’t hear about – moments of magic during the horror, attempts at finding normality in abnormal circumstances – to find a new way of understanding the war. 

“Much of my work is concerned with uncovering hidden social histories, so I was particularly interested in making a film that gave prominence to those who may not have been given space in the history books. The narrative of Asunder is woven from actual testimonies in addition to material I found in the British Library’s 1914-18 copies of the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette. In researching rarely seen archival film I was keen to find footage of WW1 that you might not expect. The abundance of research material I have delved into has been deeply moving and inspirational.” 

Themes that Esther uncovered in the film range from football to suffrage; stories of everyday life told through a combination of archive material, new footage shot in the North East, music and a poetic narrative inspired by oral history audio recordings.

Some of the characters in the film include Sgt George Thompson – a transport driver in the 7th Durham Light Infantry whose story was dubbed ‘the original War Horse’ after his diary told the tale of both him and his horse surviving the Somme; Bella Reay – a young munitions worker during World War One and also top striker in Blyth Spartans Ladies FC scoring 133 goals in one season and going on to play for England; Lizzie Holmes – the first woman in Horden to wear trousers, challenging convention and inspiring other women factory workers; and Norman Gaudie –  a Sunderland AFC player who was jailed in Richmond Castle in May 1916 for being conscientious objector on the grounds of his religion. 

Field Music’s David Brewis says the Mercury Prize nominated band were keen to get involved, “The chance to write something completely new and play it with an orchestra doesn’t come around very often. And as we heard about the plans for the film, the idea of telling a more complete story about our hometown and how the war affected it was something we wanted to be part of.” 

Councillor John Kelly, Sunderland City Council’s portfolio Holder for Communities and Culture, said: “Asunder was a huge success when it premiered in 2016, and 14-18 NOW’s award is testimony to the quality of the work, and of course, to the enduring personal stories of the people within it. We are pleased that we can continue the legacy of the Centenary Commemorations and ensure schools and wider audiences can share this remarkable film and music. 

Asunder was the first North East co-commission in the national 14-18 NOW programme – extraordinary arts experiences connecting people with the First World War, as part of the UK’s official centenary commemorations. 

The film premiered with a live performance by Field Music, Warm Digits, Royal Northern Sinfonia and The Cornshed Sisters on 10 July at Sunderland Empire. It was also performed live at Barbican in London, and screened at Home in Manchester, as well as multiple local and national venues during 2016-17.  It won a Journal Culture Award in 2017.

February half-term fun in Sunderland

This half-term there are a huge variety of events and activities on offer across Sunderland Culture’s venues. From hands-on art workshops, crafts, and glassmaking to performance, theatre, music and trails, there’s plenty to keep everyone entertained.

Here’s a few of the programme highlights…

At Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens

There are plenty of fun, free events to get creative with the family and keep the little ones busy at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens this half-term. Get hands-on with sculpture-makingcollage or painting workshops throughout the week, taking inspiration from a new art exhibition celebrating age and creativity, Received Wisdom.

3, 2, 1…Paint!

Monday 17 February / Various times / FREE / Drop-in / Age 4+

Join a painting challenge like no other! Create your own self-portrait in 10 minutes and create as many as you like. Paint onto cardboard boxes, bags, maybe even the sole of a show. Expect to get messy!

Relaxed Family Visits and Activities

Visit new art exhibition, Received Wisdom, and learn all about the artworks through drawing activities, sensory backpack trails and discussions with our learning team. There are also a number of fun relaxed activity sessions designed for families with children with disabilities and/or additional needs including autistic spectrum conditions.

At National Glass Centre and Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art 

Get Messy!

Various times / Age 3+

Those wanting to test their skills with clay can take part in one of three clay based workshops, Mythical Monsters on Sunday 16, Clay Challenge on Tuesday 18 or Clay Robots on Sunday 23. Children will be given the opportunity to create a sculpture, inspired by the centre’s galleries, with air drying clay.

Robot Fusing

Monday 17 & Thursday 20 February / Various times / Age 6+

Design and make your own artwork using colourful glass mosaics and glass grains to create a solid glass tile. Use one of the robot templates for inspiration or create your own design!

Glass Painting: Stained Glass Windows

Wednesday 19 February / Various times / Age 4+

Design and paint your own design onto a bespoke glass arch-hanging decoration. What will your style be, traditional or contemporary? It’s up to you!

At Arts Centre Washington:

A Hit in Two Days! Free Workshop

Tuesday 18 & Wednesday 19 February / 10am – 3.30pm / Ages 12 -18

Loud and Clear music tuition present a two day long intensive workshop for young musicians to collaborate, learn from their peers, develop new skills and create a fully recorded composition.

Rose and Robin

Friday 21st February / 11am & 2pm / For ages 7-70 and over

 A show that celebrates life in all its richness; a story of love and loss, for old and young… especially if you are over seven and have ever lost a sock… Or someone you love.

Hallé Magic!

Monday 24th February / Various times / Ages 2- 5

Introduce your child to the magic of orchestral music with the world famous Hallé Orchestra! The Hallé Magic Box is packed with toys and props to discover songs and rhymes, musical movements and games. Afternoon sessions also available at The Fire Station.

Washington Art-Zine: Animation!
Free art activities for those aged 8-10 years

Work with animator Sheryl Jenkins and creative writer James Whitman to learn about the animation and filmmaking process and create a short animated film.

Over the course of 3 days, you will learn how to write your own stories, make your own characters and then use apps and animation software to bring them to life. You will edit your film and add a soundtrack that could include music, sound effects or even your own voice. A copy of your film will be made available after the workshop.

For more information about all the events available visit Sunderlandculture.org.uk 


Sunderland organisations pledge to support creative industries

A group of organisations have come together to support creative industries in Sunderland through a new eighteen-month programme.

Unlock the City is led by Sunderland Culture, who will be working in partnership with the North East Business and Innovation Centre (BIC), Digital Catapult North East, and Sunderland BME Network.

Together, they will deliver a comprehensive package of support including workshops, residentials, mentoring and one-to-one sessions, with the aim to increase confidence and facilitate a more diverse, sustainable and profitable creative sector within Sunderland.

The programme is funded by a Coastal Communities Fund grant of £325,000 and is part of a wider £820,000 investment in the city which will also see a redevelopment of Sunderland’s seafront. The grant is the result of a successful joint bid from Sunderland City Council and Sunderland Culture.

Keith Merrin, Chief Executive of Sunderland Culture, said:

“We’re thrilled to be partnering with the North East BIC, Digital Catapult North East, and Sunderland BME Network to collectively pool our organisational expertise and resources to help support our creative industries.

“We know that providing help in key areas such as business skills, digital development and bespoke mentoring will make a real difference to our creative graduates, start-ups and existing SMEs across the city and support the overall continued growth of Sunderland’s cultural sector”

Councillor John Kelly, Cabinet Member for Communities and Culture at Sunderland City Council, said: “We’re delighted to see this programme taking shape. It will provide a real boost for our creative industries and everyone who works in them, helping them to grow and thrive.”

As part of the programme, Digital Catapult North East, based at Sunderland Software City, will deliver a series of residentials for individual creative practitioners, creative businesses and venues in the city, introducing organisations to the digital sector and supporting them to implement digital development plans.

The North East BIC will lead a programme of business skills development sessions aimed at creative businesses in the city, and have appointed a Creative Business Advisor, Victoria Moodle, to deliver targeted support and guidance.

Sunderland BME network will offer bespoke mentoring and events to help growth and sustainability, as well as undertaking a mapping exercise to establish the volume and depth of the creative sector within the BME community.

Northern Powerhouse Minister, Rt Hon Jake Berry MP, said“This Government is committed to levelling up opportunities for people across the Northern Powerhouse and along the Great British Coast.

“That’s why we are backing Sunderland with a total of £3.36 million from our Coastal Communities Fund. The creative industries are at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse economy and this latest £325,000 investment will help people develop the skills they need to get jobs and grow this important sector in the city.”

The Unlock the City programme builds on and enhances the work initiated by Sunderland Culture’s original Unlock programme, funded by Arts Council England and National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Great Place Programme.

The Coastal Communities Fund will enable Sunderland Culture to continue this work and further invest in developing a creative co-working space in the city for 2020.

The programme enhances the work already being delivered to support the creative industries in the city through the Business Development team at Sunderland City Council and the University of Sunderland’s Hope Street Exchange.

Young people in Sunderland plan own event celebrating difference

A group of young people in Sunderland have been given the chance to plan, curate and deliver their own event at Arts Centre Washington.

Recruited by Sunderland Culture earlier this year as young ambassadors to help shape the cultural future of the area, the event will be the first significant project for the team, who are all aged between 13 and 25.

Taking place on Friday 1 November (6.30pm-9pm), Celebrate Different is a FREE  event exploring themes impacting many young people today, including body positivity, identity, gender, race, and culture through specially commissioned artworks made by professional artists.

Taking over the entire Centre, the event is aimed at young people and will be full of things to experience, do and see, including performances, music and visual art. 

Over the summer, Sunderland Culture’s Young Ambassadors have been working with North East arts organisation, Helix Arts, through its Make it Happen programme to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence to plan, fund and co-produce events, exhibitions, festivals and projects in their own communities.

Cheryl Gavin, Senior Project Manager at Helix Arts, said:

 “Our Make it Happen programme is about giving people the skills to deliver ambitious and exciting arts events where they live.

“The Sunderland Young Cultural Ambassadors are a creative and talented group, who are keen to explore issues that affect many young people by working with artists and performers.

“Through Make it Happen, we were able to equip them with everything they need to deliver their own arts event; everything from looking after budgets, fundraising, commissioning to appointing artists and event planning.”

Rebecca Ball, Creative Director, Sunderland Culture, said:

“It’s hugely important to empower young people in Sunderland and to give them a voice on what kind of events or culture they want to see and experience in their area.

“The team have been working incredibly hard over the last few weeks and we encourage everyone to come along to Arts Centre Washington on the 1 November to join the celebration!” 

Julia, aged 14 from High Barnes, a Sunderland Culture Young Ambassador Team member, said:

“These projects are great for young people, as it gives them a set of life skills that are so, so important if you want to go into the Arts. By young people getting involved in this sort of thing, it’s helping to give us a really powerful voice and way of a way of expressing our ideas.

“It’s not every day that a group of young people run and organise an event of this scale, so we’d love everyone to come along, celebrate with us, and have a good time!”

The event has been made possible thanks to funding from Culture Bridge North East and Hays Travel.

Tickets for the event are free but can be pre-booked from www.sunderlandculture.org.uk/celebrate-different or by calling Arts Centre Washington’s box office on 0191 561 3455.


CURTAIN UP at Sunderland’s new £11m venue for music, dance, theatre and comedy is a step closer after work began on its city centre site.

The auditorium is being built adjacent to the newly-restored and repurposed Fire Station on the corner of Garden Place and Dun Cow Street and will be the centrepiece of the city’s Music Arts and Cultural Quarter.

The £7m Fire Station project was officially opened by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge last year and the new auditorium will be open in the spring of 2021.

The Sunderland Music, Arts and Culture (MAC) Trust is behind the development and secured a £6.25m award from Arts Council England‘s Capital: Large Grants  programme, funded by the National lottery.

The Arts Council’s capital programme supports organisations to develop resilience and to become more sustainable businesses and the grant will help to make the vision of a new, mid-scale venue for
the city a reality.

Together the new auditorium and the renovated Fire Station will provide an integrated centre for the performing arts that will sit next to, and very much complement, the hugely successful Sunderland Empire. While on a smaller scale than the Empire, it will present an exciting programme of music, dance, drama and comedy.

Sunderland construction company Brims has been chosen to build the new venue and has already started on the development. Recent Brims projects include the Tombola HQ building on the Sunderland Riverside and the refurbishment of Gilbridge House on Keel Square as headquarters for Hays Travel.

The new auditorium will have retractable seating for 450 and will be able to host 800 people standing. The glazed foyer at the front of the new building will be clad in terracotta, matching the colour and tone of the red-brick fire station.

The award-winning architect behind the design of the auditorium is Jason Flanagan, who was project director for the iconic Sage building in Gateshead. His other designs include the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff and LiveWorks in Newcastle.

Following completion of the auditorium, the MAC Trust will pass programming, operation and management of the auditorium to Sunderland Culture, of which MAC Trust was a founding partner.

Paul Callaghan CBE, Chair of the MAC Trust, said:

“We’re delighted that work on the auditorium has started and are excited by the transformational effect we’re sure it will have on the city’s arts and culture sector. It will be a game-changer in terms of
the cultural offer the city will be able to deliver.

“We’re extremely grateful to Arts Council England for their generous capital grant, and I would also like to thank Sunderland Council who have offered tremendous support during the development stage for this superb new cultural asset for the city.”

Rebecca Ball, Creative Director of Sunderland Culture, added:

“The auditorium will be a landmark venue of which the city can be proud, presenting local, regional,
national and international artists to local audiences and giving new and emerging artistic talent a platform on which to shine. We’re sure it will attract new audiences into the city – from across the region and beyond.”

Sunderland musician, Ross Millard, of the Futureheads and Frankie and the Heartstrings, and a MAC Trustee, was delighted by the news:

“The music scene has always been really healthy in this city and a brand new venue of this size will be a great way to support our local musicians and performers. It will also allow Sunderland to regularly attract top touring musicians, too, which is a massive boost.”

Nicholas Baumfield, Senior Relationship Manager at Arts Council England, added:

“We are delighted to be supporting Sunderland Music, Arts and Culture Trust with National Lottery investment from our capital programme, which helps organisations build dynamic spaces for great work and develop their sustainability. The new cultural quarter will firmly establish Sunderland’s identity in the North and we are very excited about the creative opportunities that it will bring for artists and
audiences. Along with the Fire Station, the new auditorium will attract more people to the city and will raise the profile of Sunderland’s contribution to arts and culture in the UK.”

Arts Council England champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives. Arts Council supports a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to digital art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections. Between 2015 and 2018, Arts Council plans to invest £1.1 billion of public money from government and an estimated £700
million from the National Lottery to help create experiences for as many people as possible across the country.

Councillor John Kelly, Cabinet Member for Communities and Culture, Sunderland City Council, said: “We’re delighted to have been able to support this latest stage of the development, bringing the City Council’s total grant funding in the project to £690,000. The auditorium will be a very welcome addition to the city’s cultural offer, complementing Sunderland Empire and the adjacent Fire Station. It is one of a number of significant projects in this part of the city which started with the council’s
development of Keel Square, which are part of a wider £1.5bn programme of investment underway in Sunderland and include £0.5bn billion for the city centre.”

The new auditorium is the third phase of the MAC Trust’s transformation of the area. The first phase was the award-winning renovation of the historic Dun Cow and Peacock pubs, and the second stage was the transformation of the old Fire Station into a restaurant, heritage centre and dance and drama studios.


Sunderland Culture have announced the recipients of their inaugural Sunderland Creative Development Fellowships. 

Launched in June 2019, the Sunderland Creative Development Fellowships aim to support artistic development within Sunderland and over sixty applications were submitted from creative practitioners from across the borough.

Fourteen Fellowships were awarded in total, including eight to graduates from the University of Sunderland.

Recipients range from a broad selection of creative disciplines and also represent practitioners at varying stages of their careers – from emerging to established. These include writing (Iain Rowan, Alan Parkinson), performance (Rosie Vleugels), music (Rhys Patterson), curatorship (Rory Williams), photography (Jo Howell), illustration and design (Kathryn Robertson), glass art (Jeffery Sarmiento, Rachel Welford, Anna Selway), visual art ( Susan Loughlin, Rachel Groves), participatory art (Steph Robson), and Sunderland Maritime Heritage.

The Creative Development Fellowships will enable each individual to develop their creative practice in a range of diverse ways – from funding practical tools and equipment, mentorship, business support and courses, to completing a music album or exhibiting work around the country. 

Laura Brewis, Producer for Artist Development and Creative Economy at Sunderland Culture, said:


“Many funding applications ask applicants to do a “project”, but we wanted to launch a programme that offered support to creative practitioners and organisations in Sunderland to develop themselves and think about what might make them more resilient as practitioners or move them to the next stage of their career.”

“We were thrilled by the amount of fantastic applications, particularly the number of graduates from the University of Sunderland who have been successful and are choosing to stay and work in the city. We hope that programmes such as the Sunderland Creative Development Bursary will make the cultural and heritage sectors in the city stronger and more sustainable.”

Rachel Welford, who specialises in making glass artworks for architectural settings and is in the final stage of a PhD at the University of Sunderland, said:

“Although the creative aspects of my art are going well, the business and financial side of what I do needs improving! So I’ll be using the Creative Development Bursary for mentoring and business support to improve profitability and growth.”

Many of the Fellowship recipients intend to use this opportunity to develop their practice to share with the community. These include Susan Loughlin, who aims to design and test a model for a range of participatory art opportunities for local people, and aerial circus artist Rosie Vleugals who will be attending a professional course and purchasing safety equipment to use for performing, teaching and training.

Rosie said:

I have been training in aerial circus arts for the past six years. Once I started, it quickly became a passion, a painful one but a passion nonetheless! This help from Sunderland Culture will assist me in taking the next step – bringing new skills home to the North East to help other aerialists and budding performers.”

Over the next year, Sunderland Culture will also be offering a range of internships at Sunderland Culture itself and at other partnering organisations in order to create pathways into the creative industries.

The internships span a range of different areas, offering a wide variety of career experience opportunities.

Three graduates of Sunderland University are currently undertaking internships across different creative industries: Eddie Scott as Marketing and Social Media intern with Sunderland Music, Michael Davidson as Programme and Exhibitions intern at NEPN, and  Eve Campbell and Jenny McNamara are undertaking a joint Curatorial Internship at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.

For more internship opportunities, available throughout the year, visit Sunderland Culture’s opportunity page at sunderlandculture.org.uk

The Sunderland Creative Development Fellowships are supported through the Unlock strand of Sunderland Culture’s Great Place programme, supported by Arts Council England and National Lottery Heritage Fund, and funded by Coastal Communities Fund, a partnership with Sunderland City Council.