Profile: Lee Forde used to light pop concerts and had his own thriving company

But he was drawn home to Liverpool for the millennium, and now heads the council events team as it prepares for its year as the European Capital of Culture. Mike Fletcher reports.

Launching fireworks from landmarks and persuading Marc Almond to accompany The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra during a Waterfront Weekend last September are just a taster of Liverpool's event programme as it prepares to become European Capital of Culture in 2008.

Liverpool Culture Company's general manager of events, Lee Forde, is the man responsible for the council's four-year schedule of planned and satellite activity that began when Liverpool was chosen to take over from Luxembourg and Grande Region as the cultural epicentre of Europe.

"We won the bid in late 2003 so my role is to ensure that our core annual events such as the Matthew Street Music Festival, the Hub Festival for teenagers and The Mersey River Festival are improved upon while adding new activity," says Forde.

The bid included theming the years running up to 2008, starting with the Year of Faith in 2004, which saw the Queen visit for the Maundy Thursday ceremony, held for the first time in the city. As 2005 is the UK's Year of the Sea, Liverpool's river festival from 10-13 June will include more tall ships and interactive features. And 2006 marks the Year of Performance.

"My grounding is rock and roll," says Forde. "This was back in the days of touring bands such as the Eagles and Echo and the Bunnymen. I ran the lighting system for a band called Motion Pictures that failed spectacularly - but I got to know various tour managers, and ended up as Marc Almond's lighting manager and then as his tour manager."

Although he was born and bred in Toxteth, he didn't always envisage returning to his home city to work. "My original intention was to reach 40 years old and develop my rental business Northern Lighting Systems," he says.

"But you can't be a tour lighting designer and own a business, as people wanted me for my personal expertise. So when my daughter was born in 1995 I sold the lighting company and left rock and roll."

He took a job as senior lighting technician with the Birmingham NEC Group, producing corporate conferences to "tidy up the CV".

"While working with bands you never see what other lighting designers are doing, so despite trying to ensure you have the latest equipment and you're deploying the latest techniques, you never really know if you're any good or not. Entering the conference industry was an eye-opener to just how prehistoric it was," he says.

Forde left in 1998 and re-formed Northern Lighting Systems with the aim of going it alone in the conference business and architectural lighting.

In its first year, it had a turnover in the region of £50,000. Then he heard a suggestion that the Mersey would be lit during the millennium celebrations.

"I'm a proud Liverpudlian so I just thought that if anyone is going to light that river it is going to be me," he says. "I went to visit the Liverpool Architectural Design Trust, which was being lottery funded with council support to carry out the project and convinced them that I had the expertise. I had never lit a river before in my life but I'm excellent at it now."

The Mersey had pulled Forde back. He joined a regeneration agency called Liverpool Vision and carried out the city's lighting strategy before embarking on a number of architectural lighting projects. In 2001, the council invited him to take over its events. "The council had been staging low budget events that were considered successful if nobody died," he says. "I've changed the culture a lot in preparation for what will be a phenomenal year in 2008, but 2007 is Liverpool's 800th birthday so there's much work to be done before the handover."


Event management qualifications ... I'm really big on training, and Liverpool Culture Company does take students on placements - although we can only take one at a time, to ensure they receive valuable hands-on experience. All my team are trained and fully approved. The city still lives under the cloud of Hillsborough and Heysel so we have to ensure nothing happens at our events.

Local and regional suppliers ... We've commissioned London event companies but it hasn't worked, as it's always been London's view of Liverpool.

By utilising local suppliers we can showcase the whole Gerry and the Pacemakers and cheeky Scouse image. Scousers can laugh at themselves but they don't like it when outsiders take the mickey.

Community events for teenagers ... Most cities avoid teenagers until they reach an age where they communicate. Our annual Hub Festival communicates directly with this sector of the community and I persuaded the politicians to allow it to happen by telling them that in two years time, this audience will be old enough to vote. I encourage my team to be out in the community finding out what they want from events.

Liverpool's 800th birthday celebrations ... we've been staging firework displays and firing rockets from all the major buildings including the Anglican Cathedral, the Liver Building and St Georges Hall. Around August Bank Holiday in 2007 we will do every major building in the city at the same time and create the largest display in the world.

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