Twenty years ago, I was living in London and until 15th February 1998, I was only vaguely aware of the Angel of the North. I knew it was a ‘thing’ and I was aware that it was going to be located somewhere near Gateshead, but that was about the sum of my knowledge. I couldn’t simply log on to a website or social media platform to find out more and North East newspapers weren’t widely available in Kensal Green. So, I was blissfully unaware of the vitriol that the project was attracting from sections of the local media, and from some politicians and the wider population.
Then, on that date and the days that followed, the Angel was everywhere. I was working in my first PR job, at Lynne Franks PR on Harrow Road, West London, and we had all of the national press delivered to the office each day, while there were also TVs located throughout the building, showing various news and entertainment channels on rotation. Wherever I turned, there was the Angel of the North, big, bold and, depending on the eye of the beholder’s perspective, beautiful.
As an exile at the time, it was very unusual to see my part of the world in the national spotlight for reasons other than sport, or as a case study that reinforced backward looking and often negative stereotypes about the region I loved. So this was a revelation. Down in London, we hadn’t closely followed its story from birth, nor the manufacture of its component parts, or its gradual construction. And now, a monumental piece of public art was suddenly there. Pages and pages of national print coverage followed, along with many minutes of screen time.
Inevitably, not all commentators were complimentary, but most were, helped by the credibility of the Angel’s creator Anthony Gormley. Regardless of the tone, in all of the coverage everywhere (apart from on the radio of course!), there was always an unmistakable, almost immediately iconic, image of the Angel – tall, proud, defiant, welcoming. And that was just in London and the UK. As we know, the Angel of the North gained global attention.
I do the understand objections to big, expensive public art projects, and there are some I have seen (here in the North East and elsewhere) that I believe are ill-conceived wastes of money, though if a bit more time, money and ambition had been invested in them, perhaps my view would be different. I have heard the argument that the money spent on the Angel could have been used for something that would directly benefit the general public at a practical level. Yes, I suppose that is true, but I still believe that pound for pound and rivet for rivet, the Angel of the North is one of the best value investments that a local authority has made in my lifetime.
As a junior PR executive in February 1998, one of my jobs was to evaluate media coverage for my clients. I suggest that in one week, the appearance of the Angel of the North generated more positive coverage and reached more people in the UK and around the world, than the output of most of my clients did in a year. And before anyone asks, my colleagues and I worked for some pretty high-profile brands and did a very decent job for them! I resort to cliché in saying that the Angel put the North East on the map, but clichés are clichés for good reason, and this new arrival did just that, and in a way that was so different from what had come before. Seven years later, the Angel was starring in a TV commercial alongside other ancient and modern North East icons, promoting the region nationally and globally as part of the ‘Passionate people. Passionate places.’ campaign. And ever since, it has featured in marketing campaigns to promote our region and I am sure that it will play an important role in the Great Exhibition of the North this year.
The challenges that we face in the North East remain significant on many fronts and there are plenty of folk elsewhere who continue to trot out the old stereotypes and disparage our region, and always will. But I will never forget the reaction from people in my office 20 years ago, who almost without exception were captivated by the arrival of the Angel of the North – overnight it changed their perceptions of North East England, piqued their curiosity, and made them more likely to visit our part of the world. For a lad who was raised in County Durham and was surrounded by a very different crowd at the time, it made me almost burst with pride.
Ten months later, I had moved back to my home town of Sedgefield and 20 years on, I am running my own PR company here in the region, banging the drum about products, people, charities and events from the North East. Until last week, although I had passed it innumerable times, I had never stopped and wandered up to the Angel of the North. I’m glad that I now have. Doing so hasn’t made me feel any different about the Angel, but while there I took a moment to reflect on its impact and noted how many other visitors it had, even on a chilly midweek winter’s morning. I remembered how, back in February 1998, as I watched it from afar in London, that the Angel of the North’s open arms seemed to be beckoning to me to come home. And soon I did.