Liverpool: European Capital of Culture 2008

Liverpool is about to become European Capital of Culture. Lynne Walker looks forward to a packed programme featuring everything from former Beatles to Ken Dodd, classical music to conversation

A festival lasting 52 weeks is a tall order. Liverpool's selection as European Capital of Culture for 2008 was the result of a fierce battle to prove itself vibrant and creative and "capable of producing significant events with positive social and economic benefits for the whole region" long after the whole shebang is over. No pressure then.

Liverpool, succeeding Luxembourg, is only the second British city to be designated in this way. More than 1bn is expected to have been invested in the arts over the three-year run-up. That run-up has been fraught with difficulties. Plunged into chaos by the sudden resignation of the festival's first, and only, artistic director, who was accused of making the year a community celebration at the expense of bigger cultural events, the Liverpool Culture Company has also temporarily lost its chief executive due to illness.

Lack of clear leadership, in-fighting and divided opinion about cultural priorities now seem to have been resolved, with Brookside creator Phil Redmond brought in to front things. Sprawling though it is, the programme does look as if it will satisfy most criteria. The many grass-roots projects beginning to take shape will engage with the wider Merseyside community, while the city's upper-cultural echelons can't complain about Sir Simon Rattle returning to his old stamping ground.

Events are divided, in the first of the published brochures, under the banners of music, literature, art, streets, stage, participation, conversation, sport and exploring. Some areas, such as dance, are a bit thin as yet, but "conversation" now, that's a thing Liverpudlians know a thing or two about.

The big question on many people's lips was whether or not Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr would be returning to their native city during its high-profile year. It's been confirmed that the two surviving Beatles will both be taking part although not together. Macca takes to the pitch of Liverpool's Anfield stadium on 1 June for The Liverpool Sound, a concert featuring as yet unannounced "global superstars of popular music".

Meanwhile, Starr features in what is cheesily called The People's Opening, a free event launching the Capital of Culture programme on 11 January; he also appears the following night at the new Liverpool Arena in a bizarre sounding multi-media show, Liverpool the Musical. With a cast including "poets, singers, aerialists, comedians, construction workers, gardeners and sailors", Starr appears with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, Echo and The Bunnymen and many others in a hotchpotch of a score that runs from Elgar and Stravinsky to Frankie goes to Hollywood, The Beatles, The La's and Space, played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in collaboration with No Fakin DJs.

Classical music lovers need not fear, however. Higher-brow commissions for 2008 include a multi-faith Requiem by John Tavener given by the RLPO and its dynamic young Russian principal conductor Vasily Petrenko, as well as an easy-listening setting of the "Stabat Mater" by Adiemus creator Karl Jenkins. Chicago sextet eighth blackbird presents a new work by Steve Reich, while George Benjamin's Pied Piper opera Into the Little Hill also receives its UK premiere. The RLPO, enjoying a renaissance under Petrenko, looks forward to concerts conducted by its Artists Laureate 2008, Rattle and Vladimir Ashkenazy. The former returns to his old stamping ground with the Berliner Philharmoniker on 4 September, and a month later he conducts the Liverpool band in a new work by Brett Dean, while Ashkenazy will lead the European Union Youth Orchestra.

The hottest news on the theatre front is that Pete Postlethwaite, born in neighbouring Warrington, will return to the theatre that launched his career, the Everyman, to play King Lear. Launching what promises to be an ambitious theatre programme, the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse also presents a new version by Liverpool writer Diane Samuels of Chekhov's Three Sisters, relocated to the post-war Jewish community in Liverpool.

One of the biggest free events will be an outdoor "happening", Will You Find It?. Expectations are high since it's being masterminded by Artichoke, the company who brought part of London to a virtual halt with Sultan's Elephant in 2006. The beautiful game gets a look in, too, with a commission from the young dramatist Nick Leather. His new play charts 20 years of a man's life through a football game, including an onstage match, while a mixed-media theatre piece takes a look at the life of the legendary Liverpool FC's former manager, Bill Shankly. North-West Side Story takes the Leonard Bernstein musical and cunningly replaces warring Jets and Sharks with rival Scousers and Mancunians, while Once Upon a Time at the Adelphi is a new musical by Phil Willmott casting a nostalgic glance back at the iconic hotel's 1930s heyday. Another new musical, Eric's, celebrates the city's club status in the late Seventies and early Eighties.

Having recently lured the 2007 Turner Prize exhibition away from London for the first time, Tate Liverpool celebrates its 20th anniversary with a jewel of an exhibition: Gustav Klimt Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna 1900, Britain's first major showing of this glittering work.

The fifth Liverpool Biennial the UK's largest contemporary visual arts festival, presented collaboratively promises even more new commissions in 2008 under the "Big Biennial" umbrella. Street art includes one hundred 5ft 10in fibreglass copies of the Superlambanana, decorated by Liverpudlians and laid out in a trail around the city. Other exhibitions will be devoted to James Tissot his ladies who lounge will be on view in the decorous surroundings of nearby Port Sunlight's Lady Lever Gallery and the influence of steam and speed on art, in railway-influenced work by Turner, Monet, Van Gogh and Hopper. There will also be a major focus on the architecture of Le Corbusier.

Towards the end of of the year, the city once dubbed by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, "the centre of consciousness of the human universe" launches Shipping Lines, a literary festival in which Liverpool poet Roger McGough is joined by Seamus Heaney, Philip Pullman and Monica Ali among others. A number of local films are in production, while Liverpool has also commissioned a new sculptural video installation featuring work from the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist.

A celebration of black music, as well as jazz, world and contemporary, jostles for attention alongside Liverpool's "Creative Communities" programme prescribing animation in doctors' surgeries, among other offbeat ideas. Knotty Ash's king of comedy Ken Dodd celebrates the city's great comedians, and "party" has been declared the new Liverpudlian word for "participation" in 2008. "Leap '08" makes strides city-wide, the dance programme including Homotopia's Liverpool is Burning, as well as the European premiere of Akram Khan's Bahok and a visit from New York's all-female DecaDanceTheatre with its hip-hop ballet Firebird. And, looking outwards across the Mersey, the intercultural project Cities on the Edge explores links between Liverpool and other edgy port cities: Bremen, Naples, Marseilles, Istanbul, Gdansk and Stavanger.

Out of a packed programme, there will be doubtless be some flops, but hopefully more successes. The legacy surely cannot fail to enhance Liverpool's reputation. The director of the National Museums Liverpool, which will present The Beat Goes On, an exhibition about Liverpool's popular music scene, sums it up thus: "This is a city where the personality of its people shines as brightly as anywhere in the world, and this personality is reflected in the extraordinary quality of its culture."

The launch weekend of Liverpool 08 will start on 11 January (0151-233 2008; liverpool08.com)

Down at the docks: five events not to miss

Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker

The Liverpool-born conductor, former percussionist and one-time pianist in Merseyside Youth Orchestra brings his Berlin band to Philharmonic Hall for a programme of Wagner and Messiaen and returns the following month to conduct the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in Sibelius's

Symphony No 5 as a well as a world premiere by the Australian composer Brett Dean.

Philharmonic Hall, 4 September/2 October



Tavener 'Requiem'

John Tavener's entertainment The Whale was seized on by The Beatles in the Sixties. Now preferring to address spiritual topics, his Requiem is an attempt to reconcile Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam with four groups of performers set out in the shape of a cross in the city's Metropolitan Cathedral

Metropolitan Cathedral, 28 February

Gustav Klimt: Painting, Design and Modern Life in Vienna 1900

The first comprehensive exhibition of the Austrian Gustav Klimt's work ever staged in the UK shows precious paintings and fragile drawings from throughout his career alongside work by fellow Viennese Secessionist, the architect and designer Josef Hoffmann.

Tate Liverpool, 30 May to 31 August



The Liverpool Sound

Sir Paul McCartney and his band headline a glittering guest line-up in The Liverpool Sound, a once-in-a-lifetime concert to celebrate Liverpool's status as the world capital of pop, rock and contemporary music, broadcast globally live on television and online.

Anfield Stadium, 1 June



King Lear

It was at Liverpool's former chapel, the Everyman, that the teacher-turned-actor Pete Postlethwaite claims he learnt his trade. Now the craggy-featured Hollywood star returns to the theatre's thrust stage to take on what he describes as the "terrifying" role of King Lear.

Everyman Theatre, 30 October to 29 November

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