Monday 1 August 2022

Hope For The Future - LIPA Graduation Day(s) 2022

ACC Liverpool
Kings Dock
Liverpool Waterfront
L3 4FP

Exactly one month after his triumphant headlining set at the Glastonbury Festival Sir Paul McCartney returned to Liverpool to attend the annual graduation ceremony for the students of the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA). 

As the co-founder of LIPA in 1996, Paul has shown his continued commitment by attending every graduation ceremony since. 

I was lucky enough to attend the twenty-second LIPA graduation ceremony, held at the stunning art-deco Philharmonic Hall in 2019 and what I witnessed during the 2 hours plus ceremony left me with even more admiration for the former member of the Quarry Men.  

For the duration of the ceremony, Paul and LIPA’s co-founder Mark Featherstone-Witty sit centre stage flanked by ‘Companions’.  Unlike other British Universities, LIPA does not issue Honorary degrees. Instead, it recognises individuals in the world of art and entertainment by awarding them a ‘companionship’ for their outstanding achievement and practical contributions to students’ learning. These companions will often visit LIPA to give masterclasses in their particular field – the former Beatle has himself attended songwriting classes for the students – or to take part in question-and-answer sessions. During the service I attended several well-known faces were made a companion of LIPA including the actor, comedian and writer Stephen Fry (Blackadder, The Hobbit, Wilde), the actor Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean, Blackadder) and musician, singer-songwriter, and former Deputy Chairman of the BPI, Mike Batt (The Wombles, The Planets, ‘A Winter’s Tale’, ‘The Hunting of the Snark’) as well as some perhaps slightly less well known outside of their recognised area of expertise but without whom the performance would not be possible – Lucy Carter (lighting designer), Steve Lewis (music publisher), Sue Gill (author), Tom Pye (set and costume designer), Kenrick Sandy (choreographer) and Andrew Scheps (sound engineer). 

Each new companion dons cap and gown for their induction ‘ceremony’ before they are presented on stage to Sir Paul and Mark Featherstone-Witty. They then give a speech. 

Mike Batt is made a companion of LIPA in 2019 (above). Rowan Atkinson amuses his fellow companions (below).  

Invited guests and existing companions return to attend the graduation ceremony and I spotted the actor Nickolas Grace, Paul’s brother Mike McCartney, Noddy Holder (Slade), Kevin Godley (10cc, Godley and Creme) and music industry veteran David Stark who presents an annual song writing prize to LIPA’s two most deserving young songwriters.     

In between the companionship awards the graduates receive their degrees and this is what amazed and impressed me most about the ceremony.  Each student entered from stage right and in turn they were first presented with a scroll by Mark Featherstone-Witty – who on several occasions bowed as certain students approached him, presumably in recognition of their individual achievement – before moving on to Paul, centre-stage.  After giving them a congratulatory handshake or kiss on the cheek, Paul posed with the graduate for an individual portrait taken by a photographer positioned on the left side of the stage. 

I reckon there was about 150-200 graduates at the ceremony I attended, and Paul posed with every single one of them.  

I think it goes without saying that watching your child graduate from university must be one of the proudest moments in the life of any parent or guardian.  Watching your child receive their degree from Paul McCartney, at this point surely the most famous person on Earth, must feel almost unreal.  One of the graduates receiving a Bachelor of Arts with Honours for Acting in 2019 was India Best, daughter of my friend Roag Best (Pete Best’s brother). It was quite a poignant moment watching Paul McCartney posing for a photograph with the grand-daughter of his old schoolfriend Neil Aspinall, the niece of his former band-mate Pete.


That was my experience of LIPA graduation in 2019.  And then we had a global pandemic. 

As a consequence, there was no graduation ceremony in 2020 or 2021.  As anyone with children will know, the last two and a half years were incredibly difficult for students, and we have yet to see the full extent of the fallout from nearly three years disrupted education. While my main concern was for the outcome of my own children’s A Level and GCSE results, it did occasionally cross my mind that those LIPA students who graduated in the two years of the pandemic missed out on their special day, as did their proud families.   

Which is why, last week the ACC arena in Liverpool held graduation ceremonies over two days bringing back the students who missed out during the pandemic to receive their awards in-person alongside this years’ graduates who had completed either degree or foundation certificate programmes. Paul McCartney flew back from his holidays to attend on both days (Monday 25th and Tuesday 26th July). 

Throughout the pandemic the former Nerk Twin was able to stay in touch with LIPA by running his annual songwriting mentorship sessions online as well as participating in an online Q&A with students and staff. However, this year’s graduation was the first time he had been able to meet the students in person since 2019. 

In fact, Paul had been back on Merseyside at least since the Sunday. My friend Ian Doyle, tour guide and proprietor of the Mad Day Out Beatles Taxi Tours arrived at the McCartney family’s former home at 20 Forthlin Road on the Sunday morning to be greeted by the National Trust guide, who informed him he’d just missed Paul by minutes. As you would expect, Ian’s guests were absolutely devastated!   

It's likely that Paul was doing his usual trip around the old haunts, as he seems to do every time he returns to Liverpool (see September 2021 for his last known visit). 

The graduation ceremony usually takes place on or around 26th July, so I’d already booked the Tuesday off work when I found out it was going to be held over two days.  Knowing Paul was definitely going to be there on the second day I resisted taking the Monday off as well, though some of my friends did. 

I’d been slipped a copy of the timetable for the ceremony in advance so I had a rough idea of what time Paul would be arriving at the ceremony and, with military precision he arrived on both days just after 1pm in a chauffeur-driven maroon Lexus. 

On the Monday, a crowd of twelve people were waiting at the garage on the side of the ACC arena when Paul arrived. He stepped out of the car, waved at everyone, and made peace and thumbs up gestures. For a moment it looked as though he was going to approach the crowd when a local paparazzi stepped over the threshold of the garage causing Paul to recoil and take a step back. ACC employees made a wall across the entrance as Paul disappeared with a final wave to the fans. 

These photos were taken on the Monday by my friend, 'Super-sleuth' Angela Leighton-Jones. (above and below)

Those who waited for him to leave told me it was harder to see him because he got into the back of the car inside the garage. He did wave at everyone as he left. 

On Tuesday I arrived at the ACC around 12.30pm.  Clearly word had got out that Paul was going to be there and as a result there were more fans and photographers waiting than the previous day. 

I hadn’t been there long when a black car with blacked out windows arrived. As soon as it was inside the garage the ACC staff immediately formed a cordon across the entrance while another member of staff pulled the garage doors across to prevent anyone standing outside from seeing who it was who getting out the car. The paparazzi tried to photograph the unknown celebrity by sticking his camera lens in any gap he could find without success while a few of the assembled crowd, assuming it was Paul McCartney started hurling mild abuse in the vein of ‘Macca you miserable get’ into the darkened garage as the doors were closed firmly shut. 

Recognising that wasn’t Paul’s style, in addition to knowing that the day before he’d arrived in a maroon Lexus, I tried to assure the disappointed onlookers that it wasn’t him and they should hang around a bit longer, though some did actually leave.  As for who it was in the blacked-out car, it has been suggested that it might have been the notoriously private Rowan Atkinson, but I have absolutely no evidence to confirm or deny this.  

Paul arrived, as planned, just after 1pm in what I was told was a carbon-copy of the previous day.  We were asked to stand clear of the garage doors, which we did, Paul arrived, waving from the back seat, the car parked in the garage and the ACC staff again formed a loose wall across the entrance.  

Paul got out and raised two thumbs above his head while the air was filled with calls from the crowd ‘Alright Paul!’ (me) / ‘Paul! Paul! Paul!’/ ‘Love you, Paul! (a local man)/ ‘I’ll be your temporary secretary’ (a saucy little madam]/ ‘Thank you Paul!’/ ‘They say it’s your birthday, it’s my birthday too yeah…’ (a bit late with this last one in my opinion) being the highlights.

We got a few thumbs up, waves, and he shouted something inaudible (possibly ‘It’s not my birthday’) before he disappeared out of sight with Mark Featherstone-Witty who’d arrived in the garage to greet him. 

Love your blog! he's probably saying here.

The entire encounter lasted 75 seconds. 

And unfortunately, the vast majority of my photos were utterly crap!  Those of you familiar with The British Beatles Fan Club magazine will be familiar with their legendary ‘crap photo of the month’. Well, I’ve got enough to fill it for the next couple of years. The ones posted here are most definitely the ‘best’. You should see the rest.     

We went to the pub for a bit with the intention of going back to see him leave after the ceremony but while we there we got a text to say Paul had left about 4.30pm (about two hours earlier than we’d anticipated). 

So instead, I walked to the Dingle with my friend Jackie Holmes, who just so happens to own Ringo’s house in Admiral Grove. Of course, I photographed every last inch of it, and the results will appear in a forthcoming blog.       

It is customary for Paul and Featherstone-Witty to pose with the latest intake of LIPA companions and this photograph appeared in the evening’s Liverpool Echo, as well as LIPA’s own website. 

Sir Paul McCartney and his LIPA companions for 2022, (left to right) Paul Epworth, Mark Featherstone-Witty, Sir Paul McCartney, Sean Jonathan Clyde, Georgina Kakoudaki, Katie Vine, Francesca Jaynes and Yaw Owusu at the annual graduation ceremony for the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA) (Image: PA) 

A report on the event appeared in the Liverpool Echo confirming that 800 excited students joined Paul on stage for the ceremony.  That’s 800 individual handshake/kiss/portrait photographs that the former member of Wings would have been involved in over the two days. It’s a remarkable demonstration of his ongoing support.

At the ceremony award-winning music ‘super-producer’ Paul Epworth was made a Companion of LIPA by Sir Paul. Epworth has worked with artists including Florence + the Machine, Rihanna and Adele, with whom he shares an Academy Award for James Bond theme Skyfall.

The Bafta award-winning film producer Jonathan Clyde, who most recently produced The Beatles: Get Back-The Rooftop Concert, also received a companionship of LIPA. 

Others honoured as companions were the director of programmes and production at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Katie Vine, theatre director Georgia Kakoudaki, international set and costume designer Leslie Travers, and choreographer and movement director Francesca Jaynes. The curator of the Liverpool International Music Festival (LIMF), Yaw Owusu, was also made an Honoured Friend of LIPA. 

These graduation ceremonies mark the last for LIPA’s co-founder, Mr Featherstone-Witty who decided to retire as principal and CEO in 2021. He has been replaced by Sean McNamara. 

In a 1997 radio interview, Sir Michael Parkinson asked Paul if he considered LIPA to be his gift to Liverpool, his giving something back?  Paul, thought for a moment, and said I don’t know really, I suppose you could say that. [1]

The original focus of LIPA was to ensure sustained work for people who want to survive in the world of arts and entertainment, while ensuring that those who perform and those who make performance possible are treated with equal parity of esteem. 

How successful LIPA has been in achieving this can be measured by what happens to the students after they leave. A 2017 survey of students who graduated in 2014 showed that 91% were in work, 83% of which were working in the performing arts.

Several former students have actually found work with McCartney himself. At the Glastonbury festival his band was augmented by the brass trio Hot City Horns, two of whom are alumni of LIPA.  

That really is the ideal, being able to do what you love and are good at, while being paid to do it.  

[1] Parkinson’s Sunday Supplement, 1997 (available on YouTube)

  • Thanks to Angela for letting me use her photos, and Brian Lewis and Jackie Holmes for the company.  
  • Thanks to Jean.

Same Time Next Year, Paul? 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article as per usual . . I might have gone over to the Phil (Philharmonic Hall) as I have done on a number of occasions in the 00's except buses & trains were off. I'll have to ask you perhaps for next July so I get the venue right.