14 November 2019

Behind the scenes at the festival

By Rachel Sloane

The festival season is well underway in Suffolk. Music of all genres, and books for all tastes, are well represented. Musicians and authors from across the country, and beyond, are making their way to the county.

This month it is the turn of the Bury Arts Festival. In July, Felixstowe welcomes their annual book festival, and in August, lovers of folk music will descend upon Helmingham Hall, for FolkEast.

Thousands of audience members will enjoy hours of entertainment, but what goes into the organisation of events such as this? What happens behind the scenes as organisers get performers onto the stage?

Nick Wells took over the running of the Bury Festival 18 years ago and has seen many changes,

“We used to have the pomp and ceremony of the Beat the Retreat Festival on Angel Hill, which was fantastic with thousands of people coming out onto the streets, and everyone knew the festival was underway. It got very expensive and eventually lost its uniqueness, as there were many other parades.”

“Venues also come and go. We used to do a big gig in the Abbey Gardens which were great fun, friendly and very popular, and we were the only people putting on big outdoor gigs like that. Then came Newmarket Nights at the racecourse, gigs in Thetford Forest etc and we couldn’t compete with those. Our biggest change more recently is the arrival of The Apex in Bury St Edmunds, which has given us a world-class concert hall, and which has enabled us to do things we wouldn’t have been able to do years ago. The festival has grown in stature and profile, I think.”

This year’s Bury Festival will be in 14 different venues, from churches, to museums, to Nowton Park.

It is inevitable, with a big festival that some things will occasionally go wrong,

“Before the Corn Exchange became Wetherspoons, we put a dance company in there in a show called ‘Pub Life’. We turned one of the wings of the Corn Exchange into a pub for the night with little tables, dart boards, a television showing rugby, karaoke… and dance. Halfway through, the dancers brought out a birthday cake with candles on it. This amazing old venue had very sensitive smoke detectors and, of course, the fire alarms went off, we had to evacuate the building and three fire engines turned up! I think half the audience thought it was part of the show, it was such a whacky evening anyway…”

The concerts in the Abbey Gardens also caused weather-related problems on two occasions,

“It happened twice, including once before my time. I had Toyah coming and we’d sold 2,000 tickets. It absolutely pelted it down and standing on the grass, the water was coming up to your ankles. We were ‘umming and ahhing’ about whether we should cancel when the band arrived, and almost at once the drummer slipped and fell on his back and we decided we couldn’t do the concert. Of course, the moment we put the word out, the rain stopped, and the sun came out, and we felt really stupid!”

Acts for the Bury Festival are sometimes booked two years in advance, and as the festival come to an end Nick says that’s when his head starts buzzing with ideas.

“Nigel Kennedy is coming back to the Bury Festival this year!” said Nick. “Rick Wakeman is coming, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, Clare Teal is singing, and the Tallis Singers are in the cathedral. There’s all sorts of genres so there should be something to appeal to everyone.”

Meg Reid and her team in Felixstowe are making the final preparations for the Felixstowe Book Festival which is held on the last weekend in June. Usually all goes well, but there are sometimes headaches for the organiser. Two years ago, the BBC asked to film one session, to be included in a programme they were making about the crime writers,

“The authors they were filming were coming straight from Sweden and their plane was delayed seven hours and their luggage was lost! They got back to Suffolk in the early hours of the morning and at 10 am did our bit, the BBC bit, and interviews with Martha Kearney, all very professionally,” she remembered.

As always, this year’s Felixstowe Book Festival will have authors talking about their work, both fiction and non-fiction, workshops for budding authors, and a Children’s Book Festival packed with activities.

For folk music fans, for one weekend in August, the parkland around Helminham Hall is transformed into the venue for FolkEast with stages, stalls and an area for camping or caravanning.

“We aim for the feeling of a traditional friendly country fayre, but with national as well as local performers,” explained John.

“We have a wonderful team of volunteers who run the site,” added Becky. “Our patrons, The Young Un’s, have grown with us and are now very successful. They get very involved and Michael Hughes has programmed the main stage this year.”

“Running a festival is very like being a swan, serene on the surface, but with feet furiously paddling under the water,” laughed John. “Weather is our main worry. Rain, we just put up with, but we monitor wind speeds closely. One year we had to close the main stage on the Saturday afternoon and, in an hour and a half, re-schedule all the acts to other parts of the site.”

“Our sound technicians come every year and it’s like a busman’s holiday for them,” explained Becky. “They are professionals, and one only agreed to do a Coldplay tour if the organisers paid for him to come back from the States for the weekend, to help at FolkEast -and they agreed!”

“I love that we arrive through a farm gate to an empty field,” went on John. “We then creative a mythical society, a village a bit like Brigadoon, then, three days later, it disappears, and the gate is closed on the empty field again.”

With fingers crossed for good weather, smooth transport links and easy-going, patient performers, Nick, Meg and Becky are all set for their big moments of the year and are looking forward to introducing the county to their performers, and thousands of visitors to Suffolk.

(This article was first published in Suffolk magazine in May 2019)