Sunday, 29 September 2013

The People's Festival: from Last Chance Saloon to Soar-away Success

This year I was determined not to miss out (again) on the mighty Ilkley Literature Festival (ILF) and so I decided to do two things: a) volunteer as a steward; and b) contribute posts to the official festival blog

This is the first of several posts about ILF which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. On this occasion I was attending as a guest/blogger...

Speaking to a full house, Festival Director Rachel Feldberg entertained us with stories from past festivals and thanked festival contributors for their efforts at the 'Making Waves' exhibition launch on Saturday 28th September. And yet, amongst the celebrations, I was surprised to learn the festival had suffered from several financial crises.

Sounds of the 70s
Finding it hard to believe such a successful festival could have experienced such hardship, I decided to investigate. Gazing wistfully at the wine on offer (why do I always drive?), I climbed the stairs of the 14th century Manor House Museum to the exhibition itself.
At the top I was greeted by the sound of the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK (another surprise!). Humming along to the 70s soundtrack (including Abba's Dancing Queen, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody and Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry) I was fascinated by displays featuring everything from the very first festival programme to the tools used to carve the Stanza Stones. Other treats included letters from authors, photos, scrapbooks and specially commissioned artwork.
As I read the story boards for each decade there it was: the North's largest literature festival had teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. And not just once. Although not the theme of the exhibition, it made me wonder not only how the festival had survived but also how it had achieved its current success.

Tough Times
According to the story boards, the problems started in 1979 when 'money was tight and the rain was like curtain rods'. By 1981 the country was in recession and the 1981 festival lost £4,000, equivalent to £13,000 today.
Trying to recover its losses, the 1982 festival was reduced to six days, while the Telegraph & Argus (T&A) cried: “Can Festival Survive the Looming Crisis?” Again the festival lost money and in 1984 the T&A ran a story entitled “Last Chance Saloon”. That same year Michael Dawson, the original Festival Director, returned as Chair and some big names appeared on the bill, including Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Alan Bennett. The festival was not only a success, but it made a £5,000 surplus.
All was well until the 1990s. In 1992, to spread the risk and improve cash flow, the festival was split into three smaller events, run in March, June and October/November. By 1996 the festival was solvent again and in 1998 the festival was awarded its first National Lottery grant. The rest, as they say, is history.

The People's Festival
I found both Rachel's presentation and the exhibition expressed the passion and dedication of the organisers and the people of Ilkley. As Rachel explained, the festival was “started and nurtured in Ilkley” and it is still “something very much owned by this town....the people embody what the festival is about.” She believes that “its roots, ideas, principles are the same as those in 1973.” And so it would seem that a combination of innovation, community spirit and sheer Yorkshire grit have made the festival the top international literary event that it is today.

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