Charleston Festival: a feast of words

PUBLISHED: 10:30 20 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:13 20 February 2013

Charleston Festival: a feast of words

Charleston Festival: a feast of words

It's hard to imagine a more delightful setting for a literary festival than the grounds of Charleston near Firle in East Sussex, the former home of Virginia Woolf's elder sister, Vanessa Bell. Angela Wintle looks at some highlights

You sense that you might bump into almost anyone at the Charleston Festival. Theres always a convivial crowd, which has seen such illustrious figures as Simon Schama, Sarah Waters and the late Dame Iris Murdoch rubbing shoulders with Garnetts, Nicolsons and Bells (the surviving Bloomsbury generations).
This feeling isnt lost on Colin McKenzie, who has been director of the Charleston Trust, which manages the house, for the past five years. Theres something wonderfully surreal about it, he says. One minute Ive found myself walking through the garden with Alan Bennett, the next with Salman Rushdie. And the conversations in the Charleston kitchen, which doubles up as our green room, are just extraordinary. In my first year I probably sat in awed silence.

Crucible of ideas
Its hard to imagine a more divine setting for a literary festival than the garden of Charleston, near Firle. The former home of Virginia Woolfs elder sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, it served as a countryside retreat for the Bloomsbury Group and now survives as an example of their creative output in the form of murals, decorated furniture, ceramics, paintings and textiles.
Now in its 22nd year, the festival one of the longest established in the country features debates, interviews and dramatisations by renowned authors, performers and artists and attracts visitors from around the world.
Its artistic director, Diana Reich, who was involved in the acquisition and conservation of the farmhouse by the Trust in 1980, says it was born out of a desire to make Charleston more accessible to a wider public. The trustees felt that it wasnt a place that should be preserved in aspic because apart from the art and artefacts it has always been a crucible of ideas, she says. It represented a particular moment of time when there was a ferment of creativity and intellectual debate. And we thought it would be fitting to honour that.
McKenzie agrees: Charleston is the house of intensely creative people, and as much as it is about art and design, it is about their love of the natural world, about economics and politics, about courting controversy, about being outspoken, and we try to reflect this in our festival programme. In a way, we try to continue the conversations that would have taken place around the dining room table.
Last years festival was our biggest and most successful ever. Everything takes place in a beautiful marquee and we will never have a bigger tent even though we could sell some of our events many times over because we want an atmosphere where everybody feels engaged.
The popularity of the events is an even greater achievement when you consider the competition. In Sussex alone, the Charleston Festival overlaps with the Brighton Festival (with which it will be collaborating again this year) and is quickly followed by the Chichester Festival. Further afield, there are the bigger festivals at Cheltenham and Hay. So what accounts for its enduring and growing appeal?
One undoubted plus point is its glorious setting. People come for the whole atmosphere, says McKenzie. They want to devour the garden. Go to the shop. Visit the house. Reich nods: We also have an in-built cultural and artistic ambience; we dont have to manufacture it. And the speakers are very stimulated by the fact that they are in an atmosphere that was previously inhabited by some of the major intellectual and artistic figures of the first part of the 20th century.
Its special, too, because we hold far fewer events than most festivals, so the programme doesnt feel like a conveyor belt. I call it a boutique festival. This year, well be staging 27 events more than weve ever done before but we couldnt possibly cram in much more because we have to allow for a large turnaround in traffic between talks.
And then theres the tent. Never underestimate the appeal of the tent, which is just heaven on a sunny spring day when shadows play across its surface and the wind playfully catches at its moorings. It can accommodate nearly 400 people at full stretch and Reich spends a lot of time creating an atmosphere.
You do need a bit of a buzz, and I spend a lot of time creating that buzz, she says. This means securing those all-important bums on seats, which in turn means choosing events that will satisfy the audience. She admits to feelings of intense panic when she is confronted with a blank canvas each year, but knows intuitively what will excite her punters and consistently produces a dazzling programme, interspersing the popular with the highbrow.
Like a master chef, Reich spends hours sifting through her ingredients (in her case, piles of book catalogues) to conjure up the finest combinations. She also has an enviable contacts book and nurtures her relationships with the leading publishing houses to secure the names she most desires.
She can also be incredibly prescient. While Joanna Trollope, PD James, the Duchess of Devonshire, Melvyn Bragg and Dame Eileen Atkins were always going to be sure-fire hits this year, she has also managed to secure people of the moment, who scarcely registered on the cultural radar when she booked them back in the dog days of last summer.
Take one of the opening events, a discussion between Peter Conradi, co-author of The Kings Speech (the book on which the film of the same name was based), and Mark Logue, grandson of Lionel Logue, who was George VIs maverick Australian speech therapist. When Diana organised that event, the film hadnt even come out, says McKenzie. She absolutely had her finger on the button.

Crumpled linen
Similarly, both Edmund de Waal, author of The Hare With Amber Eyes, and Alexandra Harris, winner of the Guardian First Book award for Romantic Moderns, have produced best-sellers this year, but again Reich couldnt have anticipated this when she secured their services.
She also takes infinite pains selecting her chair persons. We have a particularly strong team this year. PD James wanted her event to be conducted as a conversation, so I knew I needed an experienced interviewer. Sue MacGregor will be perfect. I also knew that Imogen Lycett Green would have the sang-froid to cope with the Duchess of Devonshire.
And we mustnt overlook the Charleston Festival goers, always impeccably turned out in crumpled linen. We are immensely proud of our audience and the calibre of their questions is incredibly high, says McKenzie. A few years back, we had a discussion about arts funding and, in addition to our fantastic core audience, the marquee included a former director of the British Museum and an opera producer.
Who could have imagined such riches when the festival tentatively started back in 1990? The Berlin Wall had fallen the previous year and 30 people gathered in the outer studio, now the cafe, to hear three days of talks reflecting on the end of the Cold War. But even then, they had a stellar line-up Robert Skidelsky, Denis Healey and Peter Levi.

Queen of Charleston
It was such a success that it was decided to repeat the experiment the following year, and it soon outgrew the studio and moved across the road to the barn, now the Trusts offices and visitor centre. When electricity cables were eventually laid to the festival site, they were able to improve and expand the programme to its present capacity in a segmented tent with a foyer, bookshop (courtesy of City Books in Hove) and an area dedicated to technological back-up.
Olivier Bell, the daughter-in-law of Vanessa Bell, sometimes affectionately referred to as the uncrowned Queen of Charleston, hasnt missed a festival since its inception and is awed by the range of talent it attracts. The late Corin Redgrave did the most wonderful performance of Oscar Wildes Ballad of Reading Gaol, though surely the most memorable has been Dame Eileen Atkins extraordinary one-woman show A Room of Ones Own, which came to Charleston after playing to spellbound audiences in London and New York, she says.

Exotic delights
But Bell is rarely star-struck. I gave my Patti Smith tickets to my son because I had no idea who she was, though she and her charming guitarist later turned up at my house and sang a few songs. And she has no illusions when describing her encounter with the late Sir Harold Pinter in 2001. Id heard that one of his plays had been running in Paris, so I asked whether it had been done in French or English. His brusque rejoinder: In France, they speak French, you know, quite deflated her.
The shoe was on the other foot, however, when she felt compelled to correct Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Hours, on his factual accuracy. In the novel, he had Virginia Woolf sending the servant Nellie up to Harrods to buy crystallised ginger for the childrens tea, and there was no need for that she could have got it in Richmond. And anyway, they didnt have it for tea. Its a sweet, not a biscuit, and I told him so!
The festival has always punched above its weight, but faces increasing competition. When it started, there were just three other nationwide arts festivals. Now there are approximately 400 in the UK alone. And with highly seductive festivals also springing up abroad, popular speakers are becomingly increasingly selective. Do they opt for Charleston again or sample the exotic delights of Sri Lanka or Jaipur?
What Charleston lacks in novelty, however, it makes up for in fine hospitality a fact recently acknowledged by the Society of Authors when it conducted an authors appearances survey. There were criticisms of all the major festivals bar Charleston, it said, which had been repeatedly praised for its atmosphere and the considerate way it treated its authors.
Its success does mean, however, that more space is urgently needed and the Trust is about to embark on a 6 million project to develop some of its historic buildings, including the beautiful Charleston Barn.
Weve just been awarded a 2.4 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, for which we are enormously grateful, and in addition have already raised more than a million pounds ourselves, says McKenzie. We dont want to change what makes the festival special, but we do hope to provide an additional auditorium seating around 200 people, as well as improved cafe and toilet provision, car parking and access.
Meanwhile, Reich will continue working quietly in the background, planning delights for festivals to come. Who is top of her wish list? Ian McEwan and Alice Munroe, she says without hesitation. They have never been and I regret that. Ian, Alice, if youre out there...

You can find out more about the Charleston Festival by visiting Some events have already sold out, but remaining tickets are available from the Brighton Dome ticket office on 01273 709709 or

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