An encore for Southwold Arts Festival
PUBLISHED: 12:08 02 June 2015 | UPDATED: 12:08 02 June 2015
It's only in its second year, but Southwold Arts Festival looks set to join Aldeburgh and Halesworth as a major destination cultural event. Lucy Etherington talks to those involved
With its colourful beach huts, picturesque pier and lighthouse, boutiques and bistros, Southwold has long been a draw for creative folk.
Tonnes of artists, actors, writers and musicians live in the area, and throughout the year, you can find plays, concerts, exhibitions, musicals and all kinds of events springing up in various local venues.
It makes perfect sense, if you think about it, to pool all these theatrical talents and create an annual arts festival, pinning Southwold even more firmly on the cultural map.
Luckily a few local people did think about it – over a pint in the local pub – and thus the annual Southwold Arts Festival was born. The inaugural event took place last year. Now, thanks to its success and the enthusiasm of the local community, the 2015 festival will be twice the size, drawing acts and visitors from further afield.
It will again be opened by its patron Emma Freud and kick off with a lively street festival, with stalls, entertainers and music, then go straight into eight days of pure entertainment. Highlights guaranteed to sell out quickly include talks by poet Roger McGough, political commentator Nick Robinson, actor Jeffrey Holland, entertainer Roy Hudd and his wife, Debbie, performances from Sidi Scott, Jill Freud, Denis King, Kepow! and White Cobra Productions, and music from BBC young musicians, Canadian folk trio the Good Lovelies, Bob Kerr’s Whoopie Band and renowned young jazz vocalist
There will also be art and photography exhibitions, guided walks, events for children and families, open mic nights and lots more.
“When we first had the thought of doing a festival, we had no idea it would turn out to be this successful,” says the festival’s deputy director, Chris Ure. “We’ve deliberately made it affordable and family friendly, but it wouldn’t happen without the amazing support of local people, the local council and, of course, shops and businesses in Southwold.”
Lead sponsors are Adnams brewery, while local businesses such as the Southwold Bookshop, Southwold Pier, marketing agency Spring and Southwold Town Council are sponsoring individual events.
Amazingly, despite its professional feel, the whole thing is entirely run by a large team of enthusiastic volunteers – hence the festival has now just gained charity status – with any profit being ploughed back into next year’s event. Unsurprisingly, a huge amount of work goes on behind the scenes, all of
“I originally thought it would take a few weeks out of my life,” says Chris. “But it takes a year to plan. As soon as this one ends, we start work on 2016. My retirement from professional event planning has turned out to be even busier than when I was working! However, the rewards are huge – seeing people flooding in and the events filling up. At that point I can simply sit back and enjoy it!”
Southwold Arts Festival 2015
June 27 to July 4
An Evening With Roger McGough
July 3 St Edmund’s Hall, Southwold 7.30pm
He’s probably the most famous living poet in the UK, with an OBE, CBE and Dr of Letters to his name. He’s worked with everyone, from Bob Dylan to Jimi Hendrix, and of course The Beatles. But there’s nothing fancy about Liverpool’s own poet laureate Roger McGough.
“I’m very fond of Suffolk,” says Roger, when I call to ask him why he’s braving the A12 for an appearance at the 2015 Southwold Arts Festival. “I’ve got lots of friends there, including Neil Innes, so we visit all the time.” Last year, he did a poetry reading at Latitude.
“That was a lot of fun,” he says. “There was Gillian Clarke and me reading from our books, and all these young performance poets using their i-phones or just doing it all from memory. We were so impressed! Also I got to take the whole family and stay in one of those silver airstream caravans. I imagine the Southwold Festival will be a little more sedate – although who knows?”
Roger was one of the leading members of the Liverpool poets in the 1960s. He and Paul McCartney’s brother, Mike, along with comic John Gorman, formed The Scaffold (famous for 1968 chart topper Lily the Pink), which then merged with Neil Innes’ Bonzo Dog Doo Da Band to become the Grimms. Many of his poems are about meeting people like Hendrix or Dylan. To Macca’s Trousers is about finding a pair of Paul McCartney’s blue mohair trousers in his attic. Others deal with weightier subjects such as death and ageing. His early poem Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death was included in a BBC anthology of the nation’s 100 favourite poems.
“I find the older I get, I’m writing a lot more elegies and poems about loss, which can get pretty dark,” he says. “But I balance that with my more comic takes on the world. I’ve got another children’s book coming out called Poetry Pie, which I’ve also illustrated. That’s a joy.”
For the Southwold Festival, he plans to do some of his older and more famous poems, but also wants to try out new work.
“The only way performing remains exciting for me is if I take a few risks rather than churn out the same routine,” he says. “I try to keep it fresh and respond to the audience, whether they’re young children or ageing hippies like me.”
Despite Roger’s association with Merseyside, and the fact he’s been awarded the Freedom of Liverpool – no free drinks anywhere in Liverpool, sadly, but the right to drive your sheep through the city centre – Roger moved to London 30 years ago where he has lived ever since.
“The Queen made me,” he jokes. “It was one of the conditions for my getting the CBE.
“I do go back to Liverpool all the time, although a lot has changed. To be honest, if I were a young poet in Liverpool now, I don’t think I’d be so keen to leave!”
Sidi Scott performs Joyce Grenfell’s Letters From Aldeburgh, accompanied on the piano by Jonathan Rutherford.
June 29, St Edmund’s Hall, Southwold, 2.30pm
See www.southwoldartsfestival.co.uk for tickets
A few weeks ago, choreographer and actress Sidi Scott, now 82, and her close friend, Jill Freud, were swanning up the red carpet for the Olivier Awards in London when they noticed all the paparazzi had lowered their cameras. At which point, Jill leaned towards Sidi and whispered: “If only they knew, darling! If only they knew!”
As a young dancer, Sidi worked with everyone on the London stage and nightclub scene, including Danny La Rue, Danny Kaye and Norman Wisdom. Her husband Derek was very close friends with Tony Hancock.
In the short time I spend with Sidi we barely skim the surface of what must be a treasure trove of delicious celebrity gossip – the time Sean Connery slept on her floor when she was a young dancer, or when she first staged a play in Blythburgh, and encouraged the local vicar with the aid of a bottle of wine to play Jesus (in place of Ralph Fiennes).
These days she is deeply involved in local theatre, and it seems apt that she’s taking Joyce Grenfell’s Letters From Aldeburgh to the Southwold festival.
“They’re wonderfully gossipy and funny and warm letters Joyce wrote to her friend Virginia between 1962 and 1979, all about Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and the Aldeburgh festival,” says Sidi. “As soon as I read the book I contacted the editor Janie Hampton, who was very generous in allowing me to use them.
“I met Joyce a few times when we were both working in the London theatres, and she was lovely, very caring. But she did have a very distinct voice and look that people still remember. I don’t even try to imitate her, although I don’t really need to. Simply by reading her words she comes alive.”
It’s clear that Sidi and Joyce share a few things in common – loyal friendships, enthusiasm for the theatre and the Suffolk coast, a naughty sense of humour, a love of gossip, and, of course, an irrepressible energy that would put many younger performers to shame. Sidi once ended up performing Letters from Aldeburgh shortly after having heart surgery.
After a long and illustrious career in London, Sidi and her husband Derek – the musical director, who famously wrote songs and music for The Muppet Show, decided to move to the Suffolk coast.
“We came for the afternoon and stayed a lifetime,” she says. “At first, everyone said to me: “What the heck are you going to do there? You’ll be bored to tears!””
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Almost immediately, Sidi, then 49, was coerced into running a local dance school, which she did for ten years. Derek was immediately scouted by Jill Freud to help stage a musical. The Scotts performed packed lunchtime revues at The Crown, and with Derek’s encouragement, Sidi found her singing voice.
“I felt myself blooming here,” she said. “I began to sing and act, as well as dance. I put on plays at Blythburgh Church, which were extraordinarily successful – I always call it my miracle venue.”
Sadly, Derek passed away in 2006. Sidi describes him as “irreplaceable”, but has found solace in friends, including the Freud family, and Denis and Astrid King, who all live locally, her family and children, most of whom are in ‘the biz’. And, of course, through performing and producing local theatre – she is chairman of FESPA, The Friends of East Suffolk Performing Arts.
“Perhaps I am slowly beginning to realise my limits,” she muses. “I always say yes to things, then realise I’d much rather be sitting with my feet up sipping a G&T! Maybe this will be my last performance as Joyce. Who knows?”