Cheltenham Festival of Literature is back for another year with a fresh host of brilliant popular writers, personalities, politicians, many units being shifted and the literati gliding in a mannerly and peaceful way around some splendid venues and tents.
The Festival used to be held in Cheltenham Town Hall with statues of Edward VII and George V flanking the proscenium arch and gazing thoughtfully out at the expectant faces of each successive audience.
It has grown beyond the indoors of the Town Hall into the outdoors of Imperial Gardens behind it and spread its terribly civilised tent-acles to Montpellier Gardens where the caryatids holding up the shops of Montpellier look across to it and wonder whatever happened to Aristotle.
Without doubt, it is the premier Literature Festival of the UK providing opportunities for adults and children to hear and meet their literary heroes. It boasts the biggest names in publishing, politics, television, radio, art, theatre, or sport. There are too many to mention but they are all in the programme here from Kofi Annan to Olympic silver-medal winning cyclist Victoria Pendleton, childrens’ author Jacqueline Wilson and Terry Pratchett.
You could argue there are signs that its dumbing down – the Great British Bakeoff event was the first to sell out this year and those tickets all went to Friends of the Cheltenham Festivals before they could even be released to the general public. No doubt there’s a cookery book attached but, hey… this let’s not kid ourselves, this is TV dressed up as literature. The current TV Sherlock Holmes Benedict Cumberbatch was a sell-out with more than a thousand people – chiefly breathless young women – hanging on his every word. He didn’t appear to have any units to shift.
So far I’ve learned loads about the Pre-Raphaelites from the fluent and knowledgeable curator of the current exhibition at the Tate, Alison Smith. I had my appetite whetted for Michael Palin’s forthcoming TV series on Brazil. I appreciated to an even greater extent what a lovely chap David Suchet is and how he will regret the end of filming the entire collection of Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories. I admired the wonderfully self-deprecating humour of Sir Roger Moore – still sharp as a knife although he’s in his eighties – and laughed my socks off at the sparkling, double-entendre-strewn show from the “I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue” team of Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graema Garden and Barry Cryer with Colin Sell on the piano. The lovely Samantha was otherwise engaged.
There are plenty more delights over the forthcoming days until the Festival closes on Sunday 14 October. If you’re wondering about the “shifting units” phrase, it was one of those throw-away comments from comedian Harry Hill that has stuck deep in my psyche. He must have been having an off-day when I saw him pushing his, to be frank, not very good childrens’ book and he let slip that appearing at the Festival was all about “shifting units” – selling the books.
So while, for some of the writers, it’s all about “shifting units,” others seem genuinely interested to mee their public and it’s still a treat for the literati as they sit, listen, absorb, laugh, applaud, enjoy.