Thursday, 16 September 2021

Countess: We’re all sailing in Downton

A TOUCH of extra class was brought to Henley when the annual literary festival began this week.

A TOUCH of extra class was brought to Henley when the annual literary festival began this week.

The Countess of Carnarvon, who lives at Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed, gave a lesson on how to set a dinner table.

It was a tongue-in-cheek nod to the controversy surrounding her criticism of the table settings in the ITV period drama.

The stunt was staged at Bix Manor, where the Countess was speaking about her book, Lady Catherine and the Real Downton Abbey. She was assisted by Gary Hall, owner of Bix Manor, who played her “butler”.

The Countess insisted that her comments, which were made online, were about the first programme of the show and had been hit “blown out of all proportion”.

“It is just a small comment in the great scheme of things,” she said. “We are all sailing in the same boat of Downton and we are supporting each other as I have done from the start.” The Countess, who is friends with Downton creator Julian Fellowes, spoke to a capacity audience for an hour before singing copies of her book.

She said: “It went well — I just wish that we had another box of books to sell.”

The Countess was just one of dozens of well-known authors, journalists, actors and broacasters who were appearing at the seventh annual festival, which began on Monday and ends on Sunday.

A record 14,000-plus tickets have been sold and more than 40 events at venues across the town were sold-out. Among the famous names to appear were former home secretaries Alan Johnson and Anne Widdecombe, former MI5 director Stella Rimington, broadcasters Nick Ross and Kate Humble, film critic Barry Norman, former England cricketer David Gower and Lord Olivier’s son Tarquin.

Novelist Debbie Moggach, whose novel These Foolish Thingsspawned the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, spoke about her latest work, Heartbreak Hotel.

Irvine Welsh raised a few eyebrows at the Kenton theatre with his frequent use of a swear word.

The Scottish novelist and playwright explained that the word was not liked very much in America to which a member of the audience responded: “We don’t like it in Henley either.”

A talk about the First World War by former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings at the Christ Church Centre on Tuesday was sold out — but was nearly derailed.

Tom Ryan, the festival’s programming director, said: “When Max arrived in the green room at Hotel du Vin he put down his speech while he was having his photo taken and the first three pages of his speech blew away in a gust of wind into the fish pond.

“He took it in very good spirits and we were able to photocopy the pages for him, although they were a bit smudged. Max is an old-school journalist and he came on all smiles.”

The Ukulele Handbook, a lesson in how to play the instrument given by Tom Hodgkinson and Gavin Pretor-Pinney at the Red Lion Hotel on Monday night, ended with “jam” as some of the 80 guests had brought along their own ukuleles.

Katherine Fry and Rowena Kirton gave a presentation called Grammar for Grown-ups at Bix Manor on Tuesday and surprised their audience with a test. The highest score was 17 out of 20 and the lowest was four.

Festival founder Sue Ryan said: “I know there were a couple of headmistresses there.”

On Sunday, the Kenton will be hosting a live cook-off compered by Emma Freud and featuring Celebrity Masterchef winner Emma Kennedy and craft and food blogger Cherry Menlove.

Mr Ryan said: “We are putting hobs on stage. Cherry and Emma will each prepare a dish in five minutes and people from the audience will be chosen to taste them.”

Other events include Charles Moore, who also edited the Daily Telegraph, being interviewed by The Weakest Link host Anne Robinson, and talks by Olympian Katherine Grainger, journalist Rachel Johnson and former Labour spin doctor Damian McBride, whose memoirs have caused controversy.

Mrs Ryan said: “I think the variety of acts is better than ever and the standard has been consistent, which I am most pleased about.”

Other venues include the town hall, Henley library and the Quince Tree in Stonor.

The River Readings are again taking place on board the Hibernia and there are children’s events at the d:two centre in Market Place and the River and Rowing Musuem.

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