Friday, 30 July 2021

Brexit vote sees Hezza top the table

NOW in its 10th year, the 2016 Henley Literary Festival runs from Monday, September 26, to Sunday,

NOW in its 10th year, the 2016 Henley Literary Festival runs from Monday, September 26, to Sunday, October 2. With tickets having now gone on public sale, festival founder SUE RYAN says audiences have plenty to look forward to this time around

WE have been on sale for two weeks now and the pattern is set for which authors are likely to sell out and in what order. This is the 10th year of the literary festival and we are pretty good at predicting who will do best.

Top of the table this year is Michael Heseltine. His tickets all went in the first 48 hours. Politics and current affairs always provoke the most interest. In our first year Boris Johnson and Jeremy Paxman were neck and neck.

This year we have 12 former or current MPs. The festival falls during the Labour and Tory party conferences so our speakers will have the inside track at a time when politics is nothing if not interesting.

Lord Heseltine doesn’t actually have a book out so we are particularly pleased that he decided to support his old constituency. Brexit has put him back in the public eye.

He will appear at the concert theatre in Fawley Court where we are having several events over the weekend. The owner Aida Dellal is a great patron of the arts, and we love being able to add special venues to our offering.

Most literary festivals take place in marquees which means that they don’t have to predict sales to the same extent. If there are three events at the same time, the author who sells the most goes in the biggest space and the one with the least into the smallest. Simple.

What we find is that authors are less fussed over the size of their venue as long as whatever room we put them in is full. They like to sell out.

We have a reputation for selling out but in fact it is only certain events. With 150 to choose from, it is always possible to book some things, right up until the day.

My son, the programme director responsible for getting every single author, told me not to talk about selling out because it gives the wrong impression and too may people think they have missed the boat.

In comparison to a marquee our venues are tiny, which makes the events themselves so much more intimate. The biggest, the Christ Church Centre, holds 320 and the smallest, Stonor, just 40.

We had wanted to use Stonor much more, but although the house is substantial as well as beautiful, it was built as a home and there isn’t a large room for theatre-style seating.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Evelyn Waugh’s death, and as Waugh was a regular visitor to Stonor we thought it a fitting venue for Philip Eade, who has written about his life.

I am looking forward to it. My friend and colleague at the Daily Telegraph, the late Bill Deedes, knew Waugh well as they were on assignment together in Abyssinia.

That was the trip that inspired Scoop and the main character was based on Bill.

Actually, Bill didn’t care for Waugh much — he thought he was a terrible snob. But there is no doubting he was, like Graham Greene (another regular visitor to Stonor), one of the greatest writers of that generation.

Unsurprisingly all the tickets for Philip Eade went within a couple of hours of going on sale — a mix of the subject matter, the fact it includes lunch (often in short supply for dedicated festivalgoers) and the chance to visit Stonor. So it was officially our first sell-out.

Heseltine is not the first octogenarian to top the leaderboard.

In year three we had Deborah Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire. The youngest of the Mitford sisters, she was the most popular author we have ever had.

At the time the office was run from an annexe in our house and is where guests stayed. The phone would go at all hours of the day and night, often waking our guests. We could have sold 3,000 tickets for her.

This year there are two events — Robert Harris’s new novel and Jeremy Paxman’s autobiography — where the ticket comes with a book included. It’s a relatively new thing and something the publishers love as it guarantees maximum book sales.

The price of the ticket is the same as the book so the event is, in effect, free. If you come as a pair the second one will make a good Christmas present. Both will be hot off the press. We did it with Sue Perkins last year — the only literary festival she did — and it was a great success.

This will be the tenth year we are doing our River Readings — a unique event among literary festivals. Nansi Diamond took it on for eight years, choosing the poetry and selecting the readers. When she retired — understandably as it involves so much work — she had made it so much her own thing that we decided that maybe it had run its course.

But a Henley Literary Festival without River Readings seemed incomplete and so we asked Sally Nesbitt Spink, an actress who had performed in them for the past few years, to take over. She has done it in real style and all three on the Monday are bound to sell out. So get a ticket while you can.

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