The Birth of a Festival

…as told by the President, Ronald Emett

The First Festival
It was actually an initiative by the Beaminster Chamber of Trade. The 1995 AGM of that august body was held in the Strode Room one chilly night in February. David Barrett (of the Post Office) was the President and one of the items being discussed was how to bring more people into the town to spend their money at the shops. I was a member because I had opened a gallery and workshop. Various ideas were put forward, including having an art exhibition in the Town Hall. When the meeting ended, most people were drifting off, but three of us got into a huddle and said: ‘well, what about this art exhibition idea?’ They were David Barrett, Robin Samways and myself. We became the nucleus of the Festival Committee.

It took nearly another eighteen months to organise, but on 5th July 1996 the first Beaminster Arts Festival became a reality. None of us had ever done anything like this before; we were all raw amateurs yet managed to get sponsorship, lots of publicity and it worked!

That first festival, just one weekend, made a bigger impression than I had dared to hope. Yes there were accusations of ‘elitism’ (as still happens today), but as I thought then and still do now, totally unjustified. We had a good mix of classical music, popular entertainment and the visual arts, with lots of positive feedback.

It’s no surprise that the line-up for the first festival was fairly local, or with local connections. For example, the visual arts exhibition included artists I had got to know through the gallery, and the local schools were in it right from the start. Other connections brought one of the finest choirs of the time, that of Winchester Cathedral, as the father-in-law of its choirmaster sang with me in the Gallery Quire. So family ties were pulled and David Hill brought his magnificent choir to Beaminster. The Gallery Quire itself did a concert with readings by the much-loved Elisabeth and Alastair Bannerman. I was introduced to Margaret Cameron, the mezzo-soprano who sang at the first festival, by her aunt and uncle who lived in Uplyme and used to visit my gallery regularly. Nicholas Durcan, the popular pianist who has since played at several festivals, was heard in London at a lunchtime concert in St James Piccadilly by my wife Pauline. And so it went on. Amazing how many musicians come out of the woodwork!

I think the first festival cost around £7,000 and we just about broke even. The cost nowadays is over £100,000 and we still only just about break even.

The Second Festival
For 1997, how do you follow the success of the first? By getting bigger, that’s how. We knew we had established a solid foundation, so we built more of the same. It was a funny shape, the second festival, a five day core, with extra bits added on a week before and a week after. But some things didn’t change. The art exhibition in the Town Hall, school’s exhibition in the Skyrm Room and Choral Evensong – with Wells Cathedral choir this time – enhancing the status of Beaminster Festival. Margaret Cameron came back, also Sarah Deere-Jones with her harp, and a friend playing hurdy-gurdy. What a magical combination that was!

Two other good things happened that year. The exhibition in the Town Hall was visited by Princess Anne, who was in the town opening some accommodation for autistic people and also the festival was awarded £5,000 by the Arts Council. We needed that! We cemented our position on the musical map with a recital by BBC Young Musician finalist Alison Farr and a concert by Florilegium – the first of many visits by that brilliant baroque ensemble.

By 1998, we were established as an annual event extending over a full nine days. We had regular funding from Beaminster Town Council and West Dorset District Council, support from The Friends (started in 1997 and still playing a vital part in maintaining the festival) while both corporate and private sponsorship began to grow.

Over the many years that the festival has been going, we’ve had wonderful performances by great artists and, needless to say, there have also been a few near misses or even outright disasters. George Melly in full flow and to no one’s surprise, using language clearly inappropriate for a Holy House! A South Korean pianist who was so highly strung that it took every bit of everyone’s patience to get her on stage and playing! Then there was Florence Foster Jenkins’ double – totally unaware that she too could not sing in tune!

The years have rolled by and its continued success has been assured by the ten years that Tanya Bruce-Lockhart was its Festival Director. With her television and opera house background and all that goes with it, she has really put the concept of the festival on a higher plane. Our present Director, Nigel Corbett, is continuing to build and develop this superb event.

So the story of the festival is one of ups and downs (mainly ups, I’m glad to say) and a lot of hard work. But along the way it has been, and still is, a lot of fun.

“By 1998, we were established as an annual event extending over a full nine days.” 
Tom Poster