Hay Festival 2014: Stephen Fry to be new festival president
Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch delighted at this year's festival. Throw in Bear Grylls, Toni Morrison and the Bard, and it may have been one of the best festival's yet.
You can’t help feeling sad when the world’s most famous festival of ideas draws to a close. The Hay Festival 2014 lineup was particularly good this year. For bibliophiles and the curious-minded of all ages, it’s as rich, heartening, surprising and stimulating a cultural experience as you’ll find anywhere – and all in a field in Wales.
Quite aside from its glorious surroundings, Hay is unsurpassed in bringing together brilliant minds and personalities to celebrate storytelling, explore ideas and probe the big questions. The Hay Festival 2014 authors and speakers included Jennifer Saunders, Richard Dawkins, Toni Morrison, Judi Dench, Judi Bloom and Carrie Fisher, to name but a very few.
A global event with local charm
Although it’s gone international since it began in 1988, the quaint, unassuming market town of Hay-on-Wye is still the festival’s beating heart. And this year was possibly the best yet. Yes, there was a spot of rain and a dash of mud, but who cares when you’ve got 700-odd events to sample in 10 days? Every subject under the sun is covered here, from literature to politics, science, comedy, technology and music, so everyone’s highlights will be different, but here are just a few to scrape the surface.
Stephen Fry announced as new president
First off, 2014 was a year of big anniversaries. Shakespeare turned 450 and to honour him in style, newly appointed Hay President Stephen Fry gave a professorial lecture on the Bard’s treatment of love. The First World War was of course a prominent subject too, with Sebastian Faulks discussing his novel Birdsong to a packed 1700-seater tent. A charismatic line-up of Rob Brydon, Tom Hollander, Cerys Matthews and Jonathan Pryce gathered to read the poetry of Welsh icon Dylan Thomas to celebrate his 100th birthday, while children’s author Philip Ardagh was joined by Tove Jansson’s niece to mark the Moomins creator’s centenary. Two-hundred years after the publication of Mansfield Park, Professor John Mullan set himself the task of reclaiming Jane Austen’s least-loved novel. His hour of quizzing us on our Austen trivia (Isabella Thorpe’s favourite word, anyone?), close reading and acute observations was the most fun English lesson you’re ever likely to have.
Hay Festival highlights for kids
Hay has a whole programme dedicated to kids, but this year two authors stole the show. Festival regular Michael Morpurgo was, as ever, heartfelt and impassioned on his recurrent theme of war, and masterful at connecting with his young audience. An unexpected appearance by Joey – the magnificent star of the War Horse stage production – was an extra-special treat. Meanwhile, prolific author and screenwriter Anthony Horowitz poured as much energy and fizz into his interview as he does into his fiction, keeping the whole tent in fits and doing a tireless three-hour book-signing afterwards.
An audience with Toni Morrison
But Hay had two aces up its sleeve this year. The first was Toni Morrison. The 83-year-old Nobel Prize-winning novelist was an extraordinary presence, doing several events discussing her life and work, with one whole session devoted to her masterwork, Beloved. The reverence for her was palpable as she mesmerized the crowd, calm, warm and infinitely wise. The standing ovations were a given.
Invasion of the Cumberbitches
Then, at the end of the week, the winning hand: Letters Live – the second-fastest selling event in Hay history, doubtless due to the involvement of one Benedict Cumberbatch, the nation’s (indeed the world’s) latest crush. His perfectly pitched performance of missives from Shaun Usher’s book Letters of Note ranged from the romantic outpourings of a charmingly gawky soldier to his sweetheart during World War Two to an achingly moving rendition of Captain Scott’s last letter to his wife. Plenty of others joined him on stage to give memorable performances of remarkable epistles from the likes of Elvis Presley, Gandhi and Anaïs Nin, but it was Cumberbatch who held the room rapt.
A standing ovation for Judi Dench
The closing weekend had plenty more to give, though: Steve Coogan charmed the crowds discussing his film Philomena, while Judi Dench got a standing ovation for her musings on her Shakespeare stage work – the delighted audience were treated to a surprise bonus when that lovely Cumberbatch chap bounded back on stage to join her for some recitals from Twelfth Night. Ending the revels fell to the irrepressible Bill Bailey – inventive and joyous as ever.
There are so many more to mention – Arianna Huffington, Doctor Who and Sherlock writer Steven Moffat, conductor John Eliot Gardiner; the list goes on – but suffice it to say that the best events at Hay all have one thing in common: a shared passion and enthusiasm for their subject, which their audience can’t help but take away with them. It’s hard to feel any fear for the future of books here. I’m already ticking off the days till next year.
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