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Are socially distanced festivals the future of entertainment?

Appledore book festival has paved the way for Covid-friendly entertainment in the UK

I’m gazing up at a giant screen in a field somewhere in North Devon. On it, somewhat to my bewilderment and bemusement, are two enormous photographs, one of me and one of my latest book. If this wasn’t disconcerting enough, my disembodied voice is booming out electronically at great volume, telling my soon-to-be audience at the Appledore literary festival that I shall shortly be addressing them on the subject of the abdication crisis, which features “betrayal, Nazis and sexual obsession”. When I was recording the mini trailer at home on my iPhone, it sounded perfectly normal, but amplified through a very impressive speaker system, I sound as if I am calling for a new world order. It’s what Edward VIII would have wanted, I tell myself.

Appledore festival decided that the literary and journalistic Cinderellas should indeed go to the ball

I may be somewhat confused by this, but my setting is at least beautiful and panoramic. Whereas most previous literary festivals have seen me inside the surroundings of a church hall, hotel function room or marquee, I am now standing next to the Taw and Torridge rivers, in all of their majestic glory, and the sun is shining upon them. As al fresco settings go, it’s one of the finest I can imagine. And my audience are beginning to arrive. However, while I would usually be looking out over a sea of eager, or at least mildly intrigued, faces, I am instead gazing out over several rows of parked cars. This is because, in our brave new world of social distancing and bubbles, the organisers of the Appledore festival, rather than either cancelling the event altogether or holding it online, decided that the various literary and journalistic Cinderellas that they had invited should indeed go to the ball, and so decided to stage it as a drive-in event.

The logistics sound horrendously complicated, but by the time I arrive for my morning “in-conversation” event with the artistic director of a local theatre, everything seems to be going smoothly. Ainsley Harriott had appeared the previous evening, to enormous acclaim, although his being mobbed by excited fans after his event had led to “the talent” being compelled to leave the grounds via the faintly unlikely setting of an adventure playground, adjacent to where the festival is being held. And so I am miked up, sat down, introduced, conversed with and – once I’ve got over the horrible shock of hearing my amplified voice a couple of seconds after I’ve spoken, which gives my every utterance an entirely bogus profundity, not to mention volume – it is the most enormous fun. The audience manage to leave their cars in the clement weather and sit on deck chairs, the questions are insightful and often thought-provoking and the whole thing is wrapped up in an hour, before other, more famous writers take to the stage later in the day.

Even the book signing – either the author’s favourite or most humiliating part of the event, depending on demand – has been carefully planned. Guests pre-sign their books in the stylish yurt that doubles as a green room, and then they are sold, ready-wrapped, in the first drive-through bookshop, so that there can be no contact with the potentially Covid-spreading writers. The whole event, which sounded impossibly optimistic when I was first asked about appearing at it in the summer, is going smoothly. Although the organisers are doubtful about making a profit this year, which would usually be invested into local causes or into their reserves, they hope to break even, thanks to several big-name guests including Richard Osman, Michael Morpurgo and Jeremy Vine. And, above all, the very existence of the festival – a very British endeavour, in which a small but determined team pull together to bring off a vast achievement against the odds, and in trying circumstances – represents a glorious success in and of itself.

Hopefully some enterprising landowner with a penchant for hosting authors fancies holding another festival

It remains to be seen whether the Appledore literary festival remains a one-off in this format, or whether it returns next year in a similar format. Certainly, there are risks and pitfalls in its approach that have nothing to do with the careful efforts of the organisers. Staging a large-scale event like this in September requires a faith in the vagaries of English weather that may or may not be rewarded. There were rumours that later in the day, there would be 40mph gusts of wind, and there is also the distinct possibility that, if it rained heavily, the field in which the talks were held would quickly turn into a quagmire, necessitating the cancellation of events altogether. And then there are the smaller irritations or disappointments that an audience might feel. Many people, myself included, like to go to festivals for a couple of minutes of conversation with their favourite authors, and a dedicated book. (Or a selfie, of course.) To be deprived of this, even for the most necessary of reasons, might seem a let-down.

It is, however, considerably more rewarding to attend the live festival – both as a participant and, I hope, a visitor – than it would be to attend one of the Zoom events that have become the norm in our locked down age. Although there have been countless high-profile (and often paid-for) play readings, recitations, music performances and the like, there is something distancing and dehumanising about the platform that makes it hard to engage fully with one’s fellow participants. I did a Q&A with a London members’ club last month that had all of the engagement and pizzazz of speaking into one’s computer for an hour, which is, of course, exactly what happened. The most memorable thing about the experience was watching the count of attendees slowly fall, or rise, over the course of an hour, as latecomers joined the session, and, as I rabbited away, I started to wonder what I had done right, or wrong. Had that particular joke been too off-colour? Was I boring them? Had someone suddenly remembered a pressing appointment to dry their hair?

Innovative ideas are going to be the way forward if the industry is going to survive

Yet, all frivolity aside, it is far from certain as to whether attempts to offer socially distanced entertainment are going to work, now or ever. The Bridge theatre reopened recently with a series of monologues, including Ralph Fiennes performing David Hare’s Beat the Devil and the opportunity to see some of the country’s leading actresses performing Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, as they also did recently on TV. Rufus Norris’ National Theatre is returning in typically fiery and combative style, with the Olivier staging Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s new play about race in contemporary Britain, Death of England: Leroy. The theatre has been transformed to allow for social distancing, as has the Bridge, but other outdoor venues have had greater luck and flexibility. Cornwall’s Minack Theatre was recently able to accommodate a new touring production of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, with Stephen Tompkinson, even if there was a necessary suspension of belief in thinking that an academic’s shabby and book-lined office was somehow magically transposed to the Cornish coast.

A major problem with attempting to get the entertainment industry back on its feet, though, is that we are all on edge about the idea of a second lockdown. If a 10pm curfew is imposed nationwide, that makes theatregoing in the evenings more or less impossible, unless the audience are all local and the plays run at 90 minutes or less. Much the same goes for stand-up comedy, gigs or anything else that would usually attract large and appreciative audiences. And as we struggle with “the rule of six”, social distancing and the prevalent sense that the government are making up the laws as they go along, day by day, it is hard not to feel that there is no easy answer to the crisis that we find ourselves again.

Therefore, initiatives like Appledore’s are all the more valuable. At a time where it seems as if we lurch from crisis to disaster on a national level without a moment’s pause, it is all the more important that brilliant ideas arise and can deal with the “new normal”, as we now must all refer to it. It may be that literary festivals and the like cannot take place as they did for many months, or even a couple of years yet, and that innovative, forward-thinking ideas are going to be the way forward if the industry is going to survive and have any kind of relevance. As for me, I’m just hoping that some enterprising local landowner with a penchant for hosting authors fancies holding another festival in the next few months, and I’ll be first in line, even if I have to pack my wellies, just in case.

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