Belfast Festival fab at 50
Arts critic Grania McFadden relives some golden moments from the past half-century of the Belfast Festival and charts how the event blossomed into a cultural phenomenon
It has always been launched with a bit of a fanfare — and this year we’d expect no less from the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s.
It’s the 50th festival event and to mark this golden anniversary the curtain will rise tomorrow evening with a spectacular show in Victoria Square.
Fifty Fanfares will see musicians dotted all around the square, playing 50 trumpets, cornets and trombones to herald a fortnight of festival magic for the city.
The first ever festival was held back in 1961 when a group of students decided it was time for a co-ordinated arts event. The university’s drama society staged a sell-out production of Coriolanus at the Whitla Hall, while the QUB Jazz Club invited several local bands to perform.
The following year, a young undergraduate called Michael Emmerson decided to repeat the experiment. Belfast began to take notice.
By 1964, although still tiny, the festival was attracting names like musician Julian Bream (soon to be a regular visitor) and Anthony Burgess as guests.
Four years later, and Clement Freud had staged his first cook-in (whizzing up a dinner of soused herring, an excellent meat loaf and some apple fritters for his audience), while, round the corner, Arthur Negus checked out the city’s antiques. Stan Barstow gave the Guinness lecture, and Ralph McTell and Richard Stilgoe provided music — as did other headliners like Ravi Shankar, Cleo Laine and John Mayall.
Soon enough, Belfast’s festival was the highpoint of the cultural calendar, attracting attention from further afield, with names like Buddy Rich, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim and Jimi Hendrix all Queen’s-bound. Laurence Olivier appeared at the Grand Opera House alongside a dashing Albert Finney and Lynn Redgrave, while Billie Whitelaw, Frank Finlay and Colin Blakely waited in the wings.
Michael McLiammoir starred in The Importance of Being Earnest; Thomas Kinsella talked about poetry and Larry Adler whipped up a storm in the Whitla. It’s difficult to believe how many big names were prepared to perform here. But a look at the festival’s more recent past shows that the same is still true. From Yoko Ono to David Byrne, Anthony Quayle to Judi Dench, Yehudi Menuhin to Tom Courtney, we’ve seen ‘em all.
Festival regulars will mourn the days when we used to leave one show at a sprint, to avoid missing the start of the next — and then round off the evening at the comedy slot in the Arts Theatre. Some people even managed to make it to Festival Club for a nightcap afterwards.
Good times. Gone, but not forgotten. Part of the celebrations for this year’s anniversary include a Festival Anthology, which contains memories of many of the thousands of people who’ve attended events down the years. When you count up the hours of pleasure contained in a festival programme, there’s a lot to remember.
And this year promises more memories. There are over 185 events planned during the 17 days of the festival — everything from football to dance, comedy to good conversation, with a good dollop of drama, art and music in between.
Highlights include Van Morrison, singing for your supper at the Europa; Ray Davies performing at the Whitla, The National Theatre of Scotland’s play Enquirer, and pianist Stephen Gough.Jonathan Miller’s coming back to town too, and dance maestro Michael Clark will be performing his new work.
Festival director Shan McAnena — helming her first Belfast Festival — is pretty pleased with the way it’s all shaping up.
“It’s been a huge team effort in preparing this year’s event, and we’re sure we’ve got something for everyone,” she says.
“There are family events, comedy, Irish premieres, public art installations, music in shopping centres and even fairies in Botanic Gardens. They’re almost ready. Just a few last minute adjustments, and the show can begin.”
There is, of course, one final ingredient to be added to ensure the 50th Belfast Festival is as big a success as the previous 49. It’s you!
Grania’s 5 festival must-sees
Enquirer: National Theatre of Scotland
October 26 – November 4, Lesley Buildings, Fountain Street
Right at the top of my list, the company which brought us Black Watch is back with another piece of verbatim theatre — this time it's looking at newspapers. The script is edited from interviews with journalists about the future — or otherwise — of the newspaper industry.
The production has been created as a sort of rapid response to the events of recent months surrounding the revelations made at the Leveson Inquiry, and is constantly being updated to reflect the current state of play. Just like a newspaper. As the print media faces increasing competition with online and 24 hour news, will any newspapers survive in the future? I can't wait to see this show.
Ulysses: Tron Theatre Company
October 30 – November 1, The MAC
Adapted for stage by Dermot Bolger, Tron's production of Ulysses (below) is said to be bawdy, hilarious and affecting, and celebrates Joyce's genius for depicting life in all its profundity. We're promised a dramatic twist on Joyce’s iconic novel. Ulysses is revered around the world as one of the most significant novels of the 20th century. So Bolger’s bite-sized take on Leopold Bloom's journey across the streets of Dublin is a brave one. But we can look forward to Bloom's encounters with the good citizens of the city while his wife Molly waits in bed for Blazes Boyland. Will I go? Yes, I said yes, I will Yes.
John Cooper Clarke
November 3, The White Room, QUB
I wanna be your vacuum cleaner breathing in your dust
I wanna be your Ford Cortina I will never rust
If you like your coffee hot let me be your coffee pot
You call the shots I wanna be yours
Forget Sir John Betjeman — John Cooper Clarke is probably Britain's most quotable poet these days. His quickfire delivery of sharp, satirical verse has inspired a whole generation of artists — and now his poems are on the GCSE syllabus, for goodness sake. No longer too cool for school.
Although many of his contemporaries from the heady days of punk are but a memory, Cooper Clarke keeps the flame alive. He’ll be strutting his stuff with Mike Garry and local poets Seamus Fox and Colin Hassard, reminding us all how great he is.
October 23, Grand Opera House
Sheila the elephant (below) lived in the city’s zoo during the Belfast Blitz. Her keeper, Denise, was afraid that Sheila might be frightened during the bombing, and each night brought her home to the Whitewell Road, returning her the following morning. War Horse author Michael Morpurgo has already written about the story. Now Belfast-born novelist Bernard McLaverty has joined with Armagh composer Gareth Williams to write an opera about the woman nicknamed The Elephant Angel, featuring a chorus of children from Cavehill Primary School.
October 22–24, Waterfront Studio
Fishamble’s new production (below) has been performed and written by Pat Kinevane, and it’s been a smash hit both in Ireland and in America. Pat plays Tino, a down-but-not-quite-out from Cork who’s living in somewhat reduced circumstances on the streets of Dublin.
Tino has been named after Rudolph Valentino, and his past is portrayed to us through silent movies — performed by Kinevane — while his future seems permanently out of reach. Moving, funny and desperately sad, Silent sounds like a special show.