50 fascinating facts about the Belfast Festival at Queen’s
The Belfast Festival will open for its 50th year on Friday. Amanda Poole picks out some top memories
1 The first festival event was held in 1961, described as a “small student bash”.
2 It gathered pace under the direction of a young undergraduate, Michael Emmerson, bringing entertainment to the Queen's campus.
3 Writer Anthony Burgess read from the manuscript of his controversial A Clockwork Orange novel in February 1964.
4 Michael Palin of Monty Python performed a one man show in 1978.
5 Queen’s Film Theatre entered the fray of the festival in November 1968 when it screened Gregory Peck’s The Gunfighter.
6 Michael Emmerson was QFT administrator for over 30 years and founded the festival.
7 Throughout the ’70s, the Ulster Museum hosted exhibitions including the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Joseph Bueys exhibition The Secret Block for the Secret Person in Ireland.
8 In the ’70s, The Royal Swedish Ballet famously loaded three Aga cookers onto the trucks returning home (apparently cheaper in Belfast).
9 Early festival film programmes were selected by the Film Society, often referred to as the 16 Club.
10 Artist David Byrne, in Belfast in the late ’90s for an exhibition, ended up walking the streets of the Holylands looking for a party he never found.
11 Belfast playwright Marie Jones saw her Somewhere over the Balcony produced at the Arts Theatre in 1987, and Convictions in the Crumlin Road Courthouse.
12 The first showing in Northern Ireland of Troubles movie Cal, starring John Lynch and Helen Mirren, was screened in 1984, playing to 14,000 people.
13 In 1979 an unknown comic, Rowan Aktinson, was booked for a week’s run at the Arts Theatre on Botanic Avenue. His show sold out after its first night.
14 Comedian and folk singer Billy Connolly performed a solo gig in 1980 and a sell-out week of gigs with Ralph McTell.
15 In the ’60s, Ewan McColl, writer of Dirty Old Town, Pete and Peggy Seeger, The Dubliners and, a perennial favourite of local audiences, The McPeake Family performed.
16 The Royal Shakespeare Company brought work to the Whitla Hall throughout the ’80s.
17 Electronic music arrived at the festival in 1983, courtesy of the Alwin Nicholas Dance Company.
18 From the late ’80s, the rise of ‘Rock and Roll’ comedy was reflected in the festival comedy programme, from Julian Clary's Joan Collins Fan Club in 1988 to Mitchell and Webb packing out the Whitla Hall.
19 Popular names from the Irish music scene — such as Frances Black, Sharon Shannon, Altan, Dervish and Kila — have played to festival audiences over the years.
20 In 1969, John Lee Hooker played the Whitla Hall with the British group The Groundhogs.
21 Scottish actor Alan Cumming joined the festival in 1992 with the National Theatre’s Dario Fo's An Accidental Death of an Anarchist.
22 Theatre smash hit Stomp played at the Arts Theatre in the ’90s, long before it became an international giant.
23 The first major international orchestral group to visit was the Philharmonia Hungarica in 1966.
24 Circus performances have long been popular, with visits from the Chinese State Circus (1995) and the Moscow State Circus (1997).
25 Jimi Hendrix celebrated his 25th birthday in Belfast on November 27, 1967, as he performed at the Whitla Hall.
26 The First Presbyterian Church on Rosemary Street provided a stage in 1998 for the Tinderbox production of Northern Star.
27 In 1977, Michael Birch from the Urasenke Japanese Cultural Foundation gave an illustrated talk and demonstration of the Japanese tea drinking ceremony.
28 Barrow Square near Clarendon Dock was the unusual venue for a production of Macbeth in 2009.
29 With the onset of the Troubles (and Michael Emmerson leaving to run the Newcastle upon Tyne Festival), 1970 and 1971 had no programme.
30 One of the principal innovators of ambient music, Brian Eno, attended in 1998 as part of the BT Talks series.
31 The first major ballet company to visit was in 1965 when the National Ballet Company performed at the Grand Opera House.
32 The Grand Opera re-opened in 1980 — after some years as a cinema — becoming a key venue in the festival programme.
33 Actor Jeremy Irons visited in the early 1990s to deliver “one of the most notable live events the QFT has held”.
34 In the ’80s, Irish National Ballets joined with traditional band The Chieftains to create a version of JM Synge's Playboy of the Western World.
35 Sounds and rhythms captured around the city — using locations such as the Albert Clock and the shipyard — featured in the 2002 composition of Sounding the City
36 Alan Parker and David (now Lord) Putnam visited the festival in the mid 1980s with a number of films — Birdy, Defence of the Realm and Angel Heart.
37 Live discussion events over the years include George Melly talking about Picasso, John Suchet discussing Beethoven, and Sir Richard Attenborough and David Lynch discussing film at the QFT.
38 Macnas, the Galway physical drama specialists, brought fantasy novella The Tain to Belfast in 1994.
39 Early theatre in the festival was driven by the Drama Society, which produced Coriolanus and Brecht's Galileo in 1961 and 62.
40 The modern age has seen Spiegeltent set up home in Custom House Square, with visiting acts getting to perform in the lavish 1920s themed tents.
41 In 1977, a ‘rugby forum' was hosted by the legendary Welsh player Cliff Morgan.
42 Politicians who have appeared include Mary Robinson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Neil Kinnock.
43 Barry Douglas’ performance with L'Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal is remembered as a particular highlight from 1987.
44 From 1967-69, Clement Freud hosted live cookery shows in the Physics Hall in Queen’s, arguing good cooking starts by pouring yourself a glass wine.
45 The News and Cartoon Cinema on College Square East became the home for a late night film programme in the ’60s, screening among others Orson Welles’ The Trial.
46 Local comedians given a platform by the festival include Jake Junior, Colin Murphy, Patrick Kielty and the Hole in the Wall Gang.
47 Graeme Farrow's directorship in 2009 brought together Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley to perform with the Ulster Orchestra to celebrate their respective 70th birthdays.
48 In more recent years, Botanic Gardens have been transformed into a magical fairyland — with goblins, pixies and the sound of the garden at night — for ‘An Enchanted Evening’.
49 John Cage hosted a sound installation event at the Waterfront Hall in 2007 using sounds he collected during a trip to Ireland in the 1980s.
50 The event was saved from an uncertain future in 2007 after the ‘Save the Belfast Festival' campaign, under the directorship of Graeme Farrow and in partnership with the Belfast Telegraph. He secured long-term sponsorship from Ulster Bank.
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