Not for Profit

A literature festival, a beacon of hope for the events sector, and a £4m windfall for Gloucestershire arts

Written by: Andrew Merrell | Posted 13 October 2020 7:00

A literature festival, a beacon of hope for the events sector, and a £4m windfall for Gloucestershire arts

Described as an act of bravery as well as creativity” - The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival 2020 has reasons a-plenty to celebrate. 

It has just revealed it has been awarded £783,939 as part of the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund to help face the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Shortly afterward it broke the news the Arts Council, which gave the money, revealed it was not the extent of its generosity – with another 11 other organisations in Gloucestershire receiving a share of a total of £4m. 

These include Cheltenham Festivals (£783,939), Gloucestershire Everyman Theatre Ltd (£832,000), The Cheltenham Trust (£852,161), Corinium Museum (£121,021), The Barn Theatre Project (£349,500), JDP Events Limited (£100,000), The Three Choirs Festival Association Ltd (£230,000), onsongmusic ltd (£51,000), Shires Entertainments Limited (£240,000), Stroud Valleys Artspace (£56,028), The Glass Foundry (£100,000) and in Tewkesbury The Roses Theatre Trust (£248,391). 

It is news still sinking in for those who received the good news, and perhaps leaving others who have gone without wondering. 

Posting on Facebook, Cheltenham BID (the business improvement district) celebrated the wins, but also added: “We were disappointed to find out that Cheltenham Playhouse did not receive anything. The Playhouse deserves the same amount as recognition as all the above mentioned.”

Any of the above amounts would be cause enough to celebrate for any festival, but what the world’s first literature festival was able to demonstrate another first. 

It transformed a traditional ‘bums-on-seats' event into a digital-first showcase – with a bigger audience, no less - and made it a commercial success.Albeit the target being to break even in this most unusual year. 

“We are quite nimble anyway,” said Ali Mawle, part of the self-styled four-piece dispersed management team who run the overarching Cheltenham Festivals, which also looks after the likes of the science, jazz and music events that put the spa town on the map. 

“It means we have no chief executive officer,” she added by way of explanation. 

Adrian Farnell, director of finance, Helena Bibby, director of HR and operations and Ian George – director of festivals complete the quartet. 

It is a team that has met every single day since lockdown began, without fail, in order to make the events happen and entered the fray confident. 

“We had done the numbers. We always knew that we were not being foolish. We were being prudent, but bold. We knew we have enough sponsors to cover the outlay, said Ms Mawle, director of learning and public engagement, a former deputy head teacher, ITT lecturer, who lead the national Schools Programme at the National Gallery in London and is a published author on the subject of creativity and is described as a Leading Thinker for the National Education Trust.

In terms of keeping an eye on those ‘numbers’ it no doubt helps immensely that Mr Farnell’s experience includes 25 years at The Royal Bank of Scotland, mainly in senior financial positions. 

Ms Mawle gives enormous credit to their sponsors, partners and everyone who helped the small but clearly incredibly able team create what came to an end on Sunday (October 11) – with no dress reversal, on a world stage. 

“We have been incredible fortunate a number of times this year when we have been facing big deficits to have had help of our partners, who have raised £328,000 to make this happen. 

Our patrons, plus the Arts Council, have been extraordinary. HSBC have stepped in and helped us with our rent.” 

Others partners also include the University of Gloucestershire, Audible, Waterstones, Bupa, Bupa Foundation, Marquee TV, Cunard, Thirty Percy and Baillie Gifford. 

The festival’s outreach programmes – like its Reading Teachers – Reading Pupils scheme (which this year captures another four regional parners, taking the total to eight) - has helped put it ahead of a curve which sees partner organisations moving away from the traditional sponsorship banner towards a desire to see positive outcomes. 

It is not by accident, but design and it seeks to reposition itself year-on-year. 

For many in the hard-hit events sector the festival was a beacon of hope – proving that given the will, their roles could still be valid. Cheltenham was veryconscious of this. It seems to have worked. 

“We have been contacted by a number of other festivals who have all asked us if we have time for a chat about how we made it all happen,” said Ms Mawle, who has been with Cheltenham Festivals seven years.

Pictured: (left to right) Ali Mawle, Ian George, Helena Bibby, Adrian Farnell

Taking the brave move to enhance its digital coverage and production quality meant it could charge some channels like Marquee TV to show its material – helping cover those increased costs. 

Two hundred thousand viewers logged on to watch The Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival as it was live streamed for the first time. 

Some 7,088 people were still able to safely attend events in Cheltenham’s Town Hall and Everyman Theatre, the social media reach of the event was estimated at four million and media reach in its entirety somewhere in the region of 22 million 

Two hundred and ninetyauthors and speakers including Elif Shafak, Raynor Winn, John Lanchester, Bolu Babalola, Hashi Mohamed, Naoise Dolan, the Kanneh-Mason family, internet doggy sensations Olive and Mabel with their sports commentator owner Andrew Cotter, Ian Hislop and Richard Osman made their way to Cheltenham to appear on stage in front of a live, socially-distanced audience. 

One hundred and eighty schools downloaded the free digital pack to Create Your Own Festival at school, featuring draw-alongs, storytelling and author talks on fiction, facts and poetry. 

This year’s programme is still available to view on demand via a subscription to the #CheltLitFest Player, with more than 120 events from The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival available on demand until December 31, 2020.