It was literally the only show in town so they could have booked anyone they wanted. As it was, their star turn had been there for just a few hours when he locked horns with a vicar.
It was 1973 and few outside Cheltenham had heard of a literature festival, let alone been to one. The inaugural event at Ilkley marked the first time anyone in the north had thought of staging one.
The organiser, Michael Dawson, had engaged a stellar cast: JB Priestley would be there to host a seminar on women in literature, with Margaret Drabble and Fay Weldon, no less.
Ilkley was just the right size for a festival town, Priestley had said. Large enough to cope, small enough to stroll around and bump into everyone.
But the year’s headline act, the poet WH Auden, a more-or-less local lad from York, tested the town to its limits.
“He wasn’t in great health and I’m led to believe that he was a little grumpy,” said Rachel Feldberg, the festival’s director since 2003, who will this afternoon launch its 2017 season, with Alan Bennett.
As Mr Dawson remembered it, the duration was spent patching up disputes with the local clergy, which had begun when Auden engaged in a fracas about which version of the bible he would use for the lesson in one of the local churches.
The Ilkley festival, which runs for the next 17 days and includes such headliners as Richard Osman, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Richard Dawkins and Jeremy Vine, pre-dates every other such event in Britain, save for Cheltenham, which runs in parallel, and is considered among England’s top three, alongside it and Hay-on-Wye.
But the book calendar is more crowded than ever, and Ilkley’s festival is no longer even the only one in the Bradford district.
Yet Ms Feldberg, a former theatre director, does not see herself as competing with others for the biggest names.
“If someone’s going to Cheltenham, the publisher will often just want them to do a couple of big ones - so it’s us and them. It’s quite a familiar mantra,” she said.
“Every festival director will tell you that they look at someone else’s programme and turn red with jealously. But I don’t feel we’re competing for authors.
“Publishers are very generous about coming to us. They know that they’ll have a great audience and we’ll take care of them.”
The opening event, in the King’s Hall at 2.30pm, was sold out almost as soon as it was announced. But many of the other 237 readings, seminars and exhibitions rely on a “national portfolio organisation” subsidy from the Arts Council to find an audience.
“We don’t need the subsidy to programme someone like Alan Bennett,” Ms Feldberg said. “Once the word is out people are pounding on the door and telling their hard luck stories about why they should be first in the queue.
“But the subsidy is about helping bring to the attention of the public work that they might not otherwise know they’re going to enjoy. The truth is that if you want Alan Bennett, you’ll have to queue up for returns at 1.30pm on the day if we’ve got any. But there are still plenty of other tickets.”
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