Poet Laureate follows in Auden’s path through Ilkley, as opening act at venerable literature festival

Simon Armitage
Simon Armitage
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It is a town perhaps still more famous in song than in verse, yet in the course of half a century, Ilkley has played home to almost everyone whose name has graced the shelf of a book store.

“It’s quite incredible the number of luminaries who have passed through this little Yorkshire town,” said Erica Morris as she unveiled the programme for its literature festival – its 40th and her first.

Its opening attraction, just as it had been at the first one in 1973, will be the pre-eminent poet of the day. Simon Armitage, a native of Marsden, over the hill from Ilkley, was responsible for writing a series of “stanza stones” on the moor that connects the towns and which gave Ilkley its theme song. As of May, he has been Poet Laureate.

“WH Auden opened the first festival, and the long line of amazing writers who have appeared here over the years is one of our strengths – from Alan Bennett to Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood and Ted Hughes,” said Ms Morris, who took over as acting director following the departure after 16 years of Rachel Feldberg.

She had built Ilkley into a national event, whose stature has also attracted this year the actor David Suchet, TV chef Prue Leith, and, to headline the children’s section, the broadcaster Clare Balding.

The festival, which runs from October 4-20 at venues across Ilkley, will also host a rare stage appearance by the comedy writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, creators of Porridge, The Likely Lads and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and an audience with the political cartoonist, Gerald Scarfe.

It will also, as a counterpoint to Mr Armitage, commission work from two “apprentice poets”, and stage an appearance by Pam Ayres and a celebration of the best-loved poems in the English language, with the writer Gyles Brandreth.

Ms Morris said it had been “daunting” to take on the mantle of organising the festival, which began life as a biennial event – the first of its kind in the North – and is now ranked alongside the Cheltenham and Hay-on-Wye festivals for its significance in the publishing calendar.

“It is a struggle to try to make sure that we’re living up to its high standards, but it’s also an exciting challenge,” she said.

Ilkley would “love” to have the level of national broadcast coverage afforded to its rivals, she added, although she doubts whether its biggest publicity coup will be ready to be unveiled this season.

Two years ago, the festival licenced its name to the producers of a comedy film in which Derek Jacobi plays a high churchman who hires inept crooks to dispose of a militant atheist author booked to speak at the event.

Ilkley was shot in the town at the beginning of last year, and was previewed in January at the British Film institute. But its cinema release date has yet to be announced. However, other films will be screened at a series of “fringe” events at the festival.