Big anniversary for Petworth Festival

Stewart Collins Artistic Director
Stewart Collins Artistic Director

Last year, Stewart Collins became the longest-serving artistic director in the Petworth Festival’s history.

This year sees the festival mark its 40th anniversary – the perfect chance to look back as well as forwards.

“In West Sussex, the fortunes of festivals have ebbed and flowed, without a question, but I think it is a strange alchemy that enables us to exist,” Stewart said. “I was chatting to my equivalent in Newbury where they are also celebrating their 40th anniversary.

“And we were musing on that strange alchemy, the things that need to come together. You need to have a community that has a real geographical and cultural identity. You also need to have an enormous amount of energy from the people that set it up. And you also need to have as your basis an audience that is ready and willing to lap up what is on their doorstep.”

Petworth is fortunate enough to have all three.

“This is my ninth year, remarkably. I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed. I must have been having fun!

“But I have found that our literary festival (a fairly-recent addition to the November calendar), which was an experiment but immediately took root, worked because of similar factors. We have got the right venues and we have got an audience that is right for it.

“But also a festival needs to evolve. It can’t stand still, and with the natural wastage of my predecessors coming and going, I think that that has happened because each new artistic director brings something new to the festival, and I think that has helped over the years.

“I absolutely love our event. The phrase I have been using to describe it is that 70s phrase, that small is beautiful. We are not on a massive scale. It is not a festival that is trying to punch way above its weight. It is a festival that is beautifully small. Our venues are small and our venues are friendly. We can sell 360 tickets in the church on a regular basis. We have got all the right ingredients.

“I was very much taken on with a view to expand the range of events presented by the festival. As with so many festivals that were established in the 70s and before, they were arts festivals and quite serious arts festivals fundamentally presenting a classical-music programme. But the world has changed. Education has changed. Tastes have changed.

“The chairman of the festival who appointed me had seen what I had done elsewhere, and he was very keen for me to broaden the festival, to include more jazz, more theatre, more comedy.

“It absolutely isn’t a case of dumbing down. All the events still have to be absolutely excellent. The traditional audiences still have to be provided for, but one of the things I have learnt is that there is a fantastic quality to all art forms. I find it strange that people think that only classical music can be excellent. I have spent a lot of time getting to know jazz and my job is to go out and find the most astonishing practitioners that I can find, just as it is my job with dance and comedy and world music. As long as I can find the very best, then I am doing my job.”

The Petworth Festival runs from July 17-August 4, with tickets on sale at www.petworthfestival.org.uk or 01798 344576. Performers include percussionist Evelyn Glennie, comedians Alistair McGowan, Gyles Brandreth and Paul Merton, with classical musicians Steven Isserlis, Elin Manahan Thomas, Ji Liu and The King’s Singers, plus Scottish superstar Barbara Dickson.

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