Brighton Festival Story part 1

7 Apr 2014

Brighton Festival’s beginnings

The post-war period was marked by a lively effort to provide the public with access to the arts, most memorably with the 1951 Festival of Britain, and festivals soon began to crop up in cathedral and spa towns. Demand for a different, more contemporary festival to take place in Brighton grew as the new University of Sussex began to mark the city out as a sophisticated hub of culture.

The Festival therefore began its life in 1967, after the first artistic director, Ian Hunter, submitted initial ideas to a planning committee in 1964. It boasted performers of the highest calibre, including Laurence Olivier and Anthony Hopkins.

Outlining the original intentions of the Festival, Ian Hunter wrote in 1968:

'The aim of the Brighton Festival is to stimulate the townsfolk and visitors into taking a new look at the arts and to give them the opportunity to assess developments in the field of culture where the serious and the apparently flippant rule side by side.'

Over the years, the Festival has welcomed the biggest and best names in the world of arts and culture: from Margot Fonteyn to Maya Angelou, Harold Pinter to Alan Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald to Bon Iver, and Beryl Bainbridge to Doris Lessing.

Right from the outset, chairman Sir Ronald Bates noted that raising money for the Festival would be an ongoing challenge and it remains so today. The friendship scheme was launched in 1988 to encourage pride of ownership and to help support the Festival.

Changes and influences

The inclusive, experimental festival we have today was shaped in part by local ground-breaking artists and companies.

In the 1980's Brighton’s shoreline was to become a metaphor for work ‘on the edge’ with the emergence of Zap Art, a group of students formed from within the Brighton art school scene. In addition, with new Director Gavin Henderson at the helm, the Festival began to explore new ways to engage the wider community.

' Brighton is a place of wonderful contradictions, of energy and beauty, ideal for the sort of exploration that should be at the heart of an arts festival' Anish Kapoor, 2009

From what was up until this point a festival of predominantly visiting orchestras and soloists there emerged the potential and the appetite for a more experimental and varied programme. This led to a more eclectic approach to the artistic content and consequently the offer of a wider range of art forms. Later, through the Streets of Brighton strand in the early 2000s and the increasing use of outdoor space, the Brighton Festival attracted companies who were willing to explore new environments in which to perform

As well as showcasing innovative and daring local artists, Brighton Festival’s programme has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to signalling the next big thing both locally and nationally.

Over recent years Brighton Festival has worked collaboratively with various companies by supporting and often commissioning new work. Through a Resident Artists scheme locally based companies like DreamThinkSpeak and Hydrocracker have produced and performed wonderful pieces such as Before I Sleep and The New World Order which have become some of the most talked about shows in recent times.

In 1993 screenwriter Andrew Davies gave a talk entitled ‘Mr Darcy in the bath – Novel into television’ at a time when no one had yet seen Colin Firth jump into a lake with his shirt on. And prior to its big screen adaptation, Nick Hornby’s smash-hit book Fever Pitch was dramatised for the stage as a one-man show at the 1994 Festival.

As well as working locally the Festival has looked beyond its shores and played host to a large number of international artists and companies. This international reach of the Brighton Festival has been reflected in a range of diverse themes over the years, including ‘A Celebration of the Nordic Arts’, ‘Voyage and Vision: Australia and Aborigines’, ‘America: Roots and Pioneers’ and a post-Communist look at ‘The New Europe’ in 1990.

Over the years the Festival has responded to the ever changing political landscape. For example in 2005 The State of Minds series in the literature & debate programme presented a series of powerful documentaries/discussion events and in 2011 saw the appointment of Aung San Suu Kyi as guest-director. An installation of over 2,000 paper lotus flowers was made by visitors to the Brighton Festival, symbolising the 2,000 political prisoners in Burma; significant awareness and funds were raised for Burma Campaign UK.

These are just some of the ideas and influences that have collectively shaped the Festival, not just in terms of the content but also in our reach as an organisation.

'Contrary to the left and right point of view, art is not a luxury. It is a physical and spiritual necessity for any sane society' Vanessa Redgrave, 2012