All eyes on Petworth

Petworth Festival runs from 9 to 30 July. Its challenge – to develop while retaining the qualities so beloved of its audience, says Jenny Mark-Bell...

All eyes on Petworth

Petworth Festival runs from 9 to 30 July. Its challenge – to develop while retaining the qualities so beloved of its audience, says Jenny Mark-Bell

It was the brainchild of a group of enthusiastic locals who, in 1979, staged the inaugural Petworth Festival. Impressively, the organisation managed to attract high profile performers from its very genesis. According to Events Manager Mary Hamilton, early success was spearheaded by local Michael Follis, whose background was in theatre and music.

“It was he who really put the festival on the map and got it from a very ambitious but locally-run festival to an event of national and international renown,” she says.

“Classical, well-known music was always at its core but there was also quite a strong policy of commissioning new music and attracting international performers.

“That is very much the ethos that we are trying to carry on. Classical music is at the heart of the festival, but we are trying to broaden the programme slightly. For example string quartet Neknakisum are as good as something you would hear at the Wigmore Hall, but they also wouldn’t look too shabby on The X Factor: they have that crossover appeal.” The organisation of the festival is perfectly honed: “It’s amazing how much is done, and by so few people,” says Mary.

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“All the administration is done by the amazing Kate Wardle, who is based just outside Petworth. She does the work of about four people from her kitchen table. The front of house stuff is performed by an army of 75 volunteers – the good ladies and gentlemen of Petworth who pitch up for two weeks in the summer and run the concerts.”

The Board of Directors is composed of volunteers too, albeit of an extremely high calibre. Chairman Michael Till is a former Dean of Winchester Cathedral. Sir Geoffrey Pattie was in the Cabinet with Margaret Thatcher. Robin Bryant runs his own extremely successful financial consultancy. “They bring a wealth of skills and experience to the festival that we probably couldn’t pay for,” says Mary.Sharing a sense of ownership

Artistic Director Stewart Collins faced an interesting challenge when he joined the festival. “I was brought on board at a time when it was in exceptional health,” he says. “I had to keep everything that was precious to the festival, while expanding the remit to attract other audiences and generally widen its appeal.”

Stewart has many years of experience in arts management but believes Petworth to be very special.

As well as the beautiful parish church, which makes a spectacular venue for music, Petworth House and Bignor Park play host to festival performances. “It’s lovely to take on the particular challenges of finding what performance is right for each venue.” The audience is particularly loyal, with everyone in the community feeling a sense of ownership. “I was very aware that I must not damage something that was already in good health. Of course I wanted to expand and develop it, but also to retain its essential quality.

It will always be my aim to do things that the festival hasn’t done before. This year we are putting on an outdoor jazz event in the stables of Petworth House. I don’t think that has been done before. It will be a first for the festival, and that’s the kind of thing that really excites me.”

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