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Gillingham in festival mood

The Gillingham Festival has grown from a display of local talent to a stage for international celebrities. Tony Burton-Page charts its rise and rise.

Gillingham Festival

The festival makes a point of catering for youngsters, and there is always a wide range of activities for them to choose from.

Many years ago, when my family travelled by train from London down to Dorset, I would ask at the Waterloo ticket office for a ticket to Gillingham. ‘Is that Gillingham, Kent, or Gillingham, Dorset?’ was the usual query from the other side of the window. My mother’s face took on a pitying look, which meant ‘It’s not their fault, poor dears.’ Aside from the fact that the pronunciation is different (hard ‘g’ for Dorset, soft for Kent), the two towns are not remotely similar; but of course ‘furriners’ could not be expected to know that, and the confusion was fairly common back in those days.

Things are different now, though. There may still be two Gillinghams, but only one has a festival which attracts stars from all over the country who are known all over the world. Last year, the singer Elkie Brooks and the former MP Michael Portillo came to the marquee in its now traditional site on Town Bridge Meadow – not to mention jazz great Chris Barber, with his twelve-piece band. Past festivals have seen featured performances from the likes of another jazz legend, Acker Bilk, the 1960s pop icon Paul Jones, formerly of Manfred Mann, the performing poet Pam Ayres and the singer Barbara Dickson.

Gillingham Festival

The Classic Car Rally has become a regular feature of the festival

How does this unassuming (but fiercely proud) north Dorset town manage to bring in such big names? To answer this, one has to go back to the origins of the festival more than twenty years ago. Colin Dann, who has been mayor of the town more times than Dick Whittington was of London, was one of the prime movers. He had always taken a keen interest in the arts (and indeed still does) and he recalls how he became aware of small groups working very well on their own. Colin is perhaps prouder of Gillingham than anyone else in the town, and he was determined that the talent he had observed there should be available to a wider and broader audience. ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’ has always been Colin’s attitude, so he asked the town council to put up some money to start a festival. To his surprise and joy, they came up with £500, and the Gillingham Festival was on its way.

He remembers the very first event of all with a wry smile. ‘It was a rock concert in a barn at Park Farm.’ (Park Farm is now Orchard Park, a garden centre on the outskirts of the town on the road to Shaftesbury.) ‘We got half a dozen local bands to play – we thought more people would come than if there were just one group playing. In fact, more than seven hundred young people turned up, which was about six hundred more than we had expected! Sheila Clarke of Park Farm organised straw bales for them to sit on. This was before the days of health and safety regulations – we’d never have got away with it today.’

Gillingham Festival

Paul Jones with the Manfreds at the 2007 festival

Also playing at that first festival was the Gillingham Imperial Silver Band. The town has had a flourishing band almost continuously for the last 150 years, the exception being at the time of World War 1 and the ensuing decade. It has met with considerable success in the fiercely competitive world of brass bands (there is no difference between a brass band and a silver band except for the colour of their instruments), reaching the National Finals several times. The band has played at the Gillingham Festival ever since that first year, and this year its strong junior section has been given an independent slot all to itself.

Gillingham in those days was the home of the Dorset Philharmonic Orchestra, one of a bevy of excellent amateur orchestras in the county, and it participated in the first festival and several subsequent ones until its sad demise a few years ago. Its ‘Last Night of the Proms’ had become something of a festival tradition.

Something from that first festival which has definitely not faded away is the involvement of the local community. Indeed, some would say that this is the glue which keeps the festival strong. Janet Dann, the festival’s treasurer, triumphantly proclaims that their volunteer list now numbers more than a hundred. Local voluntary involvement on this scale is certain to keep a treasurer happy. She says that for the two weeks of the festival, the town is galvanised into activity, with Gillinghamites from all walks of life doing all sorts of jobs. ‘I’ve seen professional people with hammers in their hands happily putting up fencing – and it’s not only people from Gillingham who join in. Some people organise their holidays around the two weeks of the festival just so that they can be a part of it! And what’s more, they all do it for nothing.’

Gillingham Festival

The 2005 festival brought a visit from jazz legend Acker Bilk

The festival has certainly expanded since the early days. For the last six years, most of the events have taken place in what Colin Dann calls ‘the big tent’ – an enormous marquee erected on the Town Bridge Meadow, a field near the centre of the town. This is the venue not only for the big names and for the lesser-known ones but also for all the other festival happenings – and there are now an enormous amount of these. Right from the start, there were events designed to appeal to the whole family, especially the young. These take place on Saturdays and Sundays during the festival, and this year there will be fire-eaters (outside, for obvious safety reasons), circus workshops, face painting, a teddy bears’ picnic, balloon magic and, rather intriguingly, umbrella decorating. The older members of the family can look forward to morris dancing and its more exotic cousin, belly dancing; and this year the traditional classic car show is complemented by a new event, a vintage motorcycle display.

The festival has always given opportunities for local talent to develop, and contributions from schools and young bands are encouraged. Many young musicians learn their skills by performing in tribute bands, a fairly recent pop phenomenon in which the group re-creates the hits of a successful band from the past as authentically as possible, and many of these have been to Gillingham, their names usually giving a clue as to what can be expected: The Rolling Clones, Sergeant Pepper’s Only Dart Board Band, Abba Rival, Born to be Jovi and even Stereoironics (a tribute to Stereophonics, a band formed in the 1990s).

As if to prove that the festival is not only about music, the opening weekend is a miniature sports festival, which this year consists of a five-a-side youth football competition on the first Saturday (4 July) and a 10 kilometre (6¼ mile) run the next day, with a 2 kilometre (1¼ mile) version for younger and less serious runners.

The main body of this year’s festival starts on Friday 10 July with a concert by Dozy, Beaky Mick and Tich, who made their name in the 1960s with the late Dave Dee. Although they are all relatively local, hailing from Salisbury or nearby, they have never yet played at the Gillingham Festival, and in fact it is the programming committee’s proud boast that all the main acts are new to Gillingham this year. The National Youth Jazz Orchestra, John Otway and the wonderfully-named Attila the Stockbroker all make their Gillingham debuts in 2009.

With an event on this scale, things do not always happen exactly according to plan. Last year, the Miracle Theatre Company, well known in rural Dorset for its Artsreach presentations, were unable to perform their take on the myth of Jason and the Argonauts because the van transporting them and their equipment got stuck in a ford. They escaped by climbing out and standing on the roof of the van, but they and their sets and costumes were totally waterlogged. Further back in the festival’s history, Colin Dann remembers an early talent competition, for which he and his panel had produced a short list of twelve for the night of the final. It got off to a bad start when the MC failed to turn up, so Colin took over at the last minute; slightly less easy to contend with was the non-arrival of no fewer than nine of the twelve acts. It was rather a short evening.

But the festival is still here, credit crunch or not, and it promises to be as good as ever. Colin Dann’s hopes for the future are high: he has a vision of the Gillingham Festival becoming the centre for the arts between Bristol and Bournemouth. With the town continuing to expand at a remarkable rate, there are whispers of its becoming the first city in Dorset, so perhaps his dream is not as far-fetched as it might seem. As he says, ‘So many people are involved in this festival and there’s so much goodwill that anything’s possible.’

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