40th Anniversary of the Lichfield Festival

The Lichfield Festival is, this year, 40 years-old and Jono Oates has taken a look at the early years before it established itself as one of the largest, and most popular festivals in Lichfield and Staffordshire.

The festival was the brainchild of the Dean of Lichfield, the Rt Revd John Lang, who proposed the idea of an arts festival in Lichfield in 1981. As well as Dean Lang the founding team of executives was the Artistic Director, David Clark, Finance Director John Round and Lord Patrick Lichfield, the Earl of Lichfield, who was the Chairman of the Festival and was also a significant financial benefactor.

The first festival took place in July 1982, with the Halle and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s performing at Lichfield Cathedral and the flamboyantly-suited, and controversial, jazz and blues singer George Melly performing at the same time at the Lichfield Civic Hall (located where the Garrick Theatre is now).  The Civic Hall was also the venue for the Cambridge Footlights Revue, which featured Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Tony Slattery, all relatively unknown then, and well before the days of Blackadder!

One of the early popular events was a cricket match that took place at the Lichfield Cricket Ground on the Friary Road, between the well-known charitable cricket team, The Lord’s Taverners, filled with stars from the stage and screen, and an equally star-studded Lord Lichfield’s XI. Guests to the event in 1983 included the actor Robert Powell, who had played Jesus of Nazareth a few years earlier, and cast members from Central Television’s Crossroads soap opera including Adam Chance and Stan Stennett.

In the next few years, the festival welcomed a number of well-known actors of the day to Lichfield. In 1984 Renee Asherson, Honor Blackman, Harry Andrews, Phyliss Calvert and Marius Goring all performed at the festival. The husband-and-wife team of Timothy West and Prunella Scales appeared in 1997, performing readings at Lichfield Cathedral.

Lots of musicians, soloists, groups and orchestras appeared too. The Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson performed at the cathedral in 1985. Ticket prices started from £8 to £15, a lot of money in those days, and the Lichfield Mercury reporter hoped that his performance would be legendary as his appearance fee had clearly hoisted the ticket prices! 1985 also saw the conductor and pianist Andre Previn conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, when hopefully they did not ‘play all the right notes…but not necessarily in the right order…’. Guitarist John Williams appeared in 1987, deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie performed in 1990, singer Cleo Laine and her husband, saxophonist John Dankworth, sang at the cathedral in 1991 and twinkly-eyed Irish flautist James Galway took to the stage in 1996.

In autumn 1983 director David Clark had booked a little-known pop group, The Flying Pickets, to make their first appearance at the 1984 Festival for a substantial fee of £300. However, in December 1983, the group had a massive Number One Christmas hit with their acapella version of Yazoo’s Only You and their star was in the ascendancy…they pulled out of the Lichfield Festival a couple of months later as their appearance monies changed from hundreds, to thousands, of pounds…

As well as musical and arts, the festival also put on other events and spectaculars. In 1999 a Medieval Market was put on in the cathedral close, around the cathedral, which was given a Georgian theme in 2009 for the Samuel Johnson 300th birthday celebration. An illuminated water fountain spectacle in Stowe Pool was one of the highlights of the closing day of the 1988 Festival, with the water shooting 45 feet in the air, and the fountains cascading to form the plumed feathers of the Prince of Wales emblem. In 1989, rather bizarrely, a two-day horse show jumping event took place in Beacon Park (although readers of the Mercury were outraged at a sports event as part of an arts festival!), the event only ‘jumped-off’ for three years. A different kind of horse-power was on display in 1983 when a gleaming cavalcade of vintage Rolls Royce’s gathered outside the West Front of Lichfield Cathedral.

For many years the closing day finale was always the spectacular fireworks, in 1983 the fireworks were launched from Stowe Fields and 1000s of Lichfeldians gathered around the banks of the pool to see the cathedral illuminated in the background by the dazzling displays. Music to accompany the event was provided by the Staffordshire Youth Brass Band and the Youth Wind Orchestra. The displays were discontinued in 2012 but will be returning again this year as the festival returns to its usual pre-Covid format for the first time in three years, a great way to celebrate its 40th anniversary.

Source: The British Newspaper Archive

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