Page opens today as record attendance is predicted for Melrose extravaganza

THE waiting is finally over and the ninth Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival will get under way today (Thursday) in the idyllic setting of Harmony Gardens in Melrose.

The site, in the lee of magnificent Melrose Abbey, will host a packed four days of lively, entertaining and thought-provoking sessions by some of the biggest names in books, politics, stage and screen.

The stellar line-up includes veteran broadcasters Sir David Frost and Jeremy Vine; political stalwarts Alistair Darling and Tam Dalyell; award-winning novelists Andrew Miller, William Boyd and Hilary Mantel, and top-class entertainers Rory Bremner, Kathy Lette and John Sessions.

It is therefore hardly surprising that festival founder and director Alistair Moffat is predicting record ticket sales.

“We’re delighted to see, despite all the economic doom and gloom, people’s appetite for stimulating, live entertainment remains,” he told us. “Ticket sales to date show our book festival continues to grow year on year.

“Last year saw a 23 per cent increase in attendance on the previous year and all indications are that attendance for this year will be even higher.

“We’re not surprised by this given the wealth of talent on offer from literary masters, gifted broadcasters and entertainers, political heavyweights, as well as top experts in fields as diverse as science, sport, military and current affairs. We look forward to welcoming everyone.”

Unique to the festival this year will be the Melrose Mastermind, a literary version of Mastermind, hosted, appropriately, by Sally Magnusson in the main 460-seater marquee.

She will be bringing with her the original black chair, synonymous with her late father Magnus, for contenders Rory Bremner, John Sessions, Kathy Lette and Kirsty Wark. The tables will be turned, however, when Bremner hosts an exclusive session interviewing expert inquisitors Kirsty Wark and James Naughtie.

There will also be the rare opportunity to hear actors Art Malik and Susan Wooldridge reunited for the first time to reminisce about one of the greatest TV adaptations of any novel, The Jewel in the Crown.

Other sessions will feature Allan Massie, Andy McNab, Prue Leith, Richard Holloway, Mark Beaumont, Iain Banks, and a rare appearance by Professor Peter Higgs, the man who first conceptualised the Higgs Boson particle.

Some of the 60 events, with ticket prices ranging from £5 to £13, were sold out within a few weeks of tickets going on sale.

But while the venues may be full for Sir David Frost with Rory Bremner, Jeremy Vine, Melrose Mastermind, Hilary Mantel, Ian Rankin and Bremner, and Wark & Naughtie, the public can still get to see these sessions streamed live onto large television screens next door to the festival site in the Morrison Hall at St Mary’s School Hall. Tickets for the streamed events are available at the reduced rate of £7.

The Family Book Festival on Saturday and Sunday has also assembled a first-rate line-up, including acclaimed author Philip Ardagh, Horrid Henry author Francesca Simon, book festival favourites Kjartan Poskitt, Vivian French and Kristina Stephenson, as well as Dr Death and the Med-evil Medicine Show – a scientifically and historically accurate panto for children and adults alike.

There will be the chance to spot Where’s Wally? throughout the weekend as he celebrates his 25th birthday at Harmony, while the Schools Gala Day tomorrow (Friday), sponsored by Lauder estate agent Knight Frank, offers a programme of events with authors, illustrators, performers and stand-up comedians, aimed at nursery and primary children.

The popular Family Day Pass has sold out for both the Saturday and Sunday, but tickets for individual events are still available. There will be plenty of other activities for children of all ages, too, including storytime and rhymetime, craft activities, circus skills and entertainment and a chill-out zone.

Established now as one of the UK’s most prestigious book awards, the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, sponsored by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, will be announced at a public event, hosted by one of the judges, Kirsty Wark, on Saturday, with extracts from the six shortlisted books read by one of Scotland’s finest actors, John Sessions. The prize will be presented by the Scott Prize’s first winner, Hilary Mantel, and the shortlist comprises On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry; Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyuan; Pure by Andrew Miller; The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst; The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt; and The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth.

Throughout the festival, there will be a special preview of the Enlightenment Exhibition, coming to the Borders in September as part of the expanded Bang Goes the Borders Science Festival. Entry is free and suitable for all ages.

Even at this late stage, tickets can still be booked either online at www.bordersbookfestival.org or by calling or visiting the the box office on 0844 3571060.

The festival has focused its charitable support on one partner this year – Borders Children’s Charity – and 99 per cent of every penny raised will go directly to help Borders children who are in desperate situations.