Record crowds drawn to Melrose for eighth festival

Pic Greg Macvean, 17/06/2011, Borders Book Festival for Writer Pictures - 'Michael Parkinson and Rory Bremner

Pic Greg Macvean, 17/06/2011, Borders Book Festival for Writer Pictures - 'Michael Parkinson and Rory Bremner

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THEY came in their droves to the tented village in the grounds of Harmony House in Melrose which has become home to the Brewin Dolphin Borders Book Festival.

By the time Scots actor Tom Conti had left the stage of the 470-seater main marquee on Sunday night, more than 12,000 people had been through the gates – a 20 per cent increase on last year, confirming the festival, celebrating its eighth birthday, as the region’s most popular cultural event.

Book Festival 2011. Sarah Brown wife of the former chancellor Gordon Brown launches her book 'Behind the Black Door' chats about rhe book to Alistair Moffat about her book.

Book Festival 2011. Sarah Brown wife of the former chancellor Gordon Brown launches her book 'Behind the Black Door' chats about rhe book to Alistair Moffat about her book.

That climactic show, like Thursday’s opening session featuring Sarah Brown, wife of former prime minister Gordon Brown, had been sold out many weeks in advance.

Indeed, 19 of the 65 shows drew capacity audiences, lured by an A-list line-up from the worlds of literature, stage, screen and politics.

The cliché that rain failed to dampen the spirits of festival goers was never more true.

“If anything, the elements intensified the atmosphere,” observed director Alistair Moffat, the Kelso-born author and former television executive, who founded the extravaganza in 2004.

“Clearly the festival has evolved into a weather-proof phenomenon and I can tell you the guest authors were mightily impressed, not just with the surroundings, but the sheer enthusiasm of the audiences, many of whom had travelled vast distances to come to Melrose,” said Mr Moffat.

“My intention has always been to create a book festival which was non-elitist and the notable thing this year was the sheer diversity of the audience.

“The breadth and quality of this year’s programme meant there really was something for everyone and it was wonderful to see so many people of all ages.

“It has become a huge logistical exercise to bring it all together and credit must go to our army of volunteers which makes it happen and, of course, the many and various sponsors who allow us to attract the highest quality of guests and promote the event far beyond our region.”

There were some obvious highlights: Sir Michael Parkinson being interviewed by festival patron Rory Bremner on his anthology of 100 memorable interviews.

Bremner later treated a packed marquee to material he has been honing during a national tour, with both shows, along with those of Conti and Maureen Lipman, beamed live to the nearby Morrison Hall, an overflow venue for those who had been unable to get marquee tickets.

Actor Robert Powell held his audience rapt as he read from John Buchan’s thriller The 39 Steps, while Lipman was on top form describing the inspiration for her new memoir I Must Collect Myself: Choice Cuts From a Long Shelf Life.

Add to this heady mix the comedy of Rory McGrath, whose irreverent engagement with his audience – younger than the average – produced edgy hilarity; the droll candour of Labour dissident Bob Marshall-Andrews; the reflections in words and music of Barbara Dickson; the cerebral clout of playwright Michael Frayn; the charm and erudition of broadcast journalists Jim Naughtie, Kirsty Wark, Sally Magnusson, Peter Snow and Edward Stourton, and you get an idea of the eclectic appeal of the festival.

Highlights for this correspondent included a sublime hour in the company of painter, illustrator and playwright John Byrne.

Interviewed by Moffat, the 71-year-old recalled, through touching bouts of amnesia, his early life on the notorious Ferguslie Park estate in his native Paisley and his first job in a carpet factory: experiences which informed his first play Writer’s Cramp, a surprise Edinburgh Fringe hit in 1977 starring Bill Paterson, and his acclaimed trilogy The Slab Boys.

Byrne, who still paints every day, admitted he would brook no artistic interference with the unforgettable TV series Tutti Frutti, but was clearly nonplussed that since his last television play, Your Cheating Heart screened in 1990, he had received no similar commissions.

Larry Lamb was another treat. An unhappy childhood, revealed in his book Mummy’s Boy, had set him on an adventurous early career, selling encyclopaedias in Germany, labouring in the oil industry in Libya and checking underground power installations on Broadway.

Four years later he would return to New York’s theatre centre as an actor. Lamb regaled his listeners with anecdotes of the more recent “mad” years, starring as the evil Archie Mitchell in Eastenders while simultaneously filming the hit comedy Gavin and Stacy in which he played the easygoing and long-suffering Mick Shipman.

Sarah Brown offered a fascinating insight into family life at 10 Downing Street, having lived next door for the previous eight years.

Without over-stressing the point, she talked with candour of the media assassination of her husband after the banking crash, reminding a sympathetic audience how he had brokered the G8 rescue deal and had taken UK troops out of Iraq.

There were bumper crowds, too, at the family festival on Saturday and Sunday, while Friday’s Schools Gala Day, sponsored by Knight Frank, drew a record-breaking 1,500 pupils from across the region to Melrose.

Councillor Graham Garvie, executive member for culture for Scottish Borders Council, which backs the event to the tune of £25,000, told us: “The numbers flocking to Melrose and the economic benefit they bring represent tremendous value for money to our local authority.

“Based on the ticket sales, we estimated the event brought in well over £3million to our local economy which is remarkable in such a tough financial climate.”