Edinburgh 2014


Aaaaargh. 33 shows in 12 days. Highlights: Hanging out in the Green Room at the BBC with Arlene Phillips and Pamela Stephenson ahead of Radio 4′s Front Row. MCing for Zoe Lyons (below), Mrs Barbara Nice and a host of amazing acts at Mary Bourke’s brilliant group show Funny for a Grrrl at Stand in the Square. MCing in a packed 300-seater Spiegeltent (below) at the Book Festival. (Everyone flooded straight out of George R R Martin into our show.) Doing battle with the Tattoo every night in Freestival’s Cowgatehead during my show I Laughed, I Cried: about 15 minutes of it was dominated by the deafening sound of fireworks. (Weapons for fightback, dispersed to audience: balloons, party poppers and Hobnobs.) Loved North Berwick on my day off (below). And became obsessed with the moo yang (sticky pork) at Ting Thai Caravan (Teviot Place). 


Latitude 2014



Not the best kind of Festival person (see Glastonbury 2013, where I wore a white (soon-to-be-brown-with-mud) chiffon dress). But I loved the pink Suffolk skies above Latitude. Busy, packed 200-seater Lit Tent for I Laughed, I Cried (reading from the book and bits from the show) on the Sunday night. Even if most people were lying on the floor asleep. Feared mass exodus halfway through as The Black Keys were playing at the same time. But this didn’t happen. Had to hastily rewrite a whole section in my head as I realised there was a seven-year-old sitting in the front row and I was just about to reference the word “orgasm”.


Time to Talk at Rose Theatre: Brian Blessed



After Jennifer Saunders and Brian Cox, this season’s Time to Talk sessions at the Rose Theatre, Kingston – where I’m the new host – closed with… BRIAN BLESSED, a man whose name must always be rendered in capital letters. And who, it turns out, frequently refers to himself in the third person. (“BRIAN WILL NEVER DIE.”)

Apart from declaring himself, aged seventy seven, to be immortal, BRIAN BLESSED spoke at length (and it truly was at length) about qualifying for the mission to Mars (including 800 hours of training, some of it at the Space Station in Moscow), attempting to climb Everest three times, his great love for his father and his Yorkshire roots and his career highlights, which included PETER O’TOOLE, PATRICK STEWART and RICHARD BURTON. 

Like Brian Cox, he mentioned his irritation with Jamaica Inn (the BBC drama which drew hundreds of complaints for its “mumbling”). “It’s not that they don’t have the talent. It’s the diction,” he boomed. I can honestly report that there were no issues with hearing BRIAN BLESSED LOUD AND CLEAR.


Brian Cox = dude: official


Brian Cox in Shetland (with Douglas Henshall). 

Brian Cox (the actor not the physicist — I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again…) was on great form at tonight’s Time to Talk at the Rose Theatre Kingston. Favourite audience question: ”Brian, I really enjoyed your performance in BBC 1 crime drama Shetland. But I couldn’t understand a word of it. Please explain why – with reference to Jamaica Inn.” (This is a reference to this week’s debacle about the poor audio quality of BBC 1′s Jamaica Inn, which has had hundreds of complaints about mumbling.)

He had a lot of say about this. There was a “sloppiness to Jamaica Inn, in the structure of the scenes” and “the actors were indistinct.” He seemed quite grumpy about this. In defence of both Jamaica Inn and Shetland, however, he said that he wished the BBC would subtitle programmes so that the dialogue can be authentic: “Look at all these Danish series. Everyone goes cockahoop for these people and their sweaters. Why not use subtitles?” He went on to say that when he was filming Shetland, he tried to get the accent as authentic as possible and would say “aks” instead of “ask” and “shaysed” instead of “chased” — because that is accurate — but the BBC made him change it because it wasn’t clear enough.

This was all fascinating. But most of all I loved what he had to say about his idols Spencer Tracy and Marlon Brando: that they were both utterly brilliant but destroyed by the fact that they didn’t really understand that the business of acting was not about ego — it’s about empathy.

Other best bits: describing being on set with Brad Pitt on Troy and realising that Brad had asked for an afternoon off after long scenes with him (Brian) and Peter O’Toole, implying that Brad was kind of out of his depth… “He is from Ohio,” explained Cox. (He is actually from Oklahoma. But we get Brian’s drift.)

He also talked at length about Hannibal Lector and Manhunter – the role that drew the most questions on Twitter when I was prepping – and how he based his psychopathic performance on the teenage mannerisms of his son, Alan (also now an actor), who was educated at St Paul’s: “Because when I was trying to get the character, the director said to me, ‘Do you know anyone at public school?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ But then, I thought, oh yes, I do. My son.” He seemed very pleased to know that people care enough about him to ask questions on Twitter. 

Next up on Time to Talk next Friday: BRIAN BLESSED. I don’t think anyone will need subtitles for him. Earplugs maybe.


Previous page, pic credit: Helen Warner for Donmar Warehouse: The Weir



Brian Cox at Rose Theatre, Kingston



Having just seen him in The Weir — currently in its last few days of a sold-out run at Wyndhams, having transferred from the Donmar — I am a bit in love with the Shakespearean legend Brian Cox. Note: “the Shakespearean legend Brian Cox” and not “the swoonsome physicist Brian Cox.”

I am talking about this man:

Rather than this man:


I have nothing against the latter, scientific Brian Cox. Indeed, I hope he may one day join us for the “in Conversation With…” series Time to Talk at the Rose Theatre Kingston. But this time — on Friday April 25 at 5.30pm it is the turn of the thespian, non-scientific Brian Cox to talk. 

I will be asking him what it has been like to go from King Lear to X-Men. How he managed to appear drunk for the best part of three hours in The Weir. And how he feels about being mistaken for the former keyboard player of 1980s “Things Can Only Get Better” pop sensation D:Ream. And other more intelligent things.

Click here for tickets.


Time to Talk: Jennifer Saunders



My first outing as the new host of Time to Talk, the “In Conversation With…” series at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. (Next up: Shakespearean legend (and not physicist) Brian Cox on April 25. And Brian Blessed on May 2.) First victim was Jennifer Saunders, talking about everything I could make her talk about (which genuinely was pretty much everything) and about her best-selling memoir Bonkers. Waterstone’s had a high old time as the (new) paperback was folded into the ticket price and we had an audience of over 600.



High points: Saunders saying that she wanted to present Top Gear: “Move over, Clarkson.” Admitting that she had turned down Strictly Come Dancing but would not mind appearing on Great British Bake-Off. (“I also love the Sewing Bee.”) She talked a lot about the anxiety she has around writing, which has prevented her from tackling the long-overdue script of the movie of Absolutely Fabulous: she’s been seeing a hypnotherapist for procrastination. (“I put off going to him for three months.”)



Low point: Part of the show was a series of slides depicting Saunders’ childhood and career. I was in charge of clicking through them. As we reached the end of our time, I said, “Let’s look at some of your career highlights…” and clicked onto a picture depicting her chemotherapy. Jennifer Saunders laughed. No-one else did.



Thanks to Woman and Home for their shout-out here. Which resulted in this attractive selfie:






Backstage at #bathlitfest


Last word on Bath goes to Red magazine who ran this diary — complete with tales of Hanif Kureishi’s black tea, my 17 pairs of support tights and having to storm the stage while Germaine Greer was in full flow.



The solo show of I Laughed, I Cried which fell between interviewing Dr Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury) about Tolstoy – and MCing our Great Big Comedy Night with Mark Watson, Ellie Taylor, Rachel Parris, Bethan Roberts and Mary Bourke.



With Sarah Bailey, editor of Red magazine, who hosted  a literary cocktail party by torchlight at the Roman Baths.



An audience of over 1,000 at The Forum for Jennifer Saunders.


Independent Bath Literature Festival



This diary write-up in the Independent tells you everything you need to know: “memorable… buzzy… a kind of bliss..”

It’s all over! My first year as Artistic Director of the Independent Bath Literature Festival (150+ events, 200+ authors, 10 days, 20,000 audience) has been so enjoyable. This year’s highlights: Jennifer Saunders, Alastair Campbell, Germaine Greer, former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, Lionel Shriver, Hanif Kureishi… We’ve had coverage in the Independent (up to 7 stories a day), the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Times Higher Education supplement, Huffington Post, Evening Standard, Red magazine and BBC Radio 2 (Claudia Winkleman’s show). Our Hanif Kureishi story made the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 and was reported in El Pais, the Irish Times and The Times Live in South Africa. News of Jennifer Saunder’s revelation about using hypnotherapy to write the screenplay for the Ab Fab movie reached the New Zealand Herald.

So many highlights and high points: Jessica Fellowes’ fantastically intimate glimpse into the world of Downton Abbey (the creation of her uncle Julian); twin lectures on Jane Austen by Joanna Trollope and Val McDermid; extraordinary “Bliss Lecture” contributions from Frieda Hughes (who talked about the burden of her family legacy), Olivia Laing (who talked about the pain of writers dealing with alcoholism) and Philip Hensher (who talked about the pain of loving Wagner). 

And I particularly enjoyed being described as “sparky” in John Walsh’s column.  



Pics by Julian Foxon and Matt Crockett.


Debut authors at Bath


We have two great debut writers at Bath Literature Festival: literary supremo and ex-Booker judge Alex Clark is continuing the series she started at Stoke Newington Literary Festival — Alex Clark’s Stars of Tomorrow — with Darragh McKeon, author of Everything That is Solid Melts into Air on Friday March 7 at 8pm. This is a much-talked about elegant debut which tells the story behind what happened at Chernobyl. (I am struggling not to use the word “fall-out”.) Recommended. Colm Toibin: “Daring, ambitious, epic, moving.”

Here’s the blurb: “Russia, 1986. In a run-down apartment block in Moscow, a nine-year-old piano prodigy practices silently for fear of disturbing the neighbours. In a factory on the outskirts of the city, his aunt makes car parts, trying to hide her dissident past. In the hospital, a surgeon immerses himself in his work to avoid facing his failed marriage. And in a rural village in Belarus, a teenage boy wakes up to a sky of the deepest crimson. Outside, the ears of his neighbour’s cattle are dripping blood. Ten miles away, at the Chernobyl Power Plant, something unimaginable has happened. Now their lives will change forever.”



I am also so proud that Joanna Rossiter is the (debut) author of this year’s Big Bath Read. I need to check the archives but I’m pretty sure it’s the first time a debut novelist has been chosen for the Big Bath Read. The local response to the book has been phenomenal. Over 60 people signed up for our Goodreads book group online (the first time this has ever been trialled — and already it has been chosen as a featured Goodreads Group, promoted to Goodreads’ 18 million members) and we’ve been holding face-to-face book groups across Somerset, talking to readers about The Sea Change.

Tonight’s group at Midsomer Norton (pictured above) awarded it an unprecedented (for them) 7.9 out of 10. Judging by their faces, this was an exceptionally generous mark and meant it was a book they would recommend to anyone. (They gave Wolf Hall 5 out of 10 and they really liked it. Scary.) Earlier today, I talked to Joanna Rossiter on BBC Radio Bristol and she talked about how much something like this means to an author with their first novel. This is exactly what the Festival is for and it makes me very happy.

You can join me for our big Festival Big Bath Read Book Group on Wed 5 March at 1pm in Bath — it will be a lot of fun.

Or you can join Joanna at Keynsham Library at 7.30pm on Wed 5 March — or in Bath at 1pm on Thurs 6 March —  both are waiting list only now, I’m afraid. 


Bath: Move fast for tickets


Hurry hurry hurry to secure tickets for Bath for 28 Feb to 9 March! Because lots of great events are sold out: Germaine Greer, Austentatious, Rory McLean on Berlin, Alev Scott on Turkey, Henry Marsh on neurosurgery, Stephen Grosz on psychotherapy, several of Joanna Rossiter’s book groups (author of our Big Bath Read, The Sea Change — click here for the Goodreads group to join the conversation online)… If you are desperate for a ticket, please sign up for the waiting list with our box office on 01225 463362 — I have been monitoring the situation and I am seeing tickets emerge from time to time so it is worth doing. (This happens because sometimes people make block-bookings and then realise a couple of people can’t come.)

And a lot of events are down to single figures for remaining tickets: Jeff Williams’ jazz gig on the final night (he’s a jazz drumming legend and Mr Lionel Shriver — this is the first festival they’ve performed at together); historical novelists Sarah Dunant and S J Parris in conversation about what will be the next Wolf Hall; philanthropy expert Theresa Lloyd on the psychology of giving.

What you should buy now because tickets flying and will soon be in the final phase: Jennifer Saunders, Great Bath News Debate (with Alain de Botton and Jon Snow), Joanna Trollope, Tim Moore, Ben Chu’s Chinese Whispers, Hanif Kureishi, Claudia Roden, Alastair Campbell.

Some of my own favourite events:

Patrick Barkham and his badgers — Britain’s leading nature writer on our most elusive creature

Julian Baggini on the art of eating — The entertaining philosopher on why we’re obsessed with food

Sally Magnusson on her memoir about her mother — An extraordinary moving family story about memory and grief 

Gary Shteyngart: “America’s funniest writer” on a rare visit to the UK — if you love David Sedaris, you have to see him

Miranda Seymour: the award-winning biographer on the colourful historical relationship between England and Germany

Tom Rob Smith: “My father told me my mother needed psychiatric treatment. My mother told me my father was lying. Who was I to believe?” His new novel The Farm is based on this nightmarish true story

Darragh McKeon: Fantastic debut author with an extraordinary novel that tells you everything you need to know about Chernobyl.

PLUS: The “A Woman’s Place Is…?” debate with Kirsty Wark, Jane Shepherdson, Hadley Freeman and Sarah Bailey; and the Encouraging Wealth Creation debate with Stefan Stern, Nick Cohen, Steve Richards, Theresa Lloyd and Tom Hughes Hallett. For a guide to all our debates click here

There are more updates on the all the events and the changing picture daily as we come into the Festival countdown on our Facebook page, including news on the latest press coverage for all the authors at the Festival. Meanwhile I need to start planning my shoes. 

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