Friday, 20 August 2010

Silence In Court: Could the Bristol Community Festival ever return?

Here's a recent article I wrote for Venue magazine, looking at Bristol's much mourned Ashton Court Festival and whether anything like it could ever happen again.

For 33 years, the Bristol Community Festival - as it was known for most of them – was the centrepiece of the Bristol hedonist’s year. Everybody went, it never rained (well, almost never) and most of the acts performed for nothing because, like us, they wouldn’t have missed it for the world. For a long time the entrance fee was whatever loose change you had in your pocket as you walked up that tease of a hill.

Growing purely by word of mouth, the festival was drawing around 60,000 people by 1998, the year Portishead and Spiritualized played and everyone agreed they’d had the best time ever. Then, three years ago, disaster struck. The site became waterlogged and the event was cancelled halfway through, immediately scuppering hopes of recouping losses from previous years. It never came back.

Not least because of its beautiful location, it’s been held up as an ideal ever since - the “bring back Ashton Court music festival” Facebook group claimed 20,000 members in 48 hours. Could it be revived? “I’d never say never”, says Jennifer Crook, who co-managed the festival in its last four years.“I really hope it will be back, as does everyone who was ever involved”.

The Ashton Court Estate remains the venue for big events like the Balloon Fiesta and Kite Festival, and there have also been some smaller attempts to bring music back to the site. Last year's bijou Summer Fayre, which celebrated the Estate's 50 years in the public domain, was true to the spirit of the Community Festival with sets from local talent like Get The Blessing, Rose Kemp and Health and Safety At Work Act from 1974", (the year of the first Community Festival). Since then, "there have been clarifications and minor amendments", but the main thing that’s changed is public opinion, fuelled by disasters like Hillsborough and the death of two fans at the 1988 Donnington festival. "It’s easy to rage against a ‘safety culture’”, Tim adds, “but if people died against the pit barrier the press would demand to know why nothing was done" - a fact made all the more unavoidable by the horrific events at this year’s Love Parade.

The law can be ambiguous, though. “The 2003 Licensing Act was really designed for pubs and clubs, not outdoor events, which is why so much can come down to local interpretation”, says Jennifer Crook. “It’s a very vague piece of legislation”. An extreme example is that of the 2008 Moonfest, which lost its licence after police cited the Act, claiming that Pete Doherty could cause a "whirlpool effect in the crowd". Less surreally, "licensing complications" were recently blamed for the cancellation of the 'Summer Nights' concerts at Ashton Court. The 2003 Act’s call for "adequate security personnel" is also open to interpretation. "It's common to find quirky and illogical licence conditions which may stem from inexperienced local government officers", says Tim Roberts, adding, "I DO NOT suggest Bristol City Council are guilty of this".

Will David Cameron much trumpeted “war on red tape” help? Ben Hardy thinks not. “There aren’t any signs that the new government will change anything – other than the fact that local authorities will be subject to further budget cuts.” He also points out that the current climate tends to make things even tougher for would be promoters: “there are less sponsorship purses available and members of the public have less disposable income”, he says, “with less money being spent, smaller traders and caterers tend to be fewer on the ground which affects the revenue that an event can generate.” Not, perhaps, the news that shoestring Eavises want to hear.

Despite these obstacles, the sprawling, carnivalesque Bristol Festival shows that community events can still thrive in the city centre. Poppy Stephenson, its formidable co-ordinator, says it would cost five times as much to hold at Ashton Court. “It’s the remote location”, she says, “There’s no street lighting, water or power points, and expensive metal tracks are required so that emergency services can reach all areas.” To make things worse, a quirk of geography means that promoters need licences from two local authorities.

Now in its third year, the renamed Brisfest is a community festival in all but name - the product of thousands of hours of unpaid work by a 77-strong volunteer force. “The reason we got involved in the first place was to save Ashton Court and that is what we've been trying to do”, says Poppy, “with local acts, reasonable prices and true Bristol style”. Sensitive to the public’s aversion to concrete, the team will consider moving to a greener space if this year’s festival is a big enough success. “We would love it to be in a beautiful park”, she adds. “Next year, who knows!” As if to prove their commitment, they plan to turf part of the site for Brisfest 2010. There will also be nine outdoor stages, a casino bus, beer garden and something called a “recursive function dome with 360 degree visuals”. Factor in five hundred performances, club nights, boat parties, a ton of workshops and zero council funding and it’s hard to believe it can be done for a fiver a day.

It’s a huge task. In the run up to to the first festival in 2008, Poppy slept for an average of 3-4 hours a night for the best part of a year. It’s got slightly easier as new volunteers have joined the team - each of them putting in between three and ten hours a week. “We’ve had several people splitting up with partners and actual hair loss”, she says. “You lie awake worrying about disasters, worst case scenarios and emergency situations”. Then there’s the money, a tightrope walk between value for festival-goers and making ends meet - “There was just a couple of per cent in it last year”. Poppy’s research suggests that people are simply not ready to pay the £18 or £20 per day it would cost to stage the festival at Ashton Court.

The issue of what people are prepared to pay for their entertainment is clearly decisive . “We struggled hugely with the legacy of being a free event when we had to increase charges”, says Jennifer Crook. “In Bristol, we are spoilt for choice with free events. It’s one of the city’s selling points but it raises expectations”. Tim Roberts agrees, saying that Ashton Court’s biggest challenge was “massive popularity, coupled with a strong desire on the part of the public to get it for nowt. If punters had stumped up £10 a head then we’d probably still all be trekking up that hill”.

With that in mind, whether ‘Ashton Court’ has a future depends on what people want from it, and how much they’re prepated to pay for the privelege. “As we always used to say, it’s not 1974 anymore”, says Jennifer Crook. “Is a community event one which thousands of people from all across Bristol can go to, or one with little or no entry price that fewer people can attend?” In the current climate, it looks increasingly like a two way choice between a commercial festival with a big name lineup and a truly local one built on the talent and passion of the city. If it’s the second option we want, we already have Brisfest and it’s getting stronger each year.

If the stress, risk and sheer hard graft involved in organising a community festival sounds a little daunting, it’s refreshing to hear how upbeat the organisers themselves are about the experience. “It’s so rewarding when you see it all come together” says Poppy, “and think 'Wow! this is what can be created when everyone pulls together’”. “It was exhausting and it took over my life for four years”, says Jennifer, “but when it ended I felt like my best friend had died. If I could bring it back to life this minute, I would. It was the best job I ever had”.

Brisfest 2010 takes place from 24th - 26th September. For more information, see

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