Hay Festival, Hay-on-Wye, Herefordshire

PUBLISHED: 16:28 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:09 20 February 2013

Peter Florence, director of the Hay Festival, talks to Hilary Engel about the delights and the difficulties of running the show.

Peter Florence, director of the Hay Festival, talks to Hilary Engel about the delights and the difficulties of running the show.

You know as soon as you see the three clocks on the wall that the Hay Festival has got big. What started out 21 years ago with Norman Florence "ringing a few people he knew" has now grown into a world-famous event which this year will entice fifty to sixty thousand people to a town which gets only a few dozen on market day. And it is no longer just one festival, but a whole family of them, extending from Wales to Spain and Colombia, perhaps soon to China and the United Arab Emirates as well.

The wall with the clocks is in Hay's former Drill Hall, where Norman's son Peter and his staff put together the fantastically complex programme which this year will range from Jimmy Carter to Ken Dodd. For Hay is by no means just a festival of literature: it embraces stars from many spheres.

"What I love about the Festival is that it's a great leveller," says Peter. "You can go and see an ex-President of the US, and then you can move on to a young poet you've never heard of." He is most proud of its ability to uncover new talent: people who "arrive here unknown, and leave with a tailwind".

Peter would include the novelist Arundhati Roy in this category, who won the Booker Prize for her first novel after appearing at Hay, and the great Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel. "We're expected now to keep turning out the big stars," he says, "but it's harder work finding the unknowns."

But how exactly did the Festival become so successful? "We had some lucky breaks, in the early days," says Peter. "In our second year we had a contact on the Sunday Times, and they were just starting a books section; so we worked together and that brought in a lot of writers for us. Then we knew someone at the American television network CBS, who got hold of Norman Mailer and Arthur Miller. Someone asked Miller if he knew Hay-on-Wye, and he said 'Is that some kind of a sandwich?' But he came - and he was our first ever guest to stay at Llangoed Hall."

As a town, Hay is the perfect size for a festival. "Aside from the Proms, there's no example of a festival working in a big city," says Peter. "The great advantage we had in Hay was that we knew who had the keys to the car park. We knew how to get hold of the plumber. That's the kind of thing that's important."

"I made a lot of mistakes. For the first ten years the whole thing was run on a completely amateur basis. We were very dependent on people working for nothing. It could have been disastrous; but in fact it grew very steadily, every year."

In 2001 the Festival made a leap: that was when Clinton came. "It changed then from being the biggest venue that most of our participants go to, to being the smallest that many of them go to. But a lot of them still say to us, 'This is the smartest bunch of people we ever talk to.'"

"We know exactly who our audience are: we survey them vigorously. They come from every income bracket, every walk of life. The single largest industry they work in is farming. Nine per cent work in health, eight per cent in education. We know that what they dislike most of all are bad weather and roadworks. But they all come here looking for new voices, for great conversation. It's very intimate, at Hay. It's designed like a supper party, with the audience as guests. They're interested in so many subjects: even if it's something they don't know anything about, they appreciate the conversation."

Now the Festival is the second biggest employer in town. There is a core staff of 12 in Hay, which swells to 120 for the duration of the Festival, ten days at the end of May. "The people who run it are all local," says Peter. Twelve other staff members are running the festivals abroad. The Hay Festival has a turnover of 9 to 10 million pounds a year, but it is a charity: "a social enterprise, not a business enterprise," says Peter.

Local businesses have given it "extraordinary support", sponsoring and hosting events. Festival-goers no longer browse in Hay's second-hand bookshops as much as they used to - they can spend the whole day on the Festival site on the edge of town, with its cafs and stalls, which makes some townspeople grumble. But then the book business has changed dramatically in recent years, and the shops now in any case do most of their selling online.

And how do Peter and his colleagues decide who to invite? "About thirty per cent of the speakers are pitched at us by agents and publishers," he says. "We turn down about two thousand a year. We have a circle of advisors, and we have partnerships with festivals in Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere, so we exchange ideas with them. Half of them are people who trained at Hay. We have a gold list, of people who give a great performance, and a black list, so we know who to avoid."

"Also I read a lot. You know within the first page whether you want to read any more. And my wife used to be a publisher: she has far better taste in fiction than me. I rely on her judgement."

Some guests can be tricky. Having been invited to speak on one subject, they may announce their intention of doing something completely different. "I've learned that it's best to be counter-intuitive," says Peter. "So, if you've got Trevor Macdonald, you don't ask him to speak about newsreading. You find something else that he's passionate about. If you've got Jamie Oliver, you get him to talk about animal management, not cooking."

Peter is not a native of Hay: his parents came to live here while he was at university. He grew up in Cardiff and London, and went to boarding school in Suffolk. His favourite thing at school was rugby, which he played "all the time" - and to a high standard.

His parents were both actors. Norman Florence, who was "part-Malay, part-Spanish, part-Irish, part-Zulu", had come to England from South Africa on a scholarship. He was "a glamorous, beautiful, bad actor", according to Peter, and appeared in various movies including A Hard Day's Night and The Singer Not the Song. In later life, after a heart attack, he moved into theatre management.

He met Peter's mother, Rhoda Lewis, at Nottingham Playhouse. She came from a Welsh farming family. She was a serious and successful actress, playing leading roles at Bristol Old Vic, acting opposite Peter O'Toole, and appearing on television.

Peter went to Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1983 to read modern languages and classics, and spent three years "having fun". He was at the Sorbonne for a year, where he had a wonderful time being a flneur - an intellectual loafer. He saw a lot of films and plays, read a lot of nineteenth-century literature. He was deeply impressed by a Peter Brook production of The Mahabharata, the ancient Indian epic poem, that he saw there.

Then he came back to Cambridge and in his final year started studying, which he found "thrilling". "We were the first generation who'd been allowed to write about cinema, and drama, and television, and relate it to European literature." He took a particular interest in war poetry, seeing poets as the best "truth-tellers" about war; and after leaving Cambridge he and his father staged a one-man show based on Wilfred Owen's The Pity of War, which they took on tour around Europe.

He remembers a moment in Kosovo, where they put on the show in 1984, where a colonel in the Royal Welch came to speak to them and fished out of his pocket a copy of Owen's poem Dulce et Decorum Est, which he had carried with him ever since school.

It was after this tour, coming home to Hay, that Florence senior came up with the idea of phoning a few friends they had met on their travels and asking them to come and chat to a small audience. Peter, having found academia "too dry", and acting "not engaging enough", now discovered his mtier. "I was fascinated by how you can mediate private experience, how you can share it - though I have a deep horror of therapy, and being interviewed."

"I've always taken the view that poetry is no more valuable necessarily than journalism, or screen writing. Something like Jeremy Sandford's Cathy Come Home can have the most profound effect. It can make people think about things differently. Powerful writing can give us glimpses of truth; and sharing that with other people is the greatest gift."

Peter is committed now to living in Herefordshire, with his wife Becky and four young sons. He wants his children to grow up here: his oldest son is about to start at Fairfield High School.

"The Festival is very dependent on the local community: we're very publicly accountable. I get accosted in the street: everyone has an opinion about what we should be doing."

"I'm proud of the longevity of the Festival," he says. "The local people take it for granted now that there will be Nobel Laureates and Oscar winners around. And I'm proud of the fact that they all come to our party."

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