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From Blenheim Palace to Fawley Court: Literature in Oxfordshire

In September-October we celebrate writing with events such as Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature Film and Music and Henley Literary Festival
Downton Abbey Chronicler Jessica Fellowes

No more Downton Abbey?

Everyday I’m appreciative of great writing; driving into work with The Courteeners playing; flicking through my scrapbook where I’ve noted down all manner of quotes (from Oliver Twist and Wuthering Heights to Shameless and Sugar Rush) or watching Suits before bed – my new Netflix fix.

In September-October we celebrate writing with events such as Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature Film and Music and Henley Literary Festival.

Below are details of both festivals as well as an interview with Downton Abbey expert and Henley Literary Festival highlight Jessica Fellowes.

So book your place to see a whole host of figures from stage, screen, politics and – of course – behind the writer’s desk.

And keep an eye out for our next issue where we’ll be discovering the delights of National Poetry Day again alongside Thame Arts & Literature Festival.

-          Sam Bennett

Fawley Court, Henley-On-Thames

Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature, Film and Music (24-27 September)

Following the launch of the 2015 programme for the Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature, Film and Music, renowned speakers have joined the stellar line-up for this year’s festival which takes place from 24-27 September 2015.

As part of the festival’s new partnership with ITV, actor, comedian and television presenter Alexander Armstrong will be discussing his new ITV documentary Land of the Midnight Sun with Paul Blezard, which follows his recent extraordinary 8,000-mile journey around the Arctic, accompanied by exclusive preview clips from the ITV documentary.

Also as part of the partnership, renowned celebrity chef Gino D’Acampo will speak to head of Oxford Gastronomica Donald Sloan on the subjects of food, Italy and his new upcoming television series, accompanied by special preview clips from the show. 

A special ITV Preview Screening of In the Shadow of Mary Seacole, a new documentary about the creation of Britain’s first statue of a named black woman, Crimean War heroine Mary Seacole, will be accompanied by a discussion from the sculptor Martin Jennings, film director Jamie Muir and executive producer Ed Taylor.

Other notable speakers for this year include HIH Prince Asfa-Wossen Asserate, who will discuss his new biography on the life of his great-uncle Emperor Haile Selassie who led the people of Ethiopia against Italian invasion in the 1930’s and during World War II. Alan Turing’s nephew Sir John Dermot Turing and BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera will discuss Professor Alan Turing’s genius in breaking Nazi codes during WWII and the impact of the Internet on the modern spy.

From the world of Music, celebrated composer Sir Karl Jenkins will talk about his new autobiography and Classic FM presenter John Suchet will explore the extraordinary impact of the Strauss family in Europe during the 19th century as they produced some of the world’s most recognised melodies, including The Blue Danube Waltz and Tales from the Vienna Woods. 

The Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature, Film and Music also welcomes back the Performance Research Group for the fourth year, a collective of theatre professionals and actors in training as part of the Guildford School of Acting, with their unique interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s farcical comedy The Importance of Being Earnest.

These will join speakers previously confirmed at the festival including Nelson Mandela’s eldest daughter Dr. Maki Mandela, Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, former President of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile Max Moseley.

To keep up to date with all the latest details and speaker announcements and to book tickets, please visit blenheimpalaceliteraryfestival.com.

Henley Literary Festival (28 September-4 October)

This autumn’s Henley Literary Festival is the biggest yet with 170 talks, Q&As, performances and workshops for adults and children, with speakers including Louis de Bernieres, Candace Bushnell, Ben Fogle, Tracey Thorn and Princess Michael of Kent.

 The Henley Literary Festival in association with Baillie Gifford takes place at venues across the picturesque riverside town from 28 September-4 October, including one of the UK’s oldest theatres, a boat on the Thames and the historic Fawley Court, which is opening its doors to the public for the first time in 175 years for a special event with Jessica Fellowes.

Fiction events range from international bestsellers Louis de Bernieres, Before I Go To Sleep author SJ Watson, Deborah Moggach and Sex & The City creator Candace Bushnell to newer talents including Emma Hooper, Renee Knight, Gill Hornby and Vaseem Khan. History will loom large as ever, including Stephen Church on Magna Carta, Peter Snow on Waterloo and Bonnie Greer on Rosa Parks. Food-writers Ella Woodward, Prue Leith, Shivi Ramoutar and Celebrity Masterchef winner Lisa Faulkner will all be appearing at the festival, as will music stars Tracey Thorn, Bob Harris and Dean Friedman.

From stage and screen there is Virginia McKenna, Glynis Barber, Pam St Clement and Not Going Out star Katy Wix, while sport will be represented by former England cricket coach David Lloyd and Australian Rugby World Cup winner Michael Lynagh. Politicians past and present include Kwasi Kwarteng, Caroline Lucas, Charles Clarke and William Waldegrave. Other speakers over the week include columnists Polly Vernon, Bryony Gordon, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Will Hutton, campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and comedians Helen Lederer, Emma Kennedy and Tim Key.

The Henley Literary Children’s Festival, supported by The Head Partnership, has doubled in size from 2014, with over 50 events ranging from interactive workshops to appearances from Charlie & Lola author Lauren Child and Hugless Douglas creator David Melling. There will also be Alice in Wonderland and Famous Five shows as well as free storytelling events in the Festival’s town square marquee over the weekend.

 Tickets are on sale online at henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk and by phone on 01491 575948.

 “The Downton train continues to trundle on”

Jessica Fellowes graces Henley Literary Festival with her presence on 3 October, 3:00pm, at Fawley Court. She is there to discuss her book The Wit & Wisdom of Downton Abbey; there will also be a preview of Downton Abbey: A Celebration.

Jessica was the perfect interviewee for OX given our county’s links with the much loved Downton Abbey which she has studied and written about extensively. We spoke to her about Julian Fellowes (her uncle who created and wrote the show), what she’s been up to Downton-wise and the news upsetting enough to break the heart of the nation and beyond:Downton Abbey will not be returning for a seventh series…

So no more Downton Abbey?

No more Downton Abbey, well not really…we’ve still got the sixth series to actually watch. But then it is finished so it’s very sad.

Sad but the right decision?

I do think it’s the right decision because they’re going out on a really cracking series and when we’re still in love with the show.

Perhaps there is a gap for a movie to be made and I feel like for the rest of my life there will be an episode of Downton Abbey playing on a television screen somewhere! It feels like it won’t ever really be over. I’m still going to be in America next year giving Downton Abbey talks – the Downton train continues to trundle on.

Does the fact the creator of the show, Julian Fellowes, is your uncle make your own Downton work more difficult in any way?

Well I don’t work on the actual show at all. Just on the books. The only thing that’s made it difficult is that I am even more conscious than I might be of wanting to get it right but then I hope I would be like that anyway.  

When I first started I waited for lots of accusations of nepotism and they haven’t really come – apart from the occasional remark at a dinner party. I think that is because I genuinely do work hard and have made myself into a Downton expert. But then it’s not been hard for me to do that; that period is one that I’ve always had an interest in, that’s what Julian and I have in common, and I’m a writer and I really do love the show.

It’s actually been really nice. Julian has got more and more successful and I’ve gone on and had a family. We’ve not seen as much of each other in the last year as when I was growing up and in my 20s; so having this to work on has been a really nice excuse to meet for lunch and chat on email and be in touch about other things as well.

You’ve recently done a lot of research into women in the early 20th century. Why did you decide to focus on that?

The female characters are very strong in the show. And Julian’s main points of reference when he first began were the women; Cora Crawley was almost the genesis of the show. He was thinking about the Buccaneers, the American women who came over to England from about the 1880s onwards and married into the aristocracy. And all those Buccaneers who weren’t famous, that weren’t Consuelo Vanderbilt or Jennie Churchill, that found themselves in a castle in Yorkshire a few years later having left everything behind – that was Cora. And then his great aunt, Isie Stephenson, was the inspiration for Violet the Dowager Countess.

And I just found it really interesting looking at a character like Edith and how she represented those women who before the First World War had been brought up to expect a certain kind of life that the war changed completely. I was fascinated by that and read some good books around it. So much in the current conversation is about women and feminism: those women were the forerunners of it, they got that movement going. I was drawn to a subject that was relevant to the show and what we’re talking about today.

You’ve got Downton Abbey: A Celebration coming out soon, can you give us a bit of an overview?

It’s a review of everything Downton! It’s looking back on everything since the very start of the show to the end of the sixth series. It is extraordinary when you look back to see how much changed from 1912-25; it’s only 13 years and yet it was as if 100 years had gone past. So much changed socially and politically, and technology, science and medicine all changed too. It’s very much like what’s happened to us in the last 15-20 years, if you looked at the beginning of the millennium today, we’re doing things in our daily lives that we couldn’t have imagined in 2000.

Downton Abbey: A Celebration is my fifth Downton book. What’s very different about this one is we’re bringing it out after episode 8 of series 6. Normally the books come out at the beginning of the series; so while we included as much photography as we could we had to be careful about spoilers; but with the new one there’s been the scope to discuss what happens in the sixth series – it’ll all be really fresh and have a different momentum to what we’ve done before.

You’re at Henley Literary Festival on 3 October at Fawley Court. There will be an abundance of questions; what do you get asked about the most and is there a particular Downton Abbey cast member people are most interested in?

People always like knowing about Maggie Smith because she’s the most iconic of all of the actors. Everybody’s got their favourite, I think that’s what works about the show, there’s such a wide range of characters that whoever you are you’ll find someone that you relate to or know someone similar to or get a kick out of disliking! A lot of people are passionate about Edith and want to know that she’s going to get a happy ending and a lot of people want to know that about Thomas too.

The question everybody who has anything to do with Downton gets asked the most is ‘Why is it such a success?’ None of us really know! As soon as I find out I’ll start writing my own show!

Maybe it’s nice not to know?



Jessica Fellowes is at Henley Literary Festival on 3 October, 3:00pm at Fawley Court, Church of St Anne


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