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Oxford Literary Festival: Day Two

Jeremy Smith is on his second day at Oxford Literary Festival, which features John Gordon-Reid, Julian Clary and Sir Ian McKellen
"Indeed, I don't think a single child was overlooked in John's talk, with some willingly turning themselves into amphibians, and others enthusiastically becoming dinosaurs."


It's the early bird that catches the worm, so despite the fact it's early Sunday morning, I want to be sure I pick the best of the best from today's Lit Fest, and right at the top of my bucket list is... (well, you don't need a degree in psychology from Oxford University to work this out), Sir Ian McKellen tonight at 6.00pm at Worcester College.

Julian Clary (© Eddie Botsio)


I'll be honest though, my knee-jerk choice for today was going to be the Minibeast Adventure taking place at Worcester College this morning, but since it's sold out, Sir Ian I'm sure will make a fine fall-back alternative.

However, not wanting anything too stodgy for this Sunday morning, I've plumped instead for 'The 4-Billion Year Story of Life on Earth', as told by John Gordon-Reid at Weston Library: Blackwell Hall at 11.00am.

Yes, the subject matter could make it a rather large slice of cake to swallow, but since it's for children, and is free, it's my guess it could prove to be a roller coaster of a ride.

And now that's the morning and evening taken care care of, what about the afternoon?

Well, who could resist comedian, author, broadcaster and all-round nice guy Julian Clary at Oxford's Sheldonian at 2.00pm, introducing us to his new children's book 'The Bolds to the Rescue'.

Focusing, as it does, on a family of hyenas who just happen to live in a nice suburban house (who WOULDN'T want to be a children's writer?), it seems the perfect filling for a literary sandwich bookended by evolution and a true knight of the stage.

At least I'm hoping so....


Just waiting for 'The 4-Billion Year Story of Life on Earth' to start.

Poor old John Gordon-Reid. He seems terrified that no-one's going to turn up but already people are spilling in.
Dressed reassuringly in a bow tie (isn't that what all academics are supposed to wear?) he's perfect for presenting a talk on a wedge of world history most of us barely know about.

Well, now it's started and it turns out John didn't need be worried about all - every seat is taken, full of families and, surprisingly, single people too.

"Your left finger is on the Big Bang and mine is on today" says John, calling upon his first under-10 volunteer, "so you'll probably get the first round of applause of today."
As indeed he just has.

Sadly - and appallingly - Blackwell Hall, which is open to the public, offers no wi-fi so I can't upload this 'live'.
So just accept this all happened about 42 minutes ago but the warm after-glow is still percolating through me.

"Hopefully we'll get through four-and-a-half billions of history in about... 35 minutes," says John, which he did with the constant help of a multi-pocketed coat and just about as many children as you could fit into a state junior school.

Indeed, I don't think a single child was overlooked in John's talk, with some willingly turning themselves into amphibians, and others enthusiastically becoming dinosaurs.

Of course with an audience of this type, tales of two-metre long millipedes are going to go down well, but even accompanying parents were on the edge of their seats and desperate to get involved.

You know, this is precisely the kind of event the Lit Fest does so well - it's free, utterly accessible and leaves you almost fighting the inevitable: to leave sporting a huge, big, stupid grin.

Yes, the noise of baristas banging out people's cappuccinos in the Bodleian cafe was an unnecessary interruption, but John and his audience managed to blank out this unwelcome distraction.

I liked this. I liked this a lot, and so far - although of course it's only day two - it's been my favourite event.
Indeed, I've left feeling like David Attenborough though near near as intelligent...


Currently sitting in the Festival's 'Green Room at the Randolph Hotel.

Wi-fi here is about as old as Bruce Forsyth, so if you are reading this, well, just remember it's Sunday, so maybe somebody... "up there" is taking an interest.

Anyway, this is where all the authors come before they give their talks.

And in case you were wondering (as I was hoping) it ISN'T full of bottles of champagne, plates of lobster or the bright and beautiful.

Right now, it's just me and a cup a coffee.


I was wrong - Julian Clary's just walked in.

Bloody hell, big bloke - at least rugby player size!

In a million, billion years I would never have suspected Julian Clary - of all people - would make such a naturally gifted children's entertainer. But trust me, he does.

From the moment he took to the stage with illustrator David Roberts for their new book 'The Bolds to the Rescue' the audience was in stitches.

Irrepressible giggles, hearty laughs, cheerful chuckles, howls, screams, snickers and then even more giggling.

After two minutes, and I don't think Mr Clary had even settled himself comfortably, the audience were hooked.

Indeed, it actually reminded me how actor and comedian Kenneth Williams, who no-one, least of all the great man himself, would have considered a natural fit for young audiences, actually relaunched his entire career after just one appearance on BBC's Jackanory.

Likewise Mr Clary could be teetering on the edge of a similar rebirth, such was his immediate and joyously warm reception today.

I know I said 'The 4-Billion Year Story of Life on Earth' was my favourite event so far (and that was what, three hours ago at Blackwell's Hall?) but I can be fickle, and especially so when confronted with an absolute truth.

Which is this...Mr Clary's performance this afternoon will prove, I'm sure, to be one of the highlights of this year's whole festival.

Yet surprisingly the Sheldonian wasn't packed, but as humorist David Baddiel admitted yesterday at his event, also staged at the Sheldonian and also similarly light on people, it was a fact he was getting used to as people still thought of him first and foremost as an adult, or grown-up entertainer than the successful author of children's books.

And that of course is entirely understandable, but had I not myself seen Mr Clary connect so brilliantly with his young audience just a few, short minutes ago, I too would have wondered as to the suitability of the mix.

In short, he managed to live up brilliantly to his rather charming moniker - one, incidentally, I hadn't heard before - of being not so much a national treasure as a national 'trinket'.

The event itself was brilliantly staged with illustrator David Roberts drawing his hyena creations 'live' (the Bolds of course are a family of hyenas who relocate to Teddington) while Julian read excerpts from his book.

Top-notch 24-carat gold. 

And frankly I could sit through it all over again.

Sir Ian Mckellen at the Sheldonian

He just walked in.

Completely unannounced.

And then suddenly a murmur of recognition ran through the audience as he stood at the front, bowed, and took sole ownership of the Sheldonian.

Yes, Sir Ian McKellen was being interviewed by Worcester College Professor Sir Jonathan Bate, a renowned Shakespearian scholar, but quite frankly he could have been from Mars.

All people had come to see, and listen to, was Sir Ian.

And I can see why.

Admittedly, I wasn't interested in the Shakespeare angle of the talk and in truth, I wonder just how many other people in the audience were. I just wanted to see one of this country's greatest actors so I could say I had.

And the fact he had played Gandalf in Peter Jackson's 'Lord of The Rings' and set himself up something rotten opposite Ricky Gervais in TV's 'Extras' was all icing on the cake as far as I was concerned.

Reassuringly, he didn't disappoint.

He was even, dare I admit it, very cool about Shakespeare.

He talked about his early years at Cambridge and explained how he first came face to face with the Bard.

"I was eight years old and living in Wigan, and my sister was going to take me to see an amateur production of Twelfth Night," he explained.

"She was desperately trying to explain the story to me but I told her to stop.

"What's the point in going to see it," I said, "if I already know what'll happen."

"Anyway, it must have had a favourable reaction because shortly afterward we went to see Macbeth too."

Clearly he was quite taken with Shakespeare and theatre in general because one Christmas Day he was given a toy theatre to play with, complete with cardboard cut-outs of Laurence Oliver and Jean Simmons performing Hamlet (now that's an anecdote...).

Anyway it was a superb evening, and I think it likely if one more person had been allowed in, the the Sheldonian would have burst.


- Jeremy Smith


Related Articles: Oxford Literary Festival: Day One