North Devon in 100 Objects: 59. A Festival Programme

The front cover for a festival programme booklet. It has cream borders, a green centre and black and white text.

This programme represents a highlight in North Devon’s cultural history.  From 1953 until 1958 the Taw & Torridge Festival Society promoted a wide-ranging programme of cultural events, starting in North Devon and spreading to the rest of the county.

Ronal Duncan was a journalist, librettist and playwright who lived for much of his life on a farm in Welcombe, near Hartland.  He was dismissive of the local culture, saying “One thing is certain: I cannot have been attracted to Devon because of any cultural vitality there.”

In 1952, with his friend Benjamin Britten, he conceived the idea of creating a Festival. The 1953 Festival included the first ever performance of John Gay’s Beggars Opera in his hometown, concerts by Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, and Ronald Duncan’s own play, Don Juan.  There was an exhibition of paintings by Turner at the Burton Art Gallery, and a Grand Ball as well as firework displays, boat processions and a cricket match.

The Festival was funded by membership at 3 guineas a head, and the Mayors of Barnstaple and Bideford, meeting on neutral ground at Instow, agreed to put a penny on the rates.   Culturally it was a great success, with 10,000 tickets sold, but financially it made a loss.

Later years included regular visits by the Ballet Rambert, and in 1955 the English premier of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, performed by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop.  But by now the Festival, spread over the county, was running out of steam and Duncan was moving on to other projects.

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