There is a three way divide in the programming for the event between the political, the celebrity and the writers themselves. Author Kate Atkinson can rub shoulders with Pat Barker one moment, and Liz Kendall the next. Meanwhile Chuka Umunna can bump into Alastair Darling one moment, and Sue Perkins the next. It has the balance of a panel on Have I Got News For You, only here, you can choose who you want to see.
Salman Rushdie, Kate Atkinson and Paula Hawkins are the box office of books. These three stars of the writing world were welcomed to Cheltenham for a coffee and a chit chat. Writers are everywhere, including popular historians and the biographers of absolutely anyone. An annual festival highlight is the Cheltenham Booker Prize in which a panel (putting the biographers to use) discusses a year in which the award was not contested. This year coincides with a bumper centenary that features works from Virginia Woolf, P.G. Wodehouse, John Buchan and Somerset Maugham. Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier comes out on top for its modernist excellence and perfect construction. Madox biographer Alan Judd makes a stellar case for the novel describing it as a perfectly formed sphere which would collapse if you took out one part of the whole. Much fun is had in the defence of John Buchan’s ‘rattling good yarn’ which immediately reduces its chances of getting anywhere near the award. In the end it is a tight race, but The Good Soldier triumphs over Of Human Bondage, which is deemed a bit too long and repetitive.
Politicians, on the other hand, are never long and repetitive, especially locomotive mouthed Alastair Campbell who gets events underway on The Forum stage. For the man popularly known as the inspiration for Malcolm Tucker, he is both candidly engaging and passively hostile to any possible dissidents. Campbell is on remarkably polite form showing that a Westminster wolfhound can be a literature festival poodle. After all, these people are paying to listen to him, not being paid to be lambasted. From an Alastair to an Alistair, Mr Darling takes the same stage later in the week. Campbell’s latest book is Winners; Alistair Darling certainly had little to win in his three year chancellorship, but an awful lot to lose. His face still drops on retelling the story of the three hour warning provided to save RBS in 2008. Nigel Lawson, the fracking, anti-EU, ex-Conservative Chancellor offers a different perspective, though Michael Portillo steams ahead of both. Portillo’s 11:30 slot tears the roof off the forum and shows the more dour ex-politicos how to shine in a brilliant power hour of anecdotal satisfaction.
Portillo is the change of line between the categories, having crossed the tracks to become a ‘popular ex-politician’: a mid-morning celeb to rival the likes of Andrew Marr, Robert Peston and Nick Robinson. In the evening, comedians are the draw. Nick Frost takes the lectern to read extracts from his autobiography, though a visual gag in which he looks up at the big screen behind, before stomping all over the audience in front, is a sweet satire of the sometimes sterile interview structure. Pointless’ Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman also parody the style by interviewing each other in a jokey hour that passes quickly, even with some caricatured product placement. In support of his new ITV series, Arctic Adventure, Armstrong is on customary bantering form. He is the kind of well spoken man anyone’s grandmother would happily have home for tea. Until he reveals he would eat Richard Osman. Albeit under the hypothetical choice of comedy partner Ben Miller or Osman for company if he was left stranded at the North Pole. Osman’s size apparently making him the more fulsome feast for an Arctic cannibal.
Though there might not be a Benedict Cumberbatch (2012), Damian Lewis (2014) or local Brockworth boy Simon Pegg (2010) to light the carpets red, the 2015 incarnation sees a spectacular overdose of culture to satiate even the most avid festival goer. Fortunately, unlike Hay-on-Wye or the Edinburgh Fringe, there is always the option of heading down the spa for cultural revival.