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Calm perseverance key for festival guru
Tony Byrne knows all about last-minute hitches. As special adviser to the Blenheim Palace and Oxford Literary Festivals he is used to celebrity guests cancelling at the last moment and things going wrong behind the scenes.
With the start of the Blenheim festival just days away, he jokes that his motto is ‘Keep calm and carry on’.
The event, which runs across five days, attracts 7,000 visitors who come to hear 100 speakers from the world of politics, literature and art.
This year the stellar line-up includes Sir John Major, Ruth Rendell, Rick Stein and singer Beverley Craven.
Back in March at the Oxford Literary Festival it was an even bigger juggling act, with 550 speakers over nine days.
When things go wrong they often leave a hole in the budget.
He said: “This year we had Rupert Everett booked but his doctor ordered him to rest and he had to cancel.
“We had to refund £12,000 worth of tickets.”
He juggles these duties with his ‘day job’ as director of London-based Somerset House Trust.
Divorced with two grown-up daughters, he lives in Woodstock.
In the 1980s he worked at Bristol Arts Centre, where he helped create the Watershed arts complex.
His next role as director of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) saw him rubbing shoulders with Hollywood greats Sir John Mills, Sir David Lean and Audrey Hepburn.
Other high-profile roles followed, including Corpus Christi in Cambridge and The Marine Society and Sea Cadets.
Ask him to spill the beans about difficult authors he remains tight-lipped.
“It comes back and bites you,” he said warily.
Setting up huge deals requires the tact and patience of an international diplomat.
“Some committees leak like sieves,” he said.
“It can cost you millions in terms of lost sponsorship, if someone says something stupid and the company just walks away.”
Literary festivals are thriving, Mr Byrne believes, because people are fed up with what he calls the dumbing-down of our media.
He pointed out: “In my childhood, politicians gave speeches in public halls around the country and were heckled.
“All our politicians do is sound-bites for TV and radio and never appear in public, unless it’s carefully stage-managed.
“People are starved of proper dialogue and discussion.
“One of the most successful elements of our festivals is the debates.
“Lots of people say we shouldn’t give such-and-such a person a platform for their beliefs.
“But if you can’t discuss these ideas at Oxford, where can you?”
The Blenheim Palace Literary Festival runs from September 18-22. Call 01993 812291 or go to blenheimpalaceliteraryfestival.com
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