Harrogate shows how a world class event is done as bestselling writers come to town

There may have been doubts earlier in the year about whether Harrogate would see the return of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival but its enduring popularity is no mystery, Graham Chalmers discovers after visiting the world class event last weekend.

Friday, 30th July 2021, 3:38 pm
Updated Friday, 30th July 2021, 3:41 pm
Broadcaster Richard Osman, right, in conversation with Mark Billingham at the Theakston Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate last Sunday.

Only a few months ago, no one was quite sure if this year’s Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate would be able to return properly but, boy oh boy, did it make the most of the chance.

Top authors and thousands of thrilled visitors have hailed the return last week of the biggest event of its kind in Europe as “the best in a decade”.

Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson arriving in the grounds of the Old Swan Hotel at at the Theakston Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate accompanied by his wife Carolyn.

Presented by Harrogate International Festivals at the Old Swan Hotel, the revival of physical events at this year’s festival followed a switch to digital streaming in 2020 at the height of the pandemic.

A delighted Sharon Canavar, Harrogate International Festivals chief executive, said: “Covid has had a massive impact on the arts, and it was very much touch and go if this year’s festival would actually proceed.

“After so much uncertainty, it was absolutely amazing to have delivered The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.

“The feedback we have received has been simply phenomenal, and everyone was just so incredibly happy to be back amongst friends again.”

Social distancing was at a premium in the carefully organised four-day feast of crime literature with events taking place in a large marquee rather then the hotel where Agatha Christie famously went into hiding in 1926.

Despite the precautions, the atmosphere was as superb as ever in the summer sun, with fans of the genre treated to a series of daily talks, discussions and interviews featuring a host of household names, including Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham, Anne Cleeves and BBC Arts presenter, Mark Lawson.

The event started with the annual presentation of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, which was won by Chris Whitaker for his book, We Begin at the End, and ended with Richard Osman in conversation with Mark Billingham.

The enormous contribution made since the festival’s beginnings nearly two decades ago by this year’s programming chair, Ian Rankin OBE, was recognised with the Theakston Old Peculier Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award 2021, while Mark Billingham was presented with the Theakston Old Peculier Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award 2020.

The last Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival held “physically” was back in 2019.

It’s not been easy for the event since then or for its organisers but it has received a lot of support.

Sharon Canavar said: “We would not have been able to go ahead had it not been for our programming committee, our sponsors, in particular our headline sponsor, Theakston’s, The Old Swan Hotel, the wider HIF team, and all our brilliant supporters.

“We were trending on Twitter both at the festival, but also the #notatharrogate hashtag for all those who couldn’t get a ticket, which meant that we were at the forefront of people’s minds both on and off site.”

“The chapter of this edition of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival might have closed, but we will begin planning for next year’s event very soon.”

For more info about Harrogate International Festivals, visit www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com.

The stars who lit up this year's Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate

The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival may be renowned for its easy charm and the way the stars of crime fiction mingle freely with the fans but there was still a frisson of excitement on the final day as former Home Secretary Alan Johnson arrived in the grounds of the Old Swan Hotel.

Accompanied by his wife Carolyn, the author of a series of bestselling memoirs including This Boy was there to chair The Politics of Crime panel on Sunday morning, which included veteran BBC newsreader, George Alagiah.

Also causing a quiet stir at the festival in a civilised Harrogate manner was Richard Osman, whose debut novel The Thursday Murder Club has been a runaway success and a million-copy bestseller since it was published less than a year ago.

Sunday morning saw the much-loved presenter of BBC TV’s Pointless in conversation with writer Mark Billingham.

The 6ft 6in broadcaster also proved his worth the previous night when he helped his team win a crime writing themed quiz hosted by Val McDermid and Mark Billingham.

How Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival stayed safe but fun

There were a number of differences at this year’s Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate.

Rather than being in an interior room at the Old Swan Hotel, (pictured) the main stage was located in a giant marquee, which allowed for plenty of spacing and ventilation.

In addition, only those with tickets were allowed on the site to minimise the risk of any infection and authors and festival staff from being ‘pinged’.

Numbers attending each individual event were also restricted.

But the buzz of a famously enjoyable event was still there and attendees reported the atmosphere at this year’s crime writing festival was wonderfully relaxed.

Harrogate International Festivals chief executive Sharon Canavar said: “The feedback received by the HIF team has been truly phenomenal.

“Comments from those attending the event ranged from ‘Best festival in a decade’, ‘phenomenal job’, ‘an absolute tour de force’, ‘astonishing stuff in trying times’, ‘the most relaxed, fun one, I’ve ever done, and there have been some good ones’, ‘loved it this year’ , and ‘a dream of a weekend’.”