'Long and twisting road' that means world's greatest crime writing festival can start today in Harrogate

The arts are back in Harrogate - but it’s not been easy admits a leading arts figure in the week ‘Freedom Day’ arrived  with the promise of an events bonanza over the summer months.

Thursday, 22nd July 2021, 10:41 am
Updated Thursday, 22nd July 2021, 10:42 am
Sharon Canavar Chief Executive Harrogate International Festivals at The Old Swan for the launch of Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. (Picture Gerard Binks)

Sharon Canavar, chief executive of Harrogate International Festivals, said it had been a “long and twisting road” to bring world-famous writers to town today, Thursday for the start of Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.

“As an arts charity, we have been worried,” she said. “There’s been a devastating number of casualties in arts festivals over the last two years. We know we’re lucky to be holding a festival at the Old Swan Hotel this summer. The road to being back at the Old Swan has been long and twisting but we have some amazing staff and supporters and we have missed our audiences.”

Hailed as the greatest event of its kind in the world, the story of the return of the Theakstons Crime Writing Festival has taken many twists and turns and organisers Harrogate International Festivals have had to plot its revival with great care and patience over many months.

But the end result is a four-day feast of the world’s greatest crime writers coming to Harrogate in person for the first time in two years.

That the festival, which runs from today until Sunday, is on at all in a physical way, albeit with guidance and limited capacity still in place, is great news for audiences and vindication of HIF’s decision to take a positive but cautious approach.

For chief executive Sharon Canavar, it’s a relief to get back to normality with an event which kicks off tonight, Thursday, with a glittering ceremony to unveil the winner of the annual Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award.

Sharon Canavar said: “We we are delighted to be bringing the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival back to life again this year.

“It has been a real journey to bring this year’s festival to life.

“We are proud to have got to this point after so many challenges.

“Things might look a little different but with a series of headliners including Val McDermid, Richard Osman, Ann Cleeves and Mark Billingham, our line up is set to up to be just as fabulous as ever.”

Once described by Lee Child - author of the Jack Reacher series of novels who has sold more than a 100 million books worldwide - as “the best crime festival in the world”, the highlights of the four-day event would make a small book in themselves and are simply too numerous to spell out in full.

Programmed by Ian Rankin OBE, the celebrated creator of Inspector Rebus which has spawned 21 books so far, the line-up will be served up to an audience not quite as big as normal - thanks to forward-thinking by organisers determined the show would go on in a Covid-safe way.

The best-selling author said: “After nearly a year-and-a-half of once-in-a-lifetime challenges, I couldn’t be more excited to stage this celebration of all things crime.

“It is going to be absolutely marvellous to be able to safely gather together and celebrate the genre that we all love so dearly.”

Taking place from Thurday, July 22 to Sunday, July 25 at the Old Swan Hotel - the infamous scene of Agatha Christie’s mysterious disappearance in 1926 - the festival features crime-writing royalty in the form of one-on-one interviews with some very special guests and group discussions that go to the heart of what’s happening in crime fiction right now.

As well as some of the biggest-selling authors on the planet, the festival also offers some of the the hottest and hippest literary figures in cutting edge panel discussions - including Chris Brookmyre, Martyn Waites, Mick Heron, Elly Griffiths, Anna Bailey and Patricia Marques.

The decision earlier in the year that the crime writing festival would be returning as a live event was well received by audiences, with over 80% of early ticket bookers for the 2020 Festival transferring their tickets immediately to 2021.

Organisers remained optimistic during all the speculation about the ins-and-outs of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown which had first been announced in February.

That faith appears to have paid off.

Sharon Canavar, added: ‘‘Whilst the ongoing pandemic has proven to be extremely dynamic with rules and regulations changing constantly, the Government Roadmap suggested a return to normality by summer.

“We have been adapting and evolving our plans to be able to deliver a safe and agile festival in line with whatever the Government regulations may be at the time, with additional safety measures where necessary.

“We have also been keen to ensure the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival retains the iconic feel that has ensured its place as the most successful crime writing festival in the world.

“We are so grateful and proud that, after so many challenges, we are able to share this brilliant programme with the public.”

Now in its 16th year, the crime festival was first launched in 2003 and was an instant success.

It is now celebrated across the globe not just for attracting the biggest stars in crime fiction - from international superstars such as John Grisham and Jeffery Deaver to homegrown talent such as Val McDermid and Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio.

It is also widely regarded as a festival where fans and writers mingle as one at the events and at the bar in a relaxed and entertaining but always informative way.

Sponsors Theakston of Masham have been there from the start with their support and also their beers.

Simon Theakston, Executive Director of Theakston, said: “It’s finally here - the crime fiction event of the year. We can’t wait to welcome everyone.

“What an incredible line up of criminal masterminds and devious debutants.

“Theakstons is always so proud to support the biggest and best crime writing festival in the world and this year’s event feels like a long time coming.”

The irony that it's the launch of the crime writing festival leading the arts revival in the Harrogate district will not be lost on fans flocking to the Old Swan Hotel today.

An event which offers real evidence that the arts world is finally coming back to life is one where the focus is on death and wrong-doing, in fiction at least!