30 years of Charleston Festival: full programme revealed

This year Charleston Festival celebrates its landmark 30th anniversary with a line-up of exceptional speakers.

Charleston Festival takes place annually in the gardens of Charleston, the rural Sussex home of the Bloomsbury group, and draws inspiration from the radical artistic and intellectual legacy of its past visitors including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and Roger Fry as well as its inhabitants Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

This year Charleston Festival celebrates its landmark 30th anniversary with a line-up of exceptional speakers. Running from 17-27 May, the festival of books, ideas and creativity will explore themes from feminism and identity to international politics and Brexit, political art to scientific progress:

  • Gina Miller on lessons learnt from standing up for justice and for herself
  • The Challenge of Climate Justice, a lecture by Mary Robinson, recipient of the 2019 Charleston John Maynard Keynes Prize
  • Caroline Criado Perez and Cathy Newman on gender gaps in data and in history
  • Naomi Wolf discusses her new book ‘Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love’
  • Director of BBC News Kamal Ahmed on prejudice and growing up in ’70s Britain
  • The Godfather of pop art Peter Blake
  • And appearances by: Vanessa Redgrave, Eileen Atkins, Alan Bennett, Melvyn Bragg, Simon Callow, Lionel Shriver, Andrew Motion, Tina Brown, Michael Palin, Bonnie Greer, Jeanette Winterson, Bettany Hughes, Martin Rees and Costa Book of the Year award winner Bart van Es.

Nathaniel Hepburn, Director and Chief Executive of Charleston said:

“The original inhabitants of Charleston – painters, writers and thinkers – met around the dining room table to discuss and interrogate art, literature, ideas and contemporary society. These conversations, stimulated by 30 years of thought provoking Festival events, have continued to resonate in Charleston’s packed events marquee and beautiful walled garden.”

Campaigner and businesswoman Gina Miller will kick-off the 11-day event. She came to prominence by successfully challenging the UK government’s attempt to trigger Article 50, and will discuss the consequences of standing up for justice and whether her campaign can inspire those trying to make a difference in other contexts.

Former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, has been announced as the winner of the fifth Charleston John Maynard Keynes Prize. In the spirit of John Maynard Keynes’ work, life and legacy, this global prize recognises Robinson’s outstanding contribution to society. Mary Robinson said:

“I am delighted to have been awarded a Prize which pays tribute to John Maynard Keynes. In 2019 we are marking the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles post World War One. Keynes played a crucial role in warning that punitive reparations would lead to disaster rather than justice. His humanitarian advice was rejected and World War Two followed. We are at a similar turning point today. We need the nations of the world to come together to take necessary action to avert the global catastrophe of climate change. We need to show the same spirit of solidarity that John Maynard Keynes displayed in his time.”

Diana Reich, Artistic Director of the Charleston Festival said:

“This 30th anniversary Festival is a culmination of the values that have threaded through the Charleston Festival programme since its inception: openness, originality and interrogation. We are particularly delighted to announce that the Charleston John Maynard Keynes Prize will be awarded to Mary Robinson for highlighting the danger of climate change in the developing world.”

Also, marking the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference and the 75th anniversary of the Bretton Woods conference, historian Margaret MacMillan, who gave the 2018 Reith Lectures, will deliver a specially commissioned talk: Learning from the Past?

As Charleston was the home of artists, the Festival has sessions devoted to art, ranging from Leonardo da Vinci and the Pre-Raphaelites to graphic art and the Surrealists. Painter, sculptor, draughtsman and printmaker, Peter Blake, will whisk us back to the heady days of ’60s pop art and Maria Balshaw, director of Tate, will lead a discussion with sculptor Hazel Reeves on popular culture and protest.

Reflecting the Bloomsbury Group’s legacy of progressive gender politics, the Festival looks at the achievements of remarkable women past and present. Feminist activist Caroline Criado Perez will discuss her new book, Invisible Women, a powerful and eye-opening analysis of the gender politics of knowledge, and Helena Kennedy will address discrimination in the legal system. Cathy Newman explores the pioneering woman left out of the history books, and Tina Brown one of journalism’s legendary figures will discuss The Vanity Fair Diaries, an irreverent account of her years as editor-in-chief of one of the world’s best-known glossies.

Naomi Wolf, the bestselling author of The Beauty Myth and Vagina, illuminates the dramatic consequences of the Obscene Publications Act 1857. Her ‘Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalisation of Love’ reveals how this single English law had long lasting reverberations, including the creation of the modern concept of ‘obscenity’ and the consolidation of homophobia.

Editorial Director of BBC News Kamal Ahmed will talk about his memoir, ‘The Life and Times of a Very British Man’, describing what it was like to grow up as part of the first generation of mixed-race children in 1970s Britain in the wake of Enoch Powell’s incendiary 1968 “rivers of blood” speech – a candid contribution to the ongoing conversation about race and identity in the UK.

Newsnight’s Mark Urban, who interviewed Sergei Skripal at his home in Salisbury just prior to the near-fatal poisoning which dominated news headlines, will recount the gripping, topical story of the double agent’s career as a spy in Russian military intelligence, his recruitment by MI6, imprisonment in his homeland and eventual release to the UK.

Some familiar faces will be back to celebrate 30 years of the Festival. Distinguished actor, author and director, Simon Callow introduces and presents a dramatic reading of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’. Melvyn Bragg re-imagines the legendary romance between Héloïse and Abelard – one of history’s most passionate true love stories. Alan Bennett provides an irresistible mixture of readings from his plays and prose. In an exceptional double act, two of our most renowned theatrical actors Eileen Atkins and Vanessa Redgrave perform the parts of Vita and Virginia, a play they starred in on Broadway in 1994. Closing the Festival will be author and intrepid traveller Michael Palin.