It was back in February this year that my new best Facebook friend, Glynis Madden, mentioned the Bridgnorth Music Festival.
The festival was in its fifth year and the idea was to expand it into the arts. I must admit my initial thoughts were, like any struggling writer, when 'festival' and 'arts' are mentioned in the same sentence – 'Hey, I may shift some of those second edition books stacked up in my garage.'
My first baptism into the world of organising a festival such as this was at The Bear, High Town. I was anointed at the font with Carling lager and became, in spite of my late grandfather's advice to keep your head down and volunteer for nothing, an official committee member.
Monthly meetings became weekly meetings and committees became sub-committees. Our band of volunteers swelled and so did our events and responsibilities. I would have made my old headmaster very pleased as his final summing up comments on leaving school: 'Simon sets himself remarkably low standards – which he fails to achieve!'
My first experience of how all the volunteers come together to work towards a common goal was the RACPA (Rock Against Child Pornography and Abuse) gig at the Castle Hall in Bridgnorth.
It took place on Saturday 17th July, the brainchild of organiser Luke Mills. Six diverse bands, from all over the country, gave their services for free to a very worthy cause. These talented rock and metal bands played for all their worth and the day was a great success.
Everyone worked tirelessly as the festival grew nearer and nearer. Bands were discussed and booked, venues selected and arrangements were made for crew, transport and accommodation. The arts side was also gaining momentum as family events were planned, artists were sought and their work displayed throughout the town, and authors were booked for talks and book signings. Even a family trail was planned and was extremely successful.
One idea I had, and which would be a labour of love, was to organise a Celebrity Charity Auction. This would evolve slowly and throw up a couple of memorable festival highlights for me personally.
An early call I received was from the Oscar-nominated Hollywood actress Elizabeth McGovern. I had approached the actress for a piece of memorabilia to put in our auction, having fallen in love with her after seeing her in The Bedroom Window, alongside Steve Guttenberg, and being mesmerised by her performance in Sergio Leone's epic Once Upon A Time In America, playing Robert DeNiro's love interest.
To my complete amazement the highly-respected actress not only wanted to help supply a couple of items for the auction but also play at our festival! In 2008 Elizabeth had formed a band, Sadie and the Hotheads, as lead singer and they had a successful album out called I Can Wait. Well, I couldn't wait and ticked off the days to her performance.
The festival kicked off on the 26th August with a launch party at Bambers Restaurant in the town. As soon as I strolled in through the doors, I knew the whole experience was well worth while. The walls were festooned with various art exhibits from our most talented and respected artists, the canapés were delicious, the champagne flowed and the laughter rattled the windows.
We were fortunate to have a very talented bunch of people from The Valley Radio capturing the essence and spirit of the festival with sound and vision. They mingled unobtrusively and interviewed and filmed every aspect of the festival and the launch party was no exception.
The speeches were entertaining and informative, and included a special word from our charity spokespersons. This year we had decided to raise money for two very worthy causes, MacMillan Cancer Support and Bridgnorth Hospital League of Friends. The guests dug deep and we raised a couple of hundred pounds via collections and a raffle. Also, art flew off the walls and again a percentage went towards our charities.
The 10 day Bridgnorth Music and Arts Festival officially started at 6pm on Friday, 27th August and the town buzzed with anticipation.
The weather was as kind as the people who attended the events that were sprawled all over Bridgnorth High Town and Low Town. Pubs and restaurants reverberated with different genres of music, art of every description hung in shop windows and the local library had authors from across the country discussing their latest works. For the first time in the festival's history music had come together with art and you could not see the join.
The Saturday was suddenly upon us and a plethora of literary talent strolled in and out of the Bridgnorth library, including such luminaries as RJ Ellory and Fran Sandham.
On the evening we had arranged a special premier festival screening, together with an introduction and Q & A session, of Finding Their Feet. It was the latest movie by the wonderful director Matt Daniels who had offered his time, for free, to help us raise money for our chosen charities. This was to be an extraordinary festival event and could not have happened without the generosity of Reel Cinemas. Our venue was the unique Majestic Cinema in Bridgnorth, and the 18 chain cinema company had offered us exclusive use of their 80-seater screen 2 room.
James Frizzell, the manager, was tireless in his energy and support for this event and his enthusiasm guaranteed that bums would be on seats. The cinema looked immaculate and a buffet had even been supplied for the guests.
A childhood ambition was fulfilled early on in the evening as I was invited up to the actual projection room. I walked up those tight steep narrow steps, which I thought belonged in a lighthouse, together with Matt the director and James the manager. Suddenly I was greeted by a steel door and I entered the beating heart of the cinema. To view these great hunks of metal, the projectors, dating back to the mid-forties, with 35mm reels the size of car tyres made the hairs on my neck stand to attention.
Following a short introduction the movie began and I was transfixed, like everyone else, by Matt Daniels' fantastic vision as we went on a rollercoaster of emotions. It was a magical moment and a thrill to see such a powerful production. All too soon it was over and the lights popped on and we were all back to reality. The questions were thrown at Matt like frisbees, all were intelligent and thoughtful and the answers were eloquent and entertaining.
The audience reluctantly filtered out of the cinema foyer, filling my charity bucket (getting heavier by the second) and disappeared into the night, all raving about the images and words they had just witnessed.
The Sunday saw one of the main events, under a huge sturdy canvas marquee – Music Festival in the High Street. This had taken almost as much logistical planning as a Red Arrows aerial display.
Although in its fifth year it was my first time witnessing music in the high street. It was amazing to see the different styles of various bands strutting about on the stage. The audience swelled from the start of the first note being struck at 12pm by the Antisocial Misfits and expanded to capacity as headline band, The Groundhogs, leaped down from the stage, to a crescendo of applause, at 6pm.
It is worth mentioning, as I was part of the crew, that I was never built or had the agility to move around a compact stage amongst musicians and other crew members, with valuable musical equipment within elbows reach and leads snaking over the stage. I have to say it was down to the skill of others around me that prevented me doing more damage than The Who or even breaking a leg – mine or someone else's.
The bank holiday Monday welcomed Acoustic Music on the Quayside and although it was the High Street gig on Diazepam, the mood fitted the artists. It was very relaxed and people gathered around the beautiful natural amphitheatre of Bridgnorth's quayside in Low Town. The marquee was modest compared to the high street, which was a perfect setting for the acoustic talent that paraded in front of a very appreciative audience. The vista was stunning as the artists sung, plucked, blew and strummed there way though many of their own songs, the beautiful river Severn backdrop murmuring away in perfect harmony.
It was a special treat for me as a few weeks before I had been contacted by the beautiful Hollywood starlet actress/writer/producer Hazel D'Jan, whose parents lived quite near to the area. She offered to meet me at Parlors Hall just before the Quayside event started up.
Any nerves I had about meeting this new up-and-coming star, who had several blockbuster movies in-production – including her latest, a $40 million epic alongside Val Kilmer, were quickly dispelled by a charming smile and calming manner.
Hazel oozed charisma and intelligence like all great actors do. After the actress very kindly handed over a couple of stunning signed photos from her soon-to-be-released movies for the Celebrity Charity Auction, we set off towards the distant music.
The sun was on its best behaviour and slipped from behind a cloud as Hazel and I strolled over the bridge, chatting about everything and nothing, towards the quayside playing area.
The band Flat Stanley, whose genre list includes psychedelic blues, folk, rock, punk and of course anarcho-hippie, were in full flow, their haunting sounds drifting over the river towards us.
Hazel had agreed to do an interview for The Valley Radio, Bridgnorth, and if on-cue Tony Russell had taken centre stage, performing a brilliant solo Flamenco guitar set and providing a fitting background score.
Mark Williams, MC for the whole festival and a man with as many amazing hats as there are days in the week, used his usual, easy manner to give a charming and informative over-view of the actress. A short photo shoot followed by festival photographer, Chris Rollason, and afterwards Hazel happily chatted to audience, artists and crew before being swept away for an important meeting in London.
For me the dream afternoon was at an abrupt end and I quickly changed from my dark Marks & Spencer suit into my roadie shorts and festival 'crew' shirt - only to to be told not to handle the drummer's highly polished symbols and to watch out for that mic stand!
Children danced, in between licking ice creams, and the grown-ups supped real ale and gin and tonics. The music remained at the expected high level and the audience clapped enthusiastically after every song.
After packing up, the last mic lead coiled like a snake, and clearing the quayside area, it was all over to the Bassa Villa to see HMV play their hearts out. The cherry on a very big cake was catching the last performance of the evening, The Reasoning, at the Bell & Talbot. I strolled back home under the stars, a little drunk from the energy and atmosphere of the day, and due to a little cider of course.
The Tuesday and the Wednesday I did try and catch my breath, as well as catching the odd festival band.
The Thursday I was particularly looking forward to as we had local writer Jeff Phelps give a talk and book signing followed by a talk by prolific novelist Kate Long. Kate's first book, a best-seller, was The Bad Mother's Handbook. This had been made into a film in the UK starring Catherine Tate and Robert Pattinson, and in the USA with Alicia Silverstone. When I had initially asked the author what she would like to talk about I was delighted when she told me the emphasis would be about her involvement from book to screen.
Another big night was fast approaching and I had to miss a couple of great author talks, during the afternoon, by David Whitley and graphic novelist James Pearson.
The Hollywood actress Elizabeth McGovern was performing with her band Sadie and the Hotheads on the evening of Friday 3rd September, together with great local singer-songwriter Nikki Rous and the well-respected Nelson Brothers. The latter were an integral part of the main feature and the backbone of Sadie and the Hotheads from the start.
I wanted everything to be right as we were also holding a special mini Celebrity Charity Auction during the interval. The wonderful TV expert, Philip Serrell, from Dickson's Real Deal and Bargain Hunt etc. had very kindly offered his time for a small donation to his chosen charity, St Richards' Hospice in Worcester.
Elizabeth had left her car on the other side of the town and dashed back to the Falcon Hotel, as she was booked to do an interview with BBC Radio Shropshire at 2:30pm. I was already there and helping the Nelson Brothers unpack the inexpensive musical items – it's amazing how word gets around.
It's quite complicated circumnavigating the one-way system and entering the Falcon car park so Elizabeth asked if I would walk her to the car and show her the way. For the second time in less than a week I strolled across the bridge over the river Severn with a Hollywood star at my elbow. The sun was still shining as we chatted about everything and nothing, and I had to admit that, for me, it does not get much better than this.
I had also played a small joke on the actress regarding the diva syndrome of famous actresses whose minute whims of fancy can be extraordinary.
Elizabeth and I had already swapped many emails, texts and conversations and never once showed the slightest hint of any diva expectations. In one text she very politely asked for a small room, at the Falcon, in which to change. At the end of the text she added, amusingly – "of course, I expect M & M's in my room – but only brown ones!" We chuckled about this and it was forgotten - this was until I spotted a bag of M & M's while out shopping with my daughter, Summer, who is very fond of the sweets. I'm not sure she was very impressed when I removed all the brown ones and placed them in a lace bag to put on the actress's pillow in her room at the Falcon.
I returned to the gig just before Nikki Rous kicked off the evening. Elizabeth immediately spotted me and came running over to hug me – it appears all her time in Hollywood she had never been treated so well, having her own bag of brown M & M's left in her private room. It became a running joke and something I think we will both treasure.
The whole evening was a great success. Auctioneer Philip Serrell was eloquent, funny and masterful as he glided through the auction items, deftly raising the bids to a ridiculous level, and helping two great charities along the way.
The standard of music was amazing and when Elizabeth's alter ego in the shape of Sadie and the Hotheads took to the stage everyone knew they were in for a special musical treat. The audience clapped and danced and it was all over way to soon.
The festival was drawing to a close but we still had a rabbit up our sleeve in the shape of Music in the Castle Grounds. Again the sun shone and the artists shone even brighter and entertained the growing crowd.
The usual suspects were there like Shebangg, Tim Barratt and Keefster etc. and names like Psychedelic Flo Bro And Dr Funkenstein assured us there was something for everyone.
Sadly I could not make the event as I had a date with a dalek!
It was some months previous, while chatting to my very good friend, entertainment biographer, Nigel Goodall, that we hatched an idea for him to visit the town during the festival on a book signing expedition. The venue would be WH Smith in the high street, and as well as signing his updated Johnny Depp biography, he would also sign his latest, David Tennant: A Life In Time And Space. In one particular photograph of a previous book signing event for the Tennant biography, Nigel was proudly standing next to a five and a half foot flashing gold dalek. I decided there and then I wanted it at our festival.
I then found out it was one of the original BBC Doctor Who series four Daleks. And although it had not worked for years, it still earned far more than me,and the festival budget just could not stretch to the amount. The owners of the dalek, Cobra Events, in Brighton, knowing it was going to help our charities, very generously agreed to do it for travel expenses and accommodation. Our next step was to put a plea out via the Shropshire Star and the Bridgnorth Journal to find a sponsor to pay for the dalek's travel and a guest house room for the night (preferably without steps – the early daleks could not climb them). Our night in shining armour came in the shape of Nick Dodd from Midland Computers, who generously covered all the costs.
I must admit the night before I did have a restless night and had a fragmented nightmare where the remote controlled dalek, in the middle of WH Smith, went berserk, flashing and screaming 'I Will Exterminate'. It then shot forward and demolished a freshly piled up stack of Tony Blair books, then reversed out of control and trapping a small child within the biography section. I awoke covered in sweat.
I need not have worried, the signing went off without a hitch and the Dalek, although threatening (which is part of its job), was immobile and behaved impeccably.
The penultimate night of this incredible festival was a test to see how much music I could cram into the few hours I had left of the Saturday evening. I think I did well and ticked off every musician or band in the brochure.
The End Of Festival Bash, at the Shakespeare, did exactly what it said on the tin. It was a time for everyone to let their hair down and, despite a few scares, near misses and the odd sleepless night, I still had some hair left to let down.
The night was packed with committee members, artists, musicians, and movers and shakers. A perfect line-up of Shebangg and Del Bronham's Stray kept the energy up, the beer flowed and the buffet swallowed.
Although throughout the festival I was always a very small cog in an enormous clock, one could not help feel very proud at what everyone had achieved.
It was now all over and the members of the committee trouped outside for an end of festival group photo and the final shot for The Valley Radio mini documentary.
To use their words – it had been for most, and certainly for me, a magical mystery tour.