James Runcie: 'I want a cross between the Open University and a party'

The literary festival pioneer tells Arifa Akbar why the scene needs shaking up

Seven months ago, James Runcie found himself inextricably double-booked: as the outgoing artistic director of the Bath Literature Festival, he was expected to pack his swansong with fireworks, while as the incoming director of the London Literature Festival, which opens tonight, he was under pressure to begin with a bang.

Some sleep might have been lost but he managed a masterful juggling act: in Bath, he lured JK Rowling on-stage for a flirtatious (“was I too flirtatious?”) interview and followed it up with Hilary Mantel, fresh from her ‘royal bodies’ controversy over Kate Middleton.

In London, he has taken some serious risks in programming: there are one-to-one poetry readings over biscuits and port; Pablo Neruda’s love poems will be sung, and Sylvia Path’s Ariel will be read by 40 female performers – hardly tried-and-tested crowd-pullers, though on the last count, there were only eight seats left out of 2,500 for Sunday’s Ariel performance at the Royal Festival Hall.

The terrifying prospect of an empty auditorium comes with the territory, says Runcie but it should not deter literary festival directors from being experimental in their outlook. Unfortunately, too few are these days, he says.

“I think literary festivals need to be reinvented. Some have got slightly stuck. They can’t just consist of writers talking about their latest books and expecting the audience to be grateful. People want to be able to join a conversation rather than being talked at. A good literary festival should be a cross between an Open University degree and a party.”

Failings range from discussions that uniformly last an hour to debates that are led by whichever book a publisher wants to plug. “You know the kind of thing; a one hour event, two writers talk for twenty minutes each, they read quite badly and then there’s no time for questions. We have to get away from this… “You can use the whole of literature for your discussion rather than simply talk about whatever book is being publishing that month. There’s no reason that you shouldn’t be able to do an event about Middle English poetry if you think people will come. After all, Beowulf's not too bad”.

His track record reflects risks that have paid off: he famously held a non-stop 120-hour reading of the entire King James Bible (perhaps a homage to his late father, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie?) and is known for putting on one-off live events such as the staging of the ‘courtroom’ scene from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, starring Harriet Walter and directed by his wife, Marilyn Imrie, at Bath this year.

Runcie’s new job at the Southbank Centre, as the head of literature, gives him enormous scope for taking similar risks, but equally, a large margin for failure too. He seems braced for either. “I want to triple the London Literature Festival’s size and take some big, mad risks. If I’m going to fail, I want to fail spectacularly,” he says. “You have got to be more of a bully about your vision. There’s no point doing what everyone else is doing. The greatest risk is to play safe.”

There is some safe programming, however – appearances by literary heavyweights talking about their latest books - Lionel Shriver, James Salter and Claire Tomalin (the latter will give lectures on five subjects of her former books: Austen, Dickens, Pepys, Hardy and Wollstonecraft). But there is the more madcap and inventive alongside it: Jarvis Cocker will discuss what it means to be famous, a mass participatory translation of a French graphic novel will be conducted in a week, there will be a midnight run, a mnemonic walk in which the first line of every Dickens novel will be remembered and Renga poetry writing on the roof.   One show is just 15-minutes long, another is only allowing in 25 people.

 The festival has other battles to fight though. It should surely be the most high profile literary festival in Britain, given its prime location, yet Hay and Cheltenham eclipse it in stature. Why? “Because the Southbank is so rammed with stuff it’s sometimes hard to make an impact. We do so much here that we almost end up competing with ourselves. So what you have to do is try and be as distinctive as possible and use the energy here just to bloody well get on with it.”

Before Runcie began his four-year tenure at Bath, he was a documentary film-maker, theatre director and author with several novels. He continues to write fiction and the last book was written in-between putting on the two festivals.  It is the second novel in his ‘Grantchester Mystery series’ with a clergyman detective at its heart, and it has already been optioned by ITV. Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night (Bloomsbury, £14.99) return readers to mid-50s backwater Britain and four more books to come in the series will bring us up to the 1980s, ending with the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.

It is, he says, a conscious attempt to escape from contemporary Britain. “I wanted the books to have a deliberately retro feel. The focus then, in the 1950s, was on how we could build a better Britain after such a devastating war. We were working out what kind of country we wanted to live in; but in my lifetime we have moved away from that idea of building a better social future to the innate selfishness of  ‘how can I be famous?’”

The series has a charming quaintness and deftly turning plot twists but what renders it unique as detective fiction is its overtly Christian content: Sidney Chambers ruminates topics such as death, the morality of murder and Jesus’s sayings on the Cross. Runcie was initially apprehensive about putting this in – “my uncle said I would not sell the book because of its Christianity” – but he did not want to shy away from showing the moral “ripples of a crime” and the dilemmas of faith. “The Christian aspect gives the book an ethical centre, embodying the fight between good and evil.”

What is also striking is its autobiographical elements: few can miss the parallel between his protagonist and his father, who died in 2000, but there is also a central female ‘pianist’ character, just like his mother who died last year. “It’s a kind of alternative fictional autobiography,” he admits. “Writing is a way of remembering my parents and thinking about them, and the world they lived in now that they are both dead.

“One small casualty of this is that I keep having nightmares about them; that they are not dead, that I’ve buried them by mistake, that they are still here and that they are disappointed in me. It’s upsetting but I have to go on. The fiction I’m writing involves reconfiguring memory and challenging it,” he says.

It wasn’t exactly a hardship to grow up as a bishop’s son (Robert Runcie became archbishop when he was 21-year-old Cambridge University graduate with a First class degree), but there were some surreal moments. “You get advanced social status with no money, but I can’t pretend it was hard. Suddenly you have met the Pope, Princess Diana and Solzhenitsyn in the same month. It’s quite weird.”

Yet Runcie has his criticisms of the clergy. “There is a ‘vanity of holiness’ among some clergymen, and there’s a strong element of performance in the church. I went to a Private Eye lunch once and I saw a man in a black leather jacket with a really, loud laugh. I said to Ian Hislop ‘I bet he’s a priest… and he was’. The laugh was the giveaway.

“A clergyman dresses up and performs just as an actor does, and the pulpit is part of their stage. The only difference is that the congregation prays and the audience claps.

“Another time, I went to a garden party wearing silver shoes and a Vivienne Westwood coat, and saw another tall man in the same, poncey clothing. I was taken over to him by the host who said ‘you must meet so-and-so, he’s another famous clergyman’s son’. It’s ridiculous really, this desire to perform. You’d be surprised how many clergy children become actors or stand-up comedians or work in television. Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher. All is vanity.”

A cultural life: Quick questions

Where was the last place you went for dinner?

Skylon in the Royal Festival Hall

What was the last album you bought/listened to?

Vampire Weekend: Modern Vampires of the City

What was the last book you read?

All That Is by James Salter

What was the last gig/concert you attended?

Rigoletto in Palermo

What was the last sporting event you attended?

Cricket: England vs New Zealand

What was the last film you saw?

In the House by Francois Ozon

Is Runcie right? what other direct ors say

Edinburgh International Book Festival, Nick Barley

“I spend my life travelling to festivals around the world and there is extraordinary rigour and vibrance – in that respect, James Runcie couldn’t be more wrong. The format is not jaded. If you talk to the audiences that come along, there is nothing jaded about them.

“I think literary festivals are always radically reinventing themselves. I’m in France right now at St Malo Festival and I’m going to events that have nothing to do with a [selling] a new novel. At Edinburgh, we are sensitive not to fall into the trap of holding talks that simply tout newly published novels. This year, we’re going to introduce reading workshops with novelists talking about classic books, so Colm Toibin will speak about DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.  What we really want to do is bring out ideas – these festivals are festivals of ideas.”

Hay Festival, Peter Florence

All Literature Festivals have different agendas and formats and styles. The thing they have in common is that they all have stories and writers at their heart. All the best and most successful ones push boundaries and forge great adventures all the time in order to keep energised. 

“The Southbank Centre set-up is unique in that it's wholly funded and subsidised to the hilt, so it'll be interesting to see how James Runcie reinvents his policy from his tenure at Bath.  The more exciting initiatives that are fired around the country the better for everyone.  It'd be nice to have some sparky inspirations from London."

Independent Bath Literature Festival, Viv Groskop

“I think James Runcie has voiced something that everyone is already thinking. Literary festivals have now got to compete not only with live events but with digital events such as the TED talks so audience expectations are constantly changing. Festivals are already looking at new models and experimenting with new formats. In recent years, they’ve been reinventing themselves and upping their game.”

Wigtown Book Festival, Adrian Turpin

“There’s a huge over-provision - you wonder how long we can go on when every market town and borough has its own literary festival, and there is a certain amount of laziness. Add to this the idea of the writer as a modern-day priest, with everyone coming along to ask ‘where do you get your ideas?’ and going home slight unenlightened. If you are running one, it means you have to be very careful about what you are doing, especially if you are doing one a long way away. “Why should someone travel to your festival? A really good festival should only take place in that specific space with that specific group of people. We do site specific stuff – reading second world war RAF stuff in a ruined RAF base…”

Ilkley Literature Festival, Rachel Feldberg

“I think everyone in the arts is working in a tough environment but when I look around me at fellow literary festival directors in the North, I see other Northern festivals doing really innovative things that take risks with limited budgets.

“We are known for our cultural diversity, our innovation and our risk taking. And we’re fortunate to have the flexibility to commission work – two years ago, we commissioned Simon Armitage to write six poems about the Yorkshire landscape and he read them out accompanied by two Indian dancers"

Port Eliot Festival, Mathew Clayton

“We have two stages that are run by blogs and another with a digital literary magazine. Increasingly we are commissioning things specially for the festival. We are always looking for new things to do. Change and reinvention are what makes it fun.”

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