Burning ambitions

David Benedict previews the first year of the Islington festival
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a crisis has been averted. One of the posters for the Islington International Festival originally featured a crowing cockerel, until a policeman pointed out that it was the emblem of Tottenham Hotspur and that Festival sponsors Arsenal might have something to say about it. Enter the African golden crested crane now resplendently displayed all over Islington.

This borough-wide bonanza is an epic cross between a funfair and a magical mystery tour, with everything from an interactive arcade on Islington Green to a rock-music cement mixer; from an award-winning circus on Highbury Fields with a Michael Nyman score and comic book characters, to Covent Garden opera singers performing in local day centres. Thanks to a last minute relenting by the Ministry of Transport, Upper Street will be awash with streamers, there's the Bar des As at the Angel which rises 30 metres into the air offering spectacular views over London and massive inflatable sculptures rising from the rooftops.

"It's a party and everyone's invited." Sonia Serafin is buzzing. With her dark eyes and tautly curled short hair, she looks like an elongated version of Jeanette Winterson with a French accent. She also has Winterson's impressive fearlessness, but none of her regard for the importance of being earnest. The job of festival director rarely crops up in career guidance lessons but she made an early start. "I organised a village fete when I was 11. Of course, I organised nothing. My mother took over very quickly realising that I did not know what I was doing. I think we probably only had two balloons to sell, drink and a band but I do remember that the farmers who wouldn't talk to us because we were new people from the city ended up helping behind the bar."

That sense of involving everyone underlines the Islington extravaganza, and the freshness of Serafin's approach has impressed everyone, from the volunteers who have flocked to help, to Dame Diana Rigg who leaped at the opportunity to chair the board.

Serafin is resolute that this is a festival and not a season of works. "People ring and ask 'what's happening, what time is the show', but there's stuff going on all the time from 11 in the morning to 11 at night. There's no need to book. I could have programmed a well-directed production at the Almeida or brought an international dance company to Sadler's Wells, but they do that very well all year round. This is something else."

Europe is awash with this kind of event, but in Britain, the idea of a local/international festival is still new. So why Islington? "Nowhere else in Europe manages to be such an urban village. It's one of the pleasure gardens of London. It's cosmopolitan and there's a blend of business and culture, 11 tube stations and two universities. For this first year we've concentrated on the area between Highbury and the Angel, but there are shows on the move throughout the borough."

On Saturday, everyone from Asian Dub Foundation to Guildhall Jazz Singers are playing Elthorne Park in seven hours of music and entertainment from noon and on Saturday night Dutch artist Erik Hobijn is setting off a monumental fire sculpture on top of the Town Hall, sending plumes of flame 13 metres into the sky. You won't have to be there to see it, but sure as hell it'll look impressive if you are.

The entire shebang opens with a gala performance of the 1922 vampire classic Nosferatu in the gothic splendour of the Union Chapel, complete with art-rock music from performance group Art Zoyd and fully costumed members of the Dracula Society. It is one of only two ticketed events in the entire four-day festival. Everything else is entirely free.

Whether you live in Islington or Ilford, try the information tower at the Business Design Centre or go and play in the electronic cafe and watch your brainwaves with Ulrike Gabriel. "It's a seven-minute wonder, it's adorable," giggles Serafin. She admits that there's a kooky angle to everything that's going on, but her aims are high. She sees it as an opportunity for people to talk to each other. It's the end of the winter and time for a change, for doing things that are red, yellow and blue rather than grey. Festivals do that more than any other cultural event. "Come and see what's happening and you won't want to stop for four days."

The Gala opening is on 31 May at 9pm. Festival runs from 1-4 June. For info, ring the Hotline on 0171-704 6722