Entertaining Mr Sloane

Anna Selby looks at the highlights of this week's Chelsea festival
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The Independent Culture
imagine a week-long festival dreamed up by a vicar, with the Lord of the Manor as patron and organised by a selection of local worthies. Is it, perhaps, the central pivot in a Joanna Trollope aga saga? At least, it has to be taking place in some remote rural outpost. Nope, it's the 1995 Chelsea Festival.

The brainchild of Derek Watson (Rector of St Luke's and Christ Church and Area Dean of Chelsea), it was intended from the first to have precisely this community atmosphere, where all the locals did their bit, whatever form that happened to take. "It all stemmed from the feeling that it would be nice to get to know our neighbours better," says the Rev Watson. "And a festival seemed a good way of doing it. All of us - churches, schools, artists, gardeners, sportsmen, shops, musicians, theatres - as it were, setting out our stalls for a week. It's a celebration of Chelsea, its past, present and future."

One of the key factors in Chelsea's past and indeed present is the Cadogan family. Sir Hans Sloane bought the entire manor of Chelsea in the 18th century and left it to his two daughters. One of them married into the Cadogan family and 99 acres of it remains in their hands to this day - so the houses have a certain Chelsea look. The present (seventh) Earl was the last Mayor of Chelsea (before it merged with Kensington) and is the patron of several local churches, which means he has the right to appoint the clergy, very much in the way of a country squire of the last century. His son, Viscount Chelsea, is the festival's patron, a role he describes as "the same as any where patronage is involved. One lends one's name to it and takes an active part. I had a lot of fun last year, though the first year (1993) I had my loyalties desperately torn as it clashed with Ascot week. I always go to the opening service at St Luke's (6.30pm Sunday 4 June) and last year I went to a film, two plays at the Royal Court, the opera, an organ recital and a fashion show. I'll do the same this year and just wander round and listen to the music in Sloane Square."

The Estate has provided a lot of the funding for the festival - "without wishing to shout about it" - and its connections have secured sponsors for all sorts of events. And there is certainly diversity, the key being that all the events are generated or performed by locals or have a strong local connection. "Basically the festival's about Chelsea village which has always been full of characters - artists, authors, poets, lunatics," says Viscount Chelsea.

The Estate is sponsoring the Hans Sloane Exhibition and opening various of its gardens. Amongst other events this year, the Royal Court will have three new plays, there will be a "Millinery Extravaganza" (left), jazz twice a day in Sloane Square, opera, ballet, five-a-side football organized by Chelsea Football Club, a tea dance and a military band spectacular. There will be two evenings of Oscar Wilde readings by Rachel Kempson, Eleanor Bron, Corin Redgrave and Sir Ian McKellan at the Cadogan Hotel to commemorate the centenary of Wilde's arrest there. "The people who go to the tea dance won't be the same as those joining in the Aerobamarathon," says Derek Watson, "but we hope there'll be something for everyone, locals and visitors alike."

Chelsea Festival from 4-10 June. Festival Information Centre, Sloane Square, SW1 (0171-824 8219).Open 10am-6pm, Mon-Sat