Festival themes: show me the way to the cosmodome

From fantasy to philosophy, there’s much more to today’s festivals than bands, beer and burgers, as Nick Hasted discovers

Having a choice between the bar and a band is no longer enough for some festival-goers. Events increasingly distinguish themselves with themes, some merely encouraging fancy dress, others transforming their whole site into a temporary escapist fantasy of giant board games, Agatha Christie whodunits or medieval romance, in which the music can sometimes seem incidental.

The trend began with the first Bestival on the Isle of Wight, in 2004. "We were head-scratching in the pub, trying to think of how to make it unique," organiser Rob da Bank remembers. "We'd already flirted with fancy dress in the clubs we'd been doing, and announced it for the first one. We thought maybe a couple of hundred would participate, but half of the 4,000 at the first festival did. The second year it was 10,000, and now it's a core thing about Bestival.

"The idea was to add colour to the show, and to make it more inclusive. Rather than just watching some bands and having some beer and burgers, we want people to be the show themselves. People get in their costumes, and stay in them all weekend sometimes. It's very much a kind of escapism."

Bank sees the experience at his festival as more than a bit of Saturday night, school disco-style dressing up. While its crowds get to act like superheroes, putting on secret identities for the weekend, Bestival has crossed the traditional festival with the annual, painstaking preparations more familiar at carnivals such as Notting Hill. "People spend months making costumes," Bank explains. "They have meetings where they go round to each other's houses, planning and designing, it's a big enterprise. That's why we keep the themes really open now. The last two have been space and fantasy, and this year it's pop stars, rock stars and divas. We want people to be free to go to town, and use their imaginations."

More mainstream festivals have incorporated fancy dress days. This year, Scotland's massive T in the Park has just the sort of cheerfully retro 1980s theme that Bank distances himself from. At the other extreme, the new Wilderness festival (on the Oxfordshire site of the old Cornbury Festival) is mixing refined bands such as Antony and the Johnsons with lectures on philosophy, nanotechnology and the future. At least one Oxford don is on the bill. This educative atmosphere can also be found in Einstein's Garden, a child-friendly zone of nature and science at the Green Man Festival. The BoomTown Fair will turn its rustic site into a city, complete with town centre and ghetto. Festivalgoers are encouraged to people it as doctors, nurses, butchers, postmen or whatever civic identity takes their fancy.

Standon Calling creates a similarly immersive experience. Its 16th-century Hertfordshire country house setting was ideal for last year's crime theme, when village "shops" were built with interactive theatrical experiences inside. The manor's Lord Trenchard could be seen wandering around as Poirot. "A heritage arts company designs a theatrical side which is all around you from when you arrive," says organiser Graham MacVoy, "in signs, games, hunts and shows. Every year, the whole festival gets designed once the theme's been decided, from the marketing to the interactive theatre to the acts, to an extent. The theme's Gods and Monsters this year, and Spiritualized are headlining."

The idea is for the festival to be its own world for the weekend, not merely a holding pen in a field where acts are wheeled on-stage. "It's there for you to join into if you want to," says MacVoy. "The more you get involved, the deeper you immerse yourself. With last year's village shops, you had to go in and investigate what was there. Don't get me wrong, some people still just come and get trashed. But that doesn't have to be the only thing you do. You can spend your afternoons wandering, or have a few hours by the swimming pool, relaxing."

Gloucestershire's small Winterwell festival, now in its fifth year, has built its reputation on imaginatively realised themes throughout its Cotswolds valley site. "The first year was based around the idea of fairy tales," says founder Josh Ford, "because the valley feels like a fairy-tale setting, and we wanted to illustrate the magic and pleasure we get from it. The effort people made with fancy-dress was incredible, so we carried on.

The theme this year is Battle of the Board Games. A team of 30 artists are theming the whole site. We plan to have a giant game of snakes and ladders on the side of a hill. People will be able to physically jump from square to square, and we have a giant scrabble competition on a 24-foot wide scrabble board."

This literal playfulness illustrates the return to the more child-like, open-minded state that themed festivals often seem to aim at. "It's about creating a great party for three days," Ford agrees, "and there's nothing like fancy dress to take down people's barriers and inhibitions."

Deer Shed's Sky At Night theme is named after and based around the latest album by their headline act, I Am Kloot. Oliver Jones, co-founder of the North Yorkshire festival, says: "I was thinking how do we support their performance? And they're all mad into astronomy. It's the only festival they're headlining, and so playing under the stars. And because we're family-oriented, this is a thing that kids are into. We're doing all we can to support the theme, with stargazing, and a cosmodome – a blow-up planetarium that we're getting from York University.

"We're hoping to send a helium balloon into the atmosphere, with a digital camera and mobile phone to report back. A theme really helps when you're trying to programme because it gives you focus."

Deer Shed's family-oriented approach can also be seen at Bestival's more child-friendly offspring Camp Bestival, where a massive Mad Hatter's Tea Party was once held. Back at Standon Calling, they are also centring the weekend on their headliner. "Everything in the theme is building towards Spiritualized on Saturday night," says MacVoy. "People will learn how to do pagan ritualistic drumming at workshops, and then eventually the whole site goes dark and silent, and we have this big obelisk at the centre of the arena which everybody focuses on. Then there'll be a very special moment, leading up to Spiritualized."

The biggest shift at themed festivals, though, is that the music is sometimes incidental. This makes smaller events such as Winterwell, which can't afford big acts, suddenly viable. "People don't come specifically for the music," Josh Ford agrees. "They come because they know they'll have a good time, with a community of like-minded people."

Winterwell, 17-19 June, www.winterwell.co.uk

Deer Shed Festival, 22-24 July, www.deershedfestival.com

Standon Calling, 12-14 August, www.standon-calling.com

Bestival, 8-11 September, www.bestival.net

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones