Beth Porter finds Bristol's docks awash with movie-going Muppets and seafaring shenanigans
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"Ahoy there, my lover," calls a West country lass behind the counter, "don't forget your change." Her catering caravan's parked behind a giant amphitheatre in the shape of a gigantic whale, jaws open to engulf Bristol harbour. The water teems with ships of every kind, pennants aflutter from a forest of masts. Folk who wouldn't know their Futtock-Shroud from their Hermaphrodite Brig hand over 20 quid admission and pour into Bristol's first-ever Festival of the Sea.

Four years in the planning and finally launched last bank holiday weekend, the festival drenched its 90-acre waterfront site in briny references - from marine movies to dockside fish-gutting demos - all dangling a pounds 5m price-tag (and that buys a lotta fish-fingers).

It all began in 1496 when Columbus's pal Giovanni Caboto (aka John Cabot) set sail from Bristol to discover China and ended up earning pounds 10 from King Henry VII for stumbling upon Newfoundland instead. 500 years on, Bristol's property-developers have spent millions reconstructing Cabot's caravel, the Matthew, and recreating its journey.

And the Festival of the Sea was all part of the fund-raising. And how! Once admission was paid, the only free attraction was the amplified music. You can't buy good weather, though, as festival chair, Peter Workman, found out on the opening Friday. "It was pissing with rain, I'd overslept and Sir Robin Knox-Johnstone rang to say I was due on BBC1 in 15 minutes. Robin thinks the greatest crime is to be late for the BBC."

The Beeb was the festival's "official broadcaster", assigning no less than three presenters to live and pre-recorded coverage. Clearly chosen for her sailing exploits up the Zambesi, Sandi Toksvig fought the cold and traded sailing banter with Knox-Johnstone and Kermit the Frog, whose fellow Muppets had all turned up to plug their new film Muppet Treasure Island, receiving its Europremiere at the Film Festival of the Sea.

Not that you'd have known. As Toksvig said, following a racing win at the model boat pond: "I've been here for four days and the only reason I knew about the film festival was the comedy skit with Kermit. I'm even staying in the same hotel as the festival's Media Centre. So I either seriously need to see an optician or there seems to be some lapse in publicity."

Yet, at both the dockside Watershed Arts Centre and the Arnolfini across the bridge, the continuous screenings of almost every movie that ever featured a drop of water - from the didactic French short The Sex Life of the Octopus to a sneak preview of the comedy Down Periscope, with Frasier star Kelsey Grammer captaining the submarine crew from hell - were packed.

Still, with that pounds 20 entrance fee and the harbour closed off behind a policed perimeter fence, locals like Jason and his mates, drinking outside the Hippodrome, were left seething. "It's a con. They're a bunch of money- grubbing bastards," they fumed. "We're proper Bristolians - my grandad worked on those docks and now they've closed them off and you can only get in if you've got the money to pay."