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Heads up: Brighton Festival 2012

Soak up the politics and party action on the South Coast

What are we talking about? Brighton's three-week-long arts festival ushers in actress and awards vacuum Vanessa Redgrave as guest director for this year's season of theatre, exhibitions, music and film.

Elevator pitch Vanessa's Blow-Up on the beach is sure to make a Deep Impact.

Prime movers Veteran journalist Polly Toynbee returns to oversee the occasion as chairwoman alongside chief executive Andrew Comben.

The Stars More than 350 performances, 141 events over 33 venues. A keen political emphasis with a range of debates from speakers including Jon Snow, Kenan Malik and Kweku Mandela (grandson of Nelson). There's new work from critically acclaimed theatre group dreamthinkspeak and a UK debut from Bart Baele and Yves Degryse's Belgian stage collective Berlin. Musical highlights include Dennis Rollins, Africa Express Sound System and the Hagen Quartet. Redgrave introduces the festivities with an intimate discussion of her career.

The early buzz The Daily Mirror's Paul McDaid describes it as: "A creative cornucopia of art and entertainment". Some are less satisfied by the festival's liberal credentials. Quentin Letts for the Daily Mail expressed his distaste in 2011 towards the specially commissioned installation "The Great Wall of Vagina", a monolith adorned with several hundred clay replicas of private parts – still, you can't please everyone ...

Insider knowledge Although made into an official event in 1967, it's been kicking about since the early 19th century. In August 1814, over 7,000 people gathered on the Level, a city park, to celebrate Napoleon Bonaparte's exile to an island off the coast of Italy. Stewards serving plum pudding wore white sashes bearing the inscription "Brighton Festival".

It's great that ... It's broadened its scope to tackle wider cultural issues in addition to all the usual merriment.

It's a shame that ... It's going to take a lot to top a truly world-class performance from last year's director, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Hit potential Performance, partying and even some politics on the south coast – time to slap on the sunscreen.

The details Brighton Festival, various venues, (brightonfestival.org), 5 to 27 May.