When reflecting on Torbay’s cultural heritage, perhaps the most immediate association with the locality is renowned novelist, Agatha Christie. Others may argue the image of Basil Fawlty is the one that first springs to mind, but for us – and we hope we are not alone in this – there is no contention for the curator of crime’s position as the Bay’s figurehead. This recognition is not simply a self-appointed status by local residence; the association between locale and author is a worldwide phenomenon as evidenced by its status as host for the International Agatha Christie Festival.
The IACF is a biennial event which draws hundreds of delegates to the English Riviera to celebrate the literary legacy and life of Dame Agatha Christie through performance, exhibition, workshops and discussion, inviting visitors to immerse themselves in the authors works in the surroundings where she penned many of her tales. The week-long event is the focal point for the Christie enthusiast and has over the years achieved an impressive and deserved following by securing renowned biographers, art collections and curios as part of the programme.
2017 marked an exciting change for the festival as it transitioned from a standalone event to a full-time programme with the remit of, “[w]orking with artists, writers and the extraordinary people and histories of Torbay and South Devon[...]promoting new stories and connecting to the voices of artists across the world. Inspired from the ingenuity and curiosities of Dame Agatha Christie Mallowan, it celebrates creativity and works to nurture and support artistic innovation, well-being and enjoyment across all ages.” This new scope looked set to promise an exciting modernisation of the festival, which would utilise the Christie legacy as an impulse to develop a diverse literature and arts event, and under the directorship of James Tyson and Nathalie Palin, it did not disappoint.
Beyond a couple of excursions along the coastline, Torre Abbey Historic House and Gardens played host to the festival, drawing back from the previously sprawling model that had come to span most of Torbay to create a far more intimate and manageable feel. As well as the various scheduled events, a wide range of installations and exhibitions were presented amongst the Abbey’s permanent displays for delegates to enjoy at their leisure and which were also accessible to guests at the house. Overall, it felt much more cohesive, and fully exploring the diversity of offerings was achievable with agreeable ease.
For the traditionalists, this year’s festival had it all; John Risdon’s exclusive bus tours of notable Christie sites, John Curran’s ever popular mystery Christie film screening, a durational reading from Valmai Jones and John Rowley, to name but a few of the events. This, however, barely scratches the surface of what the 2017 IACF programme offered. The directors had taken a little known archaeological memoir of Christie’s as a starting point for the festival’s theme: “Come, Tell Me How You Live”, recounts the authors time with husband Max Mallowan as they explored a number of archaeological dig sites in present day Syria and Iraq. The text offers an alluring journey through ancient Babylonian cities, offering insight into, what were at the time, little known cultures and societies. The mystery of unknown cultures, unknown societies and unknown lives, and the invitation to share; this is what IACF 2017 provided a platform for, welcoming speakers to tell their stories, to tell their lives. From Lois Pryce’s “Revolutionary Ride”, a solo motorcycle journey across Iran, to Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi’s “Poetry on the Nile”, a celebration of the richness of Arabic poetry, every talk, workshop and performance offered captivating insight into worlds which would be otherwise inaccessible. For our part, we were privileged to be invited to curate an exhibition of contemporary works to be exhibited in one of Torre Abbey’s galleries. The call received an exemplary standard of submissions and the final show drew together an engaging spectrum of work from local and national artists, each piece offering a unique interpretation of the Christie legacy.
For us, this year’s festival was the strongest we’ve seen in a while. Torre Abbey offered a grand but welcoming vessel, it’s meandering rooms and corridors promoting mystery and intrigue, it’s historic character conjuring the Christie era, it’s lush gardens offering luxury befitting the occasion. The programme was diverse whilst maintaining all the traditional elements expected of it, as the festival begins to grow its scope. If there’s one thing we’d love to see built on in 2019 it would be the weekend Garden Party which has the potential to become a festival highlight. Most importantly though, there was a new message to be taken away from the festival, one which we feel is particularly significant to its more local visitors, this being that whilst we are undoubtedly proud of our Christie heritage, we should be equally enquiring about what her legacy has inspired us to create.
The Artizan Open Exhibtion for the Festival will continue to run at Torre Abbey until November 19th and features work by:
Martin Dutton, Des Maxwell Clark, Sandra Lissenden, Theresa Barlow, Jane Villaweaver, Kerry Lloyd, Elaine Sibley, Rhian Wyn Harrison, Sarah Gillett, Kristy Campbell