In the Beginning…
The Festival was born from an idea by John Mitchell (Manager of Lloyds Bank at the time) at a meeting of the Somerton Business & Trade Association in 1986, and from there a first meeting was held in the Red Lion Hotel with Anne Doman (who is now our Honorary President) chairing the meeting and the then Somerton Business & Trade Association secretary Liz Laker (who is now Honorary Vice President) taking the minutes and so an organising committee was set up under the chairmanship of Anne Doman .
We get the impression from reading that first programme of just 36 pages, that it had involved much more work than anyone had imagined (no change there, then!) The first event was held in 1988 and lasted from Friday until the following Thursday in mid-June, and included a Market Fair every day except Sunday (when there was a Family Entertainment day), a small Art Exhibition and a talk by the author Robin Bush. The main musical events were Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames and The Strawbs. In 1989, the chairmanship passed to Jon Sackett, who is another of our Directors, and Ian Laker joined the committee, and took over as chairman in 1990.
The early nineties saw a shorter Festival, being restricted to 4 or 5 days, but still with a similar format and for the first time including a Somerton Walk led by Alan Locke, a Superbrain Quiz, musical contribution from Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen, and a cabaret show featuring Fred Wedlock.
From then the Festival settled into its regular second week in July spot (actually, starting on the Friday before the second Saturday of the month), running for 8 or 9 days. In 1994, in order to encourage prior purchase of tickets, after a couple of sell-out events in the previous year, the well-known 10% discount voucher was introduced.
1995 saw the sudden closure of the Red Lion ballroom, the major venue of previous years, after most of the acts had been arranged. This prompted a scramble to find new venues! 1996 saw the first use of a Marquee, at The Somerton Hotel. A solution which was sustained for a number of years.
In 1999 for the first time the programme cover had a photograph instead of the plain cover of before.
The Noughties and beyond…
The noughties started badly with demise of The Somerton Hotel in 2000. This meant a return to the smaller venues around the town for a number of years until the bold decision was taken to put a Marquee at the Somerton Sports Club in 2006 – expensive, but it’s turned out well and it became the principal venue for events right up until 2015.
In 2007 for the first time, many of the photographs of acts were in colour, much to the chagrin of some of our advertisers who wanted colour adverts, so in 2008 we produced the first all-colour Festival Programme.
In the early teens the Festival evolved in the era of web enabled communications and social media. First with a website (this one!) and then a Facebook page. In 2016 both Twitter and on-line ticketing (whilst still maintaining the familiar Box office at Overt Locke) were embraced.
Other changes in 2016 include the issuing of the Festival Programme for free, together with the introduction of Earlybird discounts instead of the long lived 10% voucher. The Edgar Hall was embraced as a venue for the first weekend of Festival whilst maintaining the Marquee for the final weekend. Finally the opportunity to promote more out-of-festival events was grasped with a packed house at St Michael and all Angels fro the newly emerging talent of The Sons of Pitches.
Many acts have built a great Festival following, returning periodically to satisfy demand! These include bands such as The Firebirds, The Great Pretender, The Decatonics and Bertie’s Big Band – all of whom return in 2017 for our 30th Festival.
St Michael and All Angels parish church has been the host to many events over the years. Apart from the Summer Celebration, usually the first Sunday of Festival, we’ve seen Welsh choirs (including two of the most famous – Cwmbach Male Choir and Treorchy Male Choir, various classical events including The York Waits and Sorrentino String Quartet and of course the Somerton Festival Band.
The Advertisers and Sponsors
Looking back at advertisers in the programme reveals several notable things. In 1988 we had 40 advertisers from local businesses – probably wondering if they’d spent money wisely! That number is around what we have today but we can be seen some of the businesses which sadly are no longer with us – Watts Radio, Somerton Book Centre, Longmires and Somerton Service Garage to name a few. However, there are three businesses that have advertised in every one of the programmes – Bridges Holland Accountants, AH & RA Holland Motor Engineers and MJ Carpets – there’s loyalty for you!
There are so many people over the years that have contributed to the success of the Festival – the initial idea from the Somerton Business and Trade Association, the many local businesses who have advertised in the programme and sponsored events, the (literally) hundreds of committee members and helpers who have given their time freely for absolutely no reward, and a special thanks to Ian Laker of the London Cigarette Card Co who kindly allowed the use the shop as a ticket office from 1991 to 2010 and Neil Taylor of Overt Locke from 2011 to the present day. Finally, though, thanks go to you – the people of Somerton and the surrounding area – who have supported the Festival for all these years.