As Cheltenham Literature Festival draws crowds and the eyes of the nation to Gloucestershire, we also now know how close it came to being wiped out completely by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Last year’s annual report (2019), published on 10 October 2021, said the cancellation of live in-person events were a financial broadside that could have ‘sunk’ Cheltenham Festivals, which also stages the town’s Science, Jazz and Music Festivals.
But now, for the first time, we learn its survival was down to an astonishing act of generosity by 180 people who simply love the annual events that saved it financially – and the efforts of staff who worked on reduced pay to create online success instead.
Diane Hill OBE, chairwoman of Cheltenham Festivals, said: ‘Having gone on sale for the Jazz Festival in February with buoyancy sales we were shortly thereafter faced with the real prospect that the charity would not survive.
‘In quick succession the Jazz, Science and Music festivals were cancelled, and staff turned their attention to financial survival while at the same time making a great success of producing digital content for our loyal festival audiences.
‘On behalf of the board and staff I would like to record my thanks to each and every person and organisation whose generosity when it was needed most ensured the survival of the charity.
‘In particular, I would like to thank the patrons (a group of about 180 couples and singles) who between them donated £320,357.
‘I commend the staff for their amazing efforts in very difficult circumstances.’
The level of the crisis is outlined by ticket revenue, which fell from £2,937,261 in 2019 to £152,523 in 2020.
Figures also underline just how successful its inaugural online operation was, with 200,000 watching 100 Literature Festival events as it was streamed live online for the first time in its 71-year history.
More schools were reached than ever before – up from 102 in 2019 to 180 in 2020 – and more pupils – up from 9,500 to 32,680.
Cheltenham Science Festival attracted 54,662 unique visitors to a six-day event and the one-day line-up for the Jazz Festival was viewed 16,500 times.
Generous donations from charitable trusts, the Culture Recovery Fund and the Arts Council England South West were also key.
Cheltenham Literature Festival 2021 runs until Sunday 17 October 2021.
By Andrew Merrell