Shifting gears: how does a literary festival become a drive-in event?

Rethought for the pandemic, this year’s Appledore book festival in Devon will play to audiences in cars, who can flash their lights and listen via radio

Booklovers at the Appledore book festival this September will not be able to subject their favourite authors to the usual detailed questioning after a reading. Instead, the north Devon event is setting out to become the UK’s first ever drive-in book festival, where audience members will need to submit questions in advance, and flash their car lights to alert writers to their presence.

The Appledore book festival has been running annually since 2006, but organisers said that after months of uncertainty caused by the coronavirus, it became clear that this year’s event would not be able to go ahead if social distancing was still in place. Many of the UK’s book festivals, from Hay to Wigtown, have gone online-only in the wake of the pandemic, but the Appledore team came up with the idea of a drive-in festival, to be held in the grounds of the local Skern Lodge outdoor activity centre.

Authors and interviewers will sit, socially distanced, on stage and more than 100 cars will be able to attend each event, listening to interviews through a dedicated in-car FM radio station, or via the PA system. Food and drink will be available to order in advance, served directly to the car once parked, and as guests leave, there will be a drive-through book stall selling signed copies.

“We’ve hung on and we’ve kept our fingers crossed, but it became very apparent in the last few weeks that we couldn’t book our usual venues, and people were obviously concerned about any social distancing that might take place,” said festival director Ann Juby. “So we came up with the idea of a drive-in. We were reading about cinema going that way, and comedy festivals. We made some investigations, and it’s on – full steam ahead. People are going to feel safe because they will stay in their cars.”

The five-day festival, which kicks off on 18 September, is set to welcome writers including former children’s laureate and War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, bestselling novelist Adele Parks, television presenter Kate Humble, former British ambassador to the US Kim Darroch, and broadcaster and author Jeremy Vine.

Guests will be able to send in questions in advance for authors to answer during their events, said Juby. “We’ll also have a mic at a distance, so people can wind their windows down to ask a question, and if we pull out a question sent in before the event, we’ll ask the person who sent it in to flash their car lights so the author can engage. We’re trying to make it as interactive as possible, and luckily we’re in a field so at the end we can have applause and honking of horns and flashing of lights, to make it exciting.”

The festival is a registered charity, and profits support a local schools literacy programme. Vine, the festival’s patron, said: “Lockdown has been so hard for everyone but we honestly believe that, as things ease, people will be more desperate than ever for their annual fix of literature by the sea. If there’s ever been a drive-in book festival before, I’ve yet to hear of it. I hope we have a festival like no other, and show the horrible coronavirus that you can’t keep our great writers down.”


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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