23 August 2014

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Q&A: Stewart Collins of Henley Festival


Stewart Collins, artistic director of Henley Festival, explains how an entire town switches from boaters to black tie in the 48 hours between the Regatta and the Festival


Talk us through this year’s line-up.

‘The Icon, the Voice, the Master, the Now and the Jacksons’ – that’s our strapline for the headliners this time. We’ve got Bryan Ferry, Joss Stone and Burt Bacharach, then the Now is Rebecca Ferguson and the Overtones. Like last year with Joanna Lumley, the acts will be introduced by some of the Prince’s Foundation’s ambassadors.

There was some talk about a change of venue for this year. What’s the latest?

We’re a charity, which means we need to put on a good festival, but also need to produce a surplus for the Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts. Last year we didn’t make a profit, so we had to consider moving to a different site. When our current landlords, the Regatta, heard about this, we revisited our deal together and were able to reach an agreement that means we can stay where we are.

Can you put your finger on what it is that makes the festival special?

Without a doubt, location is a big part of what makes the festival unique. Had we moved, we would have gone somewhere that’s also very pretty, but where we are we have the river and Henley town as a beautiful backdrop. The format’s very important here too. It’s a relaxed but elegant event – like a fun summer party. We’ve got top international artists and a wonderful supporting cast. The Roving Eccentrica really makes us a very quirky, very English event. And you’ll see some rivercraft – not just the gin palaces – that you will only ever see in Henley.

Tell us a bit about the hospitality offer at Henley.

As ever, it’s black-tie throughout. Albert and Michel junior will be putting on Roux at the Riverside once more. There was definitely a time where their a la carte menus for 1,000 made this the biggest restaurant in Europe – for four days a year. The main corporate areas are within the Riverside, but there are other restaurants on site too. The Terrace is in the grandstand, while Harpers is a Burger & Lobster-style bar brasserie. Then there’s a seafood place, Jerry Boham’s, which is non-bookable.

That must take some arranging.

It’s a dramatic turnaround. Within 48 hours of the end of the Regatta, it really does become the Festival site – and for a very different crowd. The locals will support both events – this is their town after all – but there’s not much overlap between the rest. The Regatta is an international sports event, after all, and we’re all about music, the arts and fine dining. 

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