Wimbledon Bookfest Sunset Festival

Wimbledon Bookfest: The Sunset Festival


Fiona Razvi, director of BookFest, on the highlights of this September’s event and her hopes for the future of the festival…

For 14 years, the hugely popular Wimbledon BookFest has taken place for 10 days on the Common in October. Founded back in 2007 by Fiona Razvi and Time & Leisure founder Tony Kane, it has been a major highlight of the book festival calendar and brought big names to SW19.

Then the pandemic hit, halting live events everywhere, and pummelling the arts & culture industries hard. But in spite of everything, BookFest continued, albeit with a new format – a socially-distanced weekend festival took place in September last year, with much smaller audiences and in open marquees. This year, BookFest has been divided into two five-day festivals, Sunrise in June and Sunset this September.

Fiona Razvi

Fiona Razvi

It’s an incredible undertaking. Being able to put on BookFest when the pandemic had all but put an end to live events, was some achievement. And Fiona says it has been her proudest moment yet.

“When people came to the festival last September, it was for many their first outing since the start of the pandemic. They felt safe. It was a big deal for everyone to be out again, and it was emotional.

“To be able to pull that off for our audiences and our community – and the people up on stage who hadn’t been able to do any live events – was incredible.”

There was also an amazing atmosphere for the June festival this summer, which attracted some 4,000 visitors to see the likes of Alastair Campbell, Caitlin Moran, David Baddiel and Michael Morpurgo.

The September event promises to be hugely popular, with a diverse line-up, and, as with all the BookFests, it is not just about books and reading, but drawing in interesting figures and personalities from across the spectrum. Says Fiona: “You don’t have to have read a particular book to enjoy an event. It is about coming here to listen to new thinking and ideas.”


Must-see events…

Elif Shafak, Giles Terera, John Cooper Clarke

There are talks from the world of entertainment, sport, and politics and Fiona is hard-pressed to name just a few highlights as there are many. But her personal picks include award winning and Booker shortlisted author Elif Shafak, discussing her latest novel, The Island of Missing Trees, a tale of belonging and identity.

“She is one my favourite contemporary fiction writers. She sums up what’s going on in the world so beautifully and articulately.”

Fiona also points to Giles Terera as another highlight, who will be talking about his journey to play Aaron Burr in the ground- breaking musical Hamilton. “I’m a big fan of Hamilton and it will be amazing to hear the story behind it. We want to give our audiences the inside track on things.”

“I’m also really looking forward to hearing John Cooper Clarke, the original punk poet from Manchester, because he has been around forever, and I love the juxtaposition of having him in Wimbledon, bringing a bit of rock and roll to the Common!

Other must-see events include talks from Ukrainian ballet dancer, Sergei Polunin, as well as those that aren’t as famous but promise to offer some incredible insights. Ify Adenuga and Yvonne Bailey-Smith are authors in their own right, but they are also mothers of highly creative offspring and they will share their parenting stories and how they turned hardships into strengths.

Ify Adenuga (Endless Fortune) is the mother of Joseph Junior (Skepta), Jamie (JME), Julie and Jason Adenuga. Yvonne Bailey-Smith (The Day I Fell Off My Island) is the mother of novelist Zadie Smith; actor, musician and children’s book author Ben Bailey Smith; and lyricist and writer LucSkyz.

One of the big shows that is selling out fast is actress Miriam Margolyes. Says Fiona: “She is so naughty, which is what people want at the moment!”

Wimbledon Bookfest

Back to Schools

The September festival will also offer a bigger schools programme. One of the frustrations with the June festival was that BookFest could not offer its usual number of events for schools. BookFest works year-round with its Word Up project, with the aim to transform young lives with the power of reading. Every year, over 10,000 school children from nine boroughs across London, including Merton, Kingston, Sutton, Wandsworth and Lambeth, take part in the likes of workshops, film-making and work experience, as well as receiving free books. The live events really help to cement BookFest’s work. “They are such a great opportunity for children to further their interest in reading – that’s really at the heart of a lot of what we do – and they come into the tents, see authors live and it really gets them fired up about reading.”

Future hopes

Next year marks BookFest’s 15th anniversary and events and reflections are being planned to celebrate. But as to the actual live festivals, it remains to be seen what format they will take.

While the smaller BookFest festivals have been much-loved by audiences, having such reduced capacity has had a big financial impact. BookFest is a charity and while community support, grants and sponsorship have really helped, much more funding is needed to ensure the festivals can continue

They have kept going through the pandemic with the sheer dedication and hard work of the small team. Says Fiona: “We have been able to be flexible, and people have had to change their roles. Ultimately, we have been able to do this because of this commitment from the team and their desire to make it happen. We love what we produce.”

BookFest has just launched a benefactors’ programme and will be seeking people in the community who can donate £1,000+ a year. “We would like a small group of individuals who are committed to culture and community, who will help keep us going for the future.

“The support from the community has been amazing, both in terms of sponsors, and individuals with the emergency campaign, but we struggle and so we are actively looking for people who think they might be able to give from £1000 a year to help us through these difficult periods, and also be involved creatively.”

BookFest’s commitment to the schools programme, and community outreach, remains as strong as ever. Plans include working across Merton library service next year and looking at options such as having artists-in-residence programmes.

But that extra financial support for the live festivals is crucial. Determination and flexibility got them though the pandemic but it’s cash that is needed going forward.

Adds Fiona: “One of the things that we have learned is that you need to be flexible and have plans in place that allow you to adapt. So, for example, we introduced cabaret-style seating which people love and is much more sociable as audiences sit around tables with a drink so we need to look at what has been popular and the takeaways from that. But we also have to look at how to make it financially viable.”