Hay Festival 2014

Hay Festival 2014: The Final Day – Philomena and a National Treasure

Hay is my favourite festival but this year I’m arriving late at the party. It is Sunday and the final day. The sun is shining on multi-coloured deck chairs, warming up the massive pavilions and drying out mud-stained grass trampled by the milling literati. Despite the ice-creams, bare arms and summer dresses, there are plenty of wellington boots still in evidence. My favourite are the dinky baby-blue ones sported by psychologist and writer Dr Terri Apter who, together with author Zoe Strimpel, delivers the Cambridge University lecture, Beyond the Script.

Both women are interested in the stereotypes and schema that surround women in everyday life. Apter’s research highlights how embedded negative gender assumptions are towards females, while Strimpel focuses on how single women in their twenties and thirties, semiconsciously perpetuate stereotypical behaviour. It’s fascinating stuff, especially Strimpel’s analysis of female responses to internet dating. I would like to know more but the day is young and Steve Coogan and Stephen Frears are waiting in the Tata tent to discuss their film Philomena.

It’s clear from the start that Coogan is eager to engage whereas Frears is not. Or rather, not with Alan Yentob, who tries several times to draw him into the conversation. Frears sits with arms folded, his body turned away from Yentob, gazing out into the mid distance. I can’t make out if he’s playing straight guy (to Coogan’s comic persona), is a grumpy old man or just wants to get the hell out of here.

Looking for a new project, Coogan was moved by Martin Sixsmith’s Guardian article on Philomena. His Irish/Catholic upbringing placed him in the familiar world of the story and he believed he could use the film as an open letter to his parents; to discuss issues that he couldn’t openly address with them. When he saw a photograph of Sixsmith with Philomena, he felt that his way to explore the relationship was to examine the ‘odd couple’ and ‘road trip’ elements of the story. Coogan believes that as a director, Frears brought clarity to the script; what was often implicit to Coogan as a lapsed Catholic, needed to be explicit to the Jewish Frears.

Coogan feels strongly that Philomena is not an angry film, despite its tragic story. It’s not in the same mien as The Magdalene Sisters and Coogan is emphatic that the film is not intended to be a liberal polemic on Catholicism. His intention is to draw in people who would not necessarily engage with the subject. He maintains that the key to the story was to give the characters their own dignity, especially Philomena, and while much of the story is invented, it remains within the bounds of acceptability. At this point, Frears suddenly interjects to make a comparison with his latest film about Lance Armstrong, declaring profoundly, ‘There is a very arbitrary line between which facts are included and excluded in a story’. And then he resumes his ‘I wish I was somewhere else’ stance.

The hapless Yentob resorts to asking Coogan about his role in The Trip and his working relationship with Rob Brydon. Frears’ disengagement continues until he finally volunteers that despite covering a range of material during his time with the Royal Court, he resents never being encouraged as an auteur. For, this, he appears to blame the BBC. I can’t make out if he has a real axe to grind, because he also implies that the BBC are failing to encourage writers and had lied to him about the script of Philomena in order to get him to direct it. What is evident is that Frears has an innate curiosity which leads him into projects and films; which gives him the opportunity to learn about new things. A pity he doesn’t seem to approach the Hay Festival in that spirit.

Meanwhile, Coogan lets slip that he entertained co-star Judi Dench on the set of Philomena with his impersonations. Which brings me neatly to the highlight of the day, Richard Eyre’s interview with Dame Judi Dench.

If anyone doubts that this woman is a national treasure, they are not sitting in a packed and heaving Tata tent, straining to see a diminutive Dench in a black leather biker jacket. Eyre explains that Dench was originally due to appear with her brother to discuss their CD Exits and Entrances, a collection of Shakespeare’s speeches and sonnets. In memory of Jeffery who died this year, Eyre opens the session by playing Jeffery Dench’s recording of ‘The Seven Ages of Man’. It’s a moving performance by the man who was instrumental in encouraging his young sister to enter the theatre, a debt Dame Judi acknowledges. She maintains that her sense of poetry and Shakespearian rhythm was drummed into her at an early stage by her brother, Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn and Richard Eyre. Her advice to young acting students, if they want to learn how to perform Shakespeare, is to sit down and study Sir John Gielgud and Frank Sinatra. She also feels that young actors are not taught how to project; that it’s important to learn how to project to the whole theatre rather than a small group of people, otherwise, why bother performing on a stage?

Dench peppers the conversation with humorous anecdotes, revealing how once Michael Bryant exposed himself in the wings in order to make her giggle on stage. She also confesses to a sense of mischief, once sending explicit cross-stitch cushions to members of her cast. She reveals a prodigious memory for Shakespeare, launching faultlessly into several speeches. But the highlight is when Eyre asks her to perform as Viola from Twelfth Night, casually inviting a young actor from the audience to assist. When Benedict Cumberbatch vaults onto the stage, the audience is rapturous and when he later hijacks the question and answer session to ask her to appear in Richard III, later this year, the audience is ecstatic when she finally concedes. There is an overwhelming sense of warmth and affection as the audience rises, en masse, to applaud Dench at the end of the session. National treasure… indeed.

Illustration by Dean Lewis