Frome Festival – how it began

THERE are two ways you can launch a festival. You can spend years planning, booking the acts and preparing the events, securing sponsorship, getting the funding in place, hiring venues and making sure you have an army of volunteers and a core team of committed professionals to manage every date and detail.

Or you can have a vision … and go for it. And that is what Martin Bax did when he started the Frome Festival, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary.

He had an idea, to give this beautiful historic town a boost and to celebrate its people, its culture, and its proud industrial heritage. Frome in the late 1990s was quite run-down. Its many factories and businesses had closed down, one after another, the victims of global changes and pressures, and Catherine Street was full of boarded-up shops.

The journey from those troubled times to the success of a festival which The Times put in the national top five (with Glastonbury heading the list) was outlined by Martin in the inaugural Bob Morris Lecture at Frome’s Rook Lane Chapel.

Dr Morris, who died earlier this year, was chairman for 15 years from 2005, and only stepped down from the festival board in January 2021. Festival director Martin Dimery told the socially distanced audience at Rook Lane that the annual lecture had been introduced as a tribute to the long-serving chairman. Martin Bax, his predecessor and the founder of the festival, had been the obvious choice for the inaugural lecture.

In 1999, Martin Bax was elected to both Mendip district and Frome town councils. As a councillor, he was quickly involved with the arts, conservation “and the promotion of all things related to Frome.”

He said: “I thought a festival might be a good idea.” Frome was steeped in history, but had “no single glory” like a cathedral or castle. “The aim was to create an event that would fly the flag for Frome, and put it on the map nationwide.”

The planning began with enthusiastic support not only from Frome’s two theatres, (the Merlin and the Memorial), the schools, Frome College, and makers, and artists, but from Maureen Lehane Wishart, the distinguished mezzo-soprano who founded and ran the Great Elm Festival in the village near Frome.

After various temporary offices, Martin, and the festival administrator-secretary Anne Gobey finally found a home above Eye-Tech on the Market Place – although not before Martin’s early electrical engineering training was put to good use to rewire the offices. Martin thanked EyeTech for allowing the festival rent-free use of the offices.

As an actor, from years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, National Theatre, Compass Theatre and other touring companies, Martin had plenty of contacts both on stage and back-stage.

Old friends Stephanie Cole, who lives near Frome, Tim Pigott-Smith (a huge star ever since his role in The Jewel in the Crown), Frances de la Tour, Dennis Quilley, Charles Dance, Edward Fox and more, took part in a variety of performances in the early years, including The Hollow Crown in the inaugural 2001 festival.

“I knew nothing about organising and running, let alone financing a festival,” Martin recalled. But soon the ten-day festival, bridging two weekends, had a programme of 100 events – including a concert by the Syrinx Ensemble, the first event Martin personally booked. His brother sent a $5,000 dollar contribution from the USA, and local businesses were generous in their sponsorship.

The World Food Feast, with food stalls serving food from Frome’s diverse community and live music, took over the market place and was a noisy, colourful, delicious highlight of the first weekend. Nowadays it takes place in the big car park near the Cheese and Grain – but not this year, thanks to COVID.

Over the years, music fans enjoyed a great range of concerts – pianist Stephen Marquiss, Jason Thornton and Bath Philharmonia and chamber ensembles, Music in the Park at Marston House, local instrument makers playing their own creations, folk singer Cara Dillon, locally based jazz stars John Law and PeeWee Ellis and many of their friends, Van Morrison, Acker Bilk, and the Summer Schools, which included performances of Carmina Burana and Berlioz’ Grande Messe des Morts – and tours to France and Germany.

Two of the highlights of those early years were community operas – Britten’s Noyes Fludde, with professional soloists and a chorus of local school children, and the festival commission, The Cuckoo Tree, based on Joan Aiken’s wonderful children’s story, with a score by Rachel Scott. Both performances were at St John’s Church.

There was also family fun with an It’s A Knock-out competition and a colourful Rio-style carnival procession. Other events included Crafts in Action on Catherine Hill, secret gardens, comedy and walks around the town, through the tunnels and discovering lost pubs.

At the end of his talk, which was illustrated with many short film extracts, you could only marvel at the vision, the imagination, the chutzpah, that had created this festival. After seven years of tireless work as an unpaid volunteer director, Martin stood down. He is now president of the festival, and his successor Martin Dimery is in his 13th year as director.

And throughout all those years, Frome Festival has lived up to Martin Bax’s original idea, that the festival would provide: “Something for everyone and entertainment for all.”

• An exhibition of 20 years of Frome Festival is open at Rook Lane Chapel throughout this year’s festival, which runs to Sunday 11th July.