Latitude Festival draws closer

SUFFOLK's premier arts festival returns for its fourth run this weekend. The creator of the Latitude Festival Melvin Benn speaks about its remarkable success story - and how the local area continues to benefit.

SUFFOLK's premier arts festival returns for its fourth run this weekend. The creator of the Latitude Festival Melvin Benn speaks about its remarkable success story - and how the local area continues to benefit.

MELVIN Benn will tell you exactly who he had in mind when he dreamt up the Latitude Festival.

'It was a festival that I wanted to create for myself,' he smiles, the sunshine of a glorious summer's day at Henham Park glinting in his sunglasses.

'I did it in the hope that other people would like it too - and I'm very pleased that has turned out to be the case. I'm hugely proud of it.'

Latitude continues to grow in prestige and popularity each year. Up to 25,000 people each day will visit the sprawling Henham estate for this year's festival, the fourth to be staged, which gets under way on Thursday night.

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The event - an eclectic mix of music and the arts, recognised for its green aspirations and recognisable by its spray-painted sheep - has established itself in the summer season quicker than its creator could have hoped.

The plaudits keep coming, and Benn is fond of listing them; number one 'boutique' festival according to The Times newspaper and Time Out magazine, number one overall according to The Independent.

'It was a festival that was missing off the calendar,' he says. 'It has established itself very quickly. It found a niche and presented festivals in a new way.

'Other people are starting to copy it, which is a great compliment. It's going to be here for a long time to come.'

Latitude seemed to come out of nowhere in 2006. It was an instant hit, with indie-rockers Snow Patrol leading the music line-up, complemented by a left-field mix of comedians, writers, poets, dancers and a Radio 4 roadshow.

In reality the festival had been in the planning stages for some time. 'I'd spent three years looking for suitable locations,' said Benn. 'All these ideas had been germinating and developing in my mind in that time.'

The promoter has long been a major player on the festival scene. He spent 10 years putting on political and campaigning festivals before taking charge of festival production for Mean Fiddler 20 years ago. Now the managing director of Festival Republic, he owns the Reading and Leeds festivals outright, and still retains 40pc of the Glastonbury Festival. 'I am constantly working,' he says. 'Externally, people think I'm very relaxed about everything, but internally I'm dealing with a million things and answering a million questions.'

The breakthrough for his Latitude dream came when a member of his staff suggested an historic estate, just over the road from where she had grown up in rural Suffolk. 'I came down to have a look - and I'm very, very pleased I did.'

His timing was perfect. The Henham estate had been owned by the Rous family for more than 400 years but they no longer appeared to know what to do with it. The head of the family, Keith Rous, the 6th Earl of Stradbroke - or 'The Aussie Earl' as he became known - had long left for his homeland Down Under, and management of the 4,000-plus acres, with its beautiful lakes, lush green fields and winding walkways, had become something of a bind. In 2004, he sent over one of his 15 children to get a good price for it.

But Hektor Rous soon had other ideas, and started working on plans to make the estate viable again. Latitude was the perfect fit.

'It's a glorious place to be,' says Benn. 'Henham is absolutely beautiful, there's no doubt about it. I feel very comfortable here.'

But he's quick to stress the event is about more than just the wide open spaces of the park. 'It's about the whole area. I'm really pleased the local community appear to have embraced Latitude, in lots of ways. That's valuable to me.'

He believes the festival boosts the local economy to the tune of 'hundreds of thousands of pounds' yearly through increased tourism and spending, while it specifically raises money for a nominated local cause each year. Previous beneficiaries have included the local RNLI, Southwold's Christmas lights and Brambles nursery in Reydon.

'It's become a festival synonymous with the area very, very quickly,' he says. 'We sell a lot of tickets to people in the area and a lot of those tickets are bought locally. People want to buy locally-produced food at the festival too.

'There is a phenomenal amount of local participation, especially in the children's area. It brings a real local flavour and spreads the word about how pleasant the festival is.

'Otherwise, people may perhaps be afraid of it because they don't know what it is, and when they start hearing about members of their own church congregation attending, it reduces that fear of what a festival might be. Although nobody should be fearful of what Latitude is; it's just not that sort of festival.'

Benn might have seen it and done it all, and sold the t-shirt, when it comes to festivals, but he's more excited than ever about this year's Latitude line-up. And while might be 'blown away' at securing Grace Jones as a headliner and 'overjoyed' at a specially-created spot for Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke in the music arenas, you're more likely to find him at the arts stages at this year's event.

He says he's 'desperately keen' to listen to former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion in the Literary Arena while he has vowed not to miss Sir Peter Blake or Vivienne Westwood either.

He will also get over to the Waterfront Stage for 'two very special performances' from Sadler's Wells ('they stole the show last year') and the Royal Opera House.

'My office is actually opposite the Royal Opera House, and to see them on a little stage on the lake will just be brilliant,' he says. 'It will be a dream come true.'

In fact, Latitude is one big dream come true for Benn. 'If I'm being brutally honest, from day one I don't think it could have gone any better.

'It's fulfilled all of my dreams of what it should be. The only one it hasn't is that it's not festival number 25 we're sitting here celebrating.

'I want Latitude to still be here in 20 years' time. In every other respect, it has fulfilled the dream.'