Changing Times: Digital Events at the Buxton International Festival

Peter Moore, author, historian and interviewer for the Buxton International Festival, writes about how quickly digital events have become a part of our everyday lives.

At nine o’clock one Wednesday morning in July 2019, I walked out on the stage of the Pavilion Arts Centre in Buxton. The little audience that we had managed to lure out at breakfast time responded with a ripple of applause and then our experimental event began.

The hour that lay before us was something different in the BIF timetable. I was interviewing Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, one of Britain’s pre-eminent historians, on his grand biography of King Henry VIII’s ruthless fixer, Thomas Cromwell. So far so straight-forward. The twist here was that we were recording a format-based history podcast called Travels Through Time. Once completed the digital file was to be cut down, topped and tailed, enlivened with music and released everywhere from iTunes to Spotify as a digital event.

At the time this felt tremendously novel. The conversation was lively, the audience was engaged. We talked about the year 1536: King Henry’s mercurial moods, the spectacular fall of Anne Boleyn in May, the Pilgrimage of Grace of the late summer and Cromwell utter triumph in surviving it all. ‘The more you know about Henry VIII, the more you dislike him,’ MacCulloch told us.

I remember at the time reflecting on the different ways that this conversation would be consumed. First, in its traditional manner, in the concentrated quiet and comfort of the Arts Centre. And then, by contrast, out in the wild – in a kitchen, sitting room, or perhaps accompanying a listener on their morning commute. But would anyone at all want to do that?

Since then and the malevolent appearance of Covid-19 it is interesting to see how our habits have changed. Locked up in our houses for months on end, many of us have escaped for an hour here or there to lectures, talks, concerts, operas.

One of the happy by-products of the last year for me is that I’ve been along (from my bedroom) to a series of lectures run by the Samuel Johnson Society of Lichfield. Usually, I’m told, their attendees are drawn from the neighbouring towns and villages in Staffordshire. But while there I spotted in the Zoom panel of windows a couple from Nova Scotia, an enthusiast from New Jersey, a Berliner and a representative of the Samuel Johnson Society of Japan.

For forward-looking festivals like Buxton, this is a hint of the wider opportunities that await. I know a BIF Digital Extra series of events is being planned (in one of which I will be interviewing William Dalrymple on his fabulous book The Anarchy), and at this point it might be heartening to note that while a few dozen turned up to our morning event in the Pavilion Arts Centre in 2019, about 15,000 more have listened to the conversation in the months since.

Still, you’ll never quite convince me that there’s anything to beat a comfortable seat, the hush and intimacy of a real live event. There’s some real treats coming to Buxton this summer: Rebecca Wragg Sykes is infectiously passionate about the Neanderthals; Juliet Nicolson has a bold new take on winter (of 1962/3) that brought us the Beatles and changed Britain; Isabel Hardman is equally inspiring as she talks about pursuing happiness through nature. I really hope you enjoy them.

Note: The BIF Digital Festival events will be available to view from early August. Please sign up to our newsletter for the latest updates.