Ilkley Announces 50th Anniversary Line-up

Jacqueline Wilson, Clare Balding, Simon Armitage, Gyles Brandreth, Monica Ali head to Ilkley. Ilkley Literature Festival has announced 2023’s headline acts for its 50th anniversary year. Launched in 1973 by…

Jacqueline Wilson, Clare Balding, Simon Armitage, Gyles Brandreth, Monica Ali head to Ilkley.

Ilkley Literature Festival has announced 2023’s headline acts for its 50th anniversary year.

Launched in 1973 by the poet W.H Auden, the north’s oldest literary festival welcomes a host of poets, novelists, biographers, and journalists to the spa town this autumn.

The festival features around 100 events across 17 days, between 6-22 October.

Jacqueline Wilson – July 2012 . ©James Jordan

Headline acts include the children’s author, Dame Jacqueline Wilson, who introduces her new book, The Best Sleepover in the World.

TV presenter Clare Balding will discuss her new book exploring the world of dogs, while Helen Skelton delves into her memoir covering the Strictly dance floor and life in the great outdoors.

Comedian Shaparak Khorsandi will talk of her self-discovery following her ADHD diagnosis, and presenter and broadcaster Melanie Sykes’ shares the challenges she has faced as a neurodiverse woman.

For history lovers, Gyles Brandreth offers a portrait of the late Queen Elizabeth and historian and BBC broadcaster Tom Holland looks at the Roman Empire, while Tracy Borman delves into Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I.

Steve Richards explores moments that shaped Britain and philosopher AC Grayling addresses death, love, meaning and hope.

Current affairs are discussed with journalist Gavin Esler, who looks into our government’s recent crises, including Brexit and Partygate. Luke Harding brings reportage from the frontline of Ukraine. Tim Marshall takes off with the space race and global politics, and Polly Toynbee investigates her own family in a conversation about class.

Columnist Grace Dent invites us to her kitchen table, and adventurer Ray Mears tells us how to live in nature.

Bob Cryer will share stories of his dad, the beloved comedian Barry, with anecdotes from his famous friends to reveal a glimpse of the man behind the jokes.

For fiction lovers, broadcaster James Naughtie talks of his latest espionage thriller, Stef Penney brings to life a tale of love and loyalty in nineteenth century Paris, and Dan Jones discusses his trilogy following a band of British soldiers in the Hundred Years War.

Ilkley has been a dedicated champion of poetry since 1973 with appearances over the decades from luminaries including Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, and Carol Ann Duffy.

Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, will deliver a lyrical reading in an evening celebrating the music of language.

The festival’s Poet in Residence position has launched the careers of emerging poets in the north of England, this year it features two, the poet and theatre artist Chris Singleton from Leeds, and Sheffield’s award-winning poet, Freya Bantiff.

Erica Morris, Director of Ilkley Literature Festival, said: “Running Ilkley Literature Festival is a little like inheriting a great estate, passed down by previous generations. It’s a big responsibility, and we’ve had to navigate the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. So, we’re proud to mark half a century, and carry on the vision and ambition that has always characterised this arts charity; we hope 2023 is true to the spirit that has animated the festival since 1973.”

With themes encompassing the State of the Nation, Explore Moor (experiencing the natural world) and Food for Thought, the 2023 festival programme demonstrates eclectic breadth for which the event is renowned.

It will also recreate some of its inaugural events from 1973, including a Puffin Books Tea Party for children and their families, as well as a panel celebrating women’s writing featuring acclaimed novelist Monica Ali to mark the joint 50th anniversaries of Ilkley Literature Festival and feminist publisher Virago.

Erica added: “Our festival not only develops pathways for young creatives, it can enrich lives and enrich a place. It’s a chance to hear people who are eminent in their particular field share their knowledge and passion. It expands what your aspirations can be, or at least your understanding of the wider world. I think that curiosity and openness helps to create better communities as well.”

The spa town has featured in the Sunday Times’ Best Places to Live for some years, topping the list in 2022.

Tickets on sale 29 August (Friends priority booking from 23 August): Box Office: 01943 816714.


Notes to Editors

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About Ilkley Literature Festival

Ilkley Literature Festival is nationally acknowledged for its artistic excellence, diverse programming, and year-round writer development initiatives for children, young people, and adults.

The two-week autumn festival brings literature and poetry of national and international significance to audiences of over 22,000 each October, as well as showcasing new work by emerging and mid-career writers.

Ilkley Literature Festival is an Arts Council England NPO and supported by Bradford Metropolitan District Council.


50th Anniversary Facts

  • There is only one other literary festival older than Ilkley: Cheltenham


  • Ilkley Literature Festival first began in 1973 with words of support from JB Priestley, who praised the organisers, noting the difficulty of a literary festival in that, “Authors have little to show and are no treat as a spectacle.”


  • He was proven wrong in 1975, when Ted Hughes read Cave Birds. The Yorkshire Post wrote: “A blood curdling scream pierced the heart of Ted Hughes’ new poem sequence at its world premiere in Ilkley…It came from a member of the audience. Shortly afterwards a woman vomited and was led out.”


  • Over the last half a century, it has weathered recessions, funding cuts, a pandemic, and worse – being relatively ignored by the national media, because of, a former chair observed, its ‘northern remoteness.’


  • However, the national media did report on it (for the wrong reasons?) in 1977, when a huge bronze statue of the Minotaur by sculptor Michael Ayrton was unveiled in the town for the festival. It boasted, “commensurately large genitalia” resulting in petitions to protect the young and the elderly, and a headline in the Daily Express, ‘Beefing over 7 foot of Bull.’


  • As well as supporting emerging poets and new voices, Ilkley has always attracted the literary ‘big guns,’ with icons including: Maya Angelou, Alan Bennett, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Drabble, Fay Weldon, Harold Pinter, Bernardine Evaristo, and A.S. Byatt headlining over the years.


  • Other notable past attendees include Tony Benn, Sebastian Faulks, Timothy and Prunella West, Michael Palin, Caryl Phillips, Beryl Bainbridge, Benjamin Zephaniah, Andrew Motion, Blake Morrison, V.S Naipaul, Tom Courtenay, Willy Russell, Jeffrey Eugenides, P.D. James, Mark Haddon, Alice Sebold, Richard Ford, Michael Ondaatje, Donna Tartt, David Suchet, Jamie Oliver, Richard Dawkins, and Malorie Blackman.


  • The 1980s were a turbulent time politically and for the festival. It fell out with its major funder, Yorkshire Arts Association, and despite big names headlining such as Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Alan Bennett, the first female artistic director of the festival (June Oldham in 1982) declared: “The future, we have to say, looks a pretty bleak one…”


  • At the start of the ‘90s, the festival went through lean times, until 1994, when the festival was declared a triumph under the new artistic director, Jonathan Davidson. Alan Ayckbourn and Willy Russell headlined, there were enough funds for a commission from poet Ian Duhig, Tony Harrison did a film event, and a major celebration of poet W.S. Graham featured Harold Pinter. In his first three years, Davidson had initiated projects with schools, highlighted poetry in performance, and brought international writers to the town.


  • 1998 saw the 25th anniversary celebrated in style, with commissions, writing courses, publications (including a history of the festival) and special events. Benjamin Zephaniah headlined. There was ‘Caribbean Writing since Windrush’ and ’Pop TV’ explored a new generation of performance poetry and pop video artists. A National Lottery grant supported events and workshops with young people under 30.


  • The 2000s and 2010s saw the festival develop a range of events for young people, including WordFest – a mini festival with writing workshops and graffiti masterclasses. It also saw the introduction of the Festival Fringe, with everything from poetry speed-dating to Japanese drumming. These decades also saw a number of special commissions, most notably – in partnership with (now Poet Laureate) Simon Armitage – the creation of the 50-mile Stanza Stones Poetry Trail across the Pennines from Marsden to Ilkley.


  • Ilkley’s appeal remains undimmed over the decades. The spa town regularly features on the Sunday Times best places to live list, thanks to its enviable boutique shops, scenery, and good schools. In a shrewdly skewering essay penned following her writer in residency in 1977, Angela Carter noted the contrast between the town’s shops filled with “good tweed and sturdy jersey” and the eccentricity of its inhabitants writing: “You could write like Balzac if you lived in a town like that.”