Backstage with Andrew Kelly

Backstage With Andrew Kelly
Backstage with Andrew Kelly

Bristol is recognised as a hub for creativity, culture and independent thinking. In 2019, the city was named as one of Europe’s top cultural and creative towns and cities.

Bristol Ideas is an organisation which celebrates this, encouraging creative thinking and public debate around some of the key issues of our time. Festivals include; Festival of Ideas, a programme of inspiring guests who debate everything from politics, to art and science; Festival of Economics, an annual discussion between economists and experts; and Festival of the Future City, a biennial event that brings together politicians, writers, artists and more to discuss the future of cities. 

Events take place in a range of venues across the city, including the Arnolfini, the Watershed, St. George's, We The Curious, and many more.
We go backstage with Andrew Kelly, Director of Bristol Ideas, and discuss how creative and innovative thinking has been used during this 

What were your initial goals when setting up the Festival of Ideas? How has the Festival evolved over the years?

We set up Festival of Ideas in 2005 (I’d been working in Bristol since 1993). It came out of the work we did leading Bristol’s bid to be the 2008 Capital of Culture. We’d recognised the city had an appetite for learning, debate and discussion. We’d wanted to launch events around books and writing, but were keen to have something different to the traditional literature festival. And, if there’s one key thing about Bristol, it’s being a city of ideas. We wanted to bring the best ideas from around the world to Bristol and at the same time celebrate and debate ideas from the city –the past and now. 

The festival grew slowly with 27 events in May 2005, to now where we have at least 150 events a year. We still run the main Festival of Ideas programme and have specialist festivals: our Festival of Economics is now 10 years old; we’ll have our fourth Festival of the Future City in October this year, and we’ve run many themed programmes – for example on the history and future of council housing (Homes for Heroes 100 – 2019); Chatterton and Bristol Poetry (2020); a celebration of film this year (Film2021) and are hoping to have a big celebration of Bristol in 2023. 

We’ve just relaunched all our work as Bristol Ideas with a new website: This will have all our work – past, present and future – in one place.

David Olusoga was appointed the first Patron of Bristol Festival of Ideas. Image by Jon Craig.

Bristol Ideas celebrates creative thinking and innovation – are there any examples where you have seen real creativity in Bristol when dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic? 

There’s been a lot I’ve seen. For us, we’ve moved our events programme online; we’ve participated in a new online channel for Bristol arts; some of my colleagues have been involved in helping theatre costume departments create facemasks; many organisations have put their work out digitally on all sorts of formats; art packs have been provided in hospitals; there were the wonderful spray-painted hearts on Queen Square. 

The city has come together too in a way I haven’t seen before. Much of this is down to the One City Plan and City Office. 

Of course, much of the creativity and innovation I’ve only been able to see from afar in lockdown. The story of the creation of the vaccine will be written about for years as one of the greatest medical breakthroughs ever. I’m sure that when this is over many inspirational stories will be written.

Hearts on College Green. Image by Lorne Kramer.

How has the Festival of Ideas had to think creatively to adapt to the pandemic?

It’s fair to say that our work and business model have been upended by the pandemic. Our work relies on people gathering together to create art; learn about and debate ideas; work in teams to develop projects. All of this has been done online since March last year. We lost many events – we had a wonderful spring programme booked in last year and all those events and projects had to be cancelled.

But we have kept going.

We’ve been praised by our partners for our rapid move online since the start of the pandemic. And we’ve been pleased with the results. Between May 2020 and February 2021, we hosted 85 events online with 12,445 viewings. In the same period, our YouTube events saw over 90,000 people participate. And we’ve welcomed 205 speakers.

Financially – and we’re all in the same leaky boat on this – it’s been a major problem. We secure support for our work, and also for the writers and artists we work with, from many different sources. It’s been impossible to raise the level of funds we need in the last year and the implications of this will be felt for a long time. Recovery will be slow.

Margaret Atwood at the Bristol Festival of Ideas. Image by Vicky Washington.

What are your aspirations for Bristol?

Our aspirations remain the same as when we started. To ensure that Bristol is a cultural centre of excellence; to celebrate ideas coming out of Bristol; and to ensure the widest possible learning, understanding and debate about the ideas that have an impact on the city.

John Bercow interviewed by Andrew Kelly. Image by Evan Dawson.

What’re your favourite things about Bristol that make it unique to other cities?

It’s said often, and is true, that there’s an independence of spirit here. It’s quite a paradoxical city: there’s a radical edge, but also a conservatism about change. The history is remarkable – the disgraceful trafficking of enslaved people; but also hopeful in the many attempts to make life better through the centuries.

I’ve been in many marketing workshops (too many) where it’s been said that one of the great things about Bristol is that you can get out to the country easily. That to me is the wrong way of looking at it. One of the best things about Bristol is that it is a city that brings together life, work, culture, learning, leisure and more. Cities are one of humanity’s greatest inventions and we need to make them the best they can be for all. This is why we started Festival of the Future City, but its also been a key part of our work since the start. 

View of Bristol Harbourside and Brandon Hill from the top of the Cabot Tower. Image by Martyna Bober.

What does it mean for you for Bristol to have an arena?

It’s critical and we’ve backed it from the start. The city needs a range of cultural facilities for all types of arts and events and the Arena has long been missing from what the city can offer.

First gig, last gig, favourite gig?

First: Lindisfarne (I think) in Bradford, though it may have been UB40

Last: the last live music I attended was the great Slapstick Festival where many different musicians accompany many outstanding films.

Favourite: David Byrne at - what’s now - Bristol Beacon.

Which artist/band/performer would you like to see perform at YTL Arena Bristol?

I’d hope that the Arena will have many different performers each year which reflect the cultural strengths of the city and the world. How about:

Bruce Springsteen (because he’s The Boss)

Margaret Atwood (let’s get great writers there, too)

Can you name a song that can instantly boost your mood? (and why?)

Quite a few:

  • Telstar by the Tornados – the first record I owned. I’ve been obsessed with space ever since.
  • The theme tune from Fireball XL5 (and its many interpretations) – the best TV theme tune ever. And I wanted to be a spaceman once. 
  • Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly with Me Album – I could have chosen many of Sinatra’s songs but this one gets the most plays by me: it takes you on a journey around the world (and much needed now with travel all but impossible)
  • Meet me on the Corner by Lindisfarne – I love this song, but there’s also a family story here.  I have bored my family and partner for decades by arguing that when they were on Top of the Pops, one of the band played the bass drum with a large rubber fish. No one believed me. Last year, as I turned 60, my partner got this played as a birthday request on Johnnie Walker’s Sounds of the Seventies. Johnnie mentioned my strange memories on-air and someone wrote in to confirm that I had been right all along. 
  • La Marseillaise as sung in the film Casablanca – the best national anthem in one of the best films. 
  • I want to Hold Your Hand by the Beatles – this may have been the first song that made an impression on me. 
  • The theme tune to On the Town – an exuberant journey through New York – the greatest city of all. Hollywood at its best. I once went to New York and was on my own and decided to try and trace their journey. What they do in 4.40 minutes took me all day. 

And finally, can you share an all-time favourite song/ a song that means a lot to you so we can add it to our YTL Arena Backstage Pass playlist?

On the Town.

To listen to our Backstage Playlist on Spotify, click here. For exciting updates at YTL Arena Bristol, follow @ytlarenabristol on social media or sign up to our newsletter here.