Paul McCartney and the 1968 Leicester Arts Festival
According to many Beatles websites - all of which presumably use the same source material - on 6 February 1968, Paul McCartney took part in a press conference at the Royal Garden Hotel, London "announcing the Leicester University's art festival".
We wondered what this arts festival was, and what connection Paul McCartney had with the event. To our great delight, Leicester alumnus Lesley Hale came through with this detailed, fascinating account of the tangential University/Beatles connection and the event which prompted it.
"Leicester Arts Festival was an annual event of huge ambition, running for two weeks in February. I am not sure how long it had been in existence when I became involved in my first undergraduate year 1967-68, nor when it ended. It was a town-gown affair overseen by a committee of arts sector people from the town, City Council and all the colleges. The Festival Director was elected (without sabbatical) by the University Students’ Union and funds were raised annually by applications for grants from the Arts Council (majority funder), Students’ Union, University, colleges and City Council. The festival was supported administratively by the Students’ Union who provided an office in the Charles Wilson Building and a part-time secretary, a patient woman of great experience without whom nothing would have happened.
"It's probably worth saying that I came across the University website by chance when I was researching Roland Joffé's* time in Leicester. He was an Assistant Stage Manager at the Phoenix Theatre, as it was then, and ran extra-curricular classes at the University, which I attended. I was recruited to act in a production of Under Milk Wood at the Phoenix during the 1968 Arts Festival and became loosely connected to the managing group of that year. They were a testosterone-fuelled fraternity of great ability, charm and charisma, who may well have gone on to have amazing careers.
"They arranged to launch the festival in London in order to attract the attention of the national press. I understand that one of them persuaded Paul McCartney to support the press conference by saying they had attended the same school (true or not) and camping out on his doorstep until he agreed. The photo – cut from a collage on the wall of my student house on Clarendon Park Road – was taken at the launch at the Royal Garden Hotel. It shows a bemused McCartney with smiling journalists and anxious members of the festival committee, with Alan Gold from the Leicester Mercury standing to the left, behind. That was the extent of McCartney's involvement.
"The following year I became Business Manager of the festival which was managed by a group of mainly women. The 1969 Festival followed roughly the same model as 1968. I am sending you programme information so that you can see the scope of the festival. I could go on to tell you many stories from 1969:
- Being nineteen and appearing before the great and the good of the Arts Council in London begging for money and negotiating my first encounter with a lunchtime olive.
- How the Rugby Club took down an exhibition of primitive art in the Percy Gee coffee bar the night we were stuck on a train returning from London after an interview with John Peel for Night Ride.
- How I spent a Sunday evening weeping in the balcony of a mostly empty De Montfort Hall watching the Welsh National Opera performing The Barber of Seville without costume or movement, scuppered by the town's Sunday Observance by-laws.
- How it snowed for the whole festival fortnight and public transport to the venues all but ground to a halt.
- Spending a wet weekend searching the council tip for a small sculpture the groundsman had thrown away at the end of the festival.
- Poets squabbling, too drunk to be admitted to their hotels and suddenly needing to sleep on sofas.
- How the Moody Blues were just about the only band to turn up for the Festival Ball.
- And how I developed a serious Gauloises habit and spent the following year in the library salvaging my degree.
"All undergraduates have, or should have, stories to tell and these are a few of mine. I would rather have been writing to you about the student representation struggle, Jack Straw's visit to the occupation of the Senate House, or the opposition to the war in Vietnam. But it all amounts to a hill of beans in view of the current situation. I am part of the generation which took so much personally from their time at University and left so little behind."
Our sincere thanks to Lesley Hale for this wonderful reminiscence. If you knew Lesley during her undergraduate days (1967-70), you would have known her as Lesley Bushell. If you knew Lesley as a postgraduate student (1975-77) she was then Lesley Allerton.
Although The Beatles never played a gig at the University they did appear three times at De Montfort Hall: 31 March 1963, 1 December 1963 and 10 October 1964.
*Film director Roland Joffé was Oscar-nominated for his 1980s films The Killing Fields and The Mission.