Please do not pogo on the grass
Not so long ago, the nation’s stately homes were elegantly crumbling piles attended by ever dwindling files of tourists. But now, says Tim de Lisle, they are reinventing themselves – as the unlikeliest of rock venues
Wednesday June 30, 2004
Pop fans are accustomed to being told what not to do at concerts – don’t use recording equipment, don’t carry illegal substances, and so on. But now a new prohibition has landed. On Sunday, Norah Jones, the Texan jazz-pop-country crossover star, played to a crowd of 15,000 at Althorp, Princess Diana’s childhood home, and ticket-holders were asked to leave their portable gazebos at home. Picnic chairs were allowed, said an Althorp press release, “but we discourage the use of gazebos. Should you bring one along, you may be asked to locate it at the back of the arena, or not use it at all.”
Punters were also invited to pre-order an “exclusive” picnic. The Caprice Picnic Cool Bag – named after the restaurant, not the model – comprised asparagus with herb mayonnaise, ciabatta, griddled chicken salad, guacamole, pecan pie and a bottle of Berry Brothers wine, plus cutlery, glasses and a bottle opener. At £75 for two, the picnic cost more than the concert (£30 a head). The inevitable booking fee applied to both.
Fifty years after the advent of rock’n’roll, we have reached the age of rock and ciabatta rolls. Picnic concerts, held at open-air venues ranging from castles to forests, now form a season which runs from this week to the end of August.
Jools Holland’s current tour takes in Belvoir Castle, Harewood House and Rochester Castle. Cliff Richard and Tom Jones are sharing an unlikely weekend bill at Chatsworth. Blondie are playing Nostell Priory, Yorkshire. The Big Chill festival has become a fixture at Eastnor Castle near Ledbury. Bryan Ferry’s summer tour takes in Kenwood House in London and the deer park at Petworth in Sussex, designed by Capability Brown (had he lived two centuries later, Brown would surely have art-directed a Roxy Music LP.) On Sunday, Status Quo were at Ragley Hall, Warwick. In all, 200 picnic concerts are reckoned to be happening this summer, with the National Trust and English Heritage each organising their own season. Never mind Glastonbury; rock is going Glyndebourne.
The relationship between historic houses and amplified music goes back a generation, to Neil Diamond’s show at Woburn Abbey in 1977. Six years later, Barry Manilow played Blenheim Palace; this weekend it welcomes him back, along with Jamie Cullum and Katie Melua. Most of rock’s pantheon have played Knebworth, which has become more famous as a concert venue than a house. But these were colossal one-offs: even Knebworth doesn’t take place every year. The difference today is that strings of concerts are held at dozens of statelies.
Powderham Castle has stood at the mouth of the river Exe for 600 years, and the Courtenay family, who hold the earldom of Devon, have lived there all that time. In 1959 they opened the house to the public, and in 1993 held their first concert, featuring the Midland Symphony Orchestra. The promoter sold 3,000 tickets, the concert was much enjoyed, and the promoter went bust because he had needed to sell 4,000 to break even. But Powderham’s general manager, Tim Faulkner, persevered because he had seen Neil Diamond’s Woburn show as a teenager, and remembered how “fabulous” it was. His employers needed some convincing. When Abba tribute band Bjorn Again were booked, Lady Devon, who is in her 60s, delighted her staff by saying: “I think they’re going to be playing Abba music, but I’m not sure who Abba are.”
In January, Powderham was named venue of the year at the Event industry awards after drawing crowds of 20,000 for the boy band Blue and 13,000 for Elton John, a natural for this kind of venue in his capacity as one of the stately homos of England. Lord and Lady Devon have taken to watching the shows from their roof garden with a family party. They even had Status Quo to tea. “The earl seemed like an awfully nice bloke,” the band reported on their website. “Funny thing, this nobility, innit?” Status Quo liked the castle so much, they returned to do a photo shoot in the dining room.
This year, Powderham will host 11 concerts, ranging from James Taylor to Busted. They cannot start until next week because several shows are held in the deer park and June is the fawning season. The total audience will be about 120,000, while the number who pay to visit the house in a year has dwindled to 50,000.
“It’s more difficult to get people through the doors,” Faulkner says. “So we’ve had to diversify.” This means weddings and corporate hospitality and a farm shop, which has restored employment on the estate to 19th-century levels. The concerts also help to boost the local economy: “If we can get generators from five miles away, we will.”
The risk is taken not by the Devon family but by John Hessenthaler, a Suffolk-based promoter who previously specialised in nostalgia packages such as Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody tour. Hessenthaler got into picnic concerts after attending a classical one. “It was quite boring. There was no buzz, no highs and lows apart from the fireworks at the end.”
He began by packaging 60s and 70s chart-toppers: “My theory was to party it up a bit. It’s kind of developed now to major acts.” Stately rock used to mean either crooners or dinosaurs, but this year there’s Paul Weller at Petworth and Ian Brown at Claremont, and Hessenthaler juggles superstars like Elton, younger singles acts such as Will Young, ancient album acts (Yes) and children’s bands (Busted). “Mind you, that’s changed, too. Busted don’t just draw kids. And for Jools Holland at Eridge Park we had all ages – kids right through to grans and granddads. People like the surroundings – they sort of ooze quality.”
For the performer, picnic concerts offer a change from the dreary arena circuit and a chance to reach fans who can’t get to Wembley. Joan Armatrading, who plays Blenheim on Friday, says: “Doing a gig in the open air at a stately home is like playing in your front room – there’s a very friendly but excited feel about it.” (Perhaps rock stars’ front rooms are different from yours or mine.)
But isn’t it all a bit genteel for rock’n’roll? “Far from it,” says Hessenthaler. “The lords and ladies tended to turn their noses up at first when they saw a rock promoter like me in my jeans and T-shirt. But there has been a definite change of attitude. Nowadays the children are the dominant force, as in most families.”
It’s the baby boomers, too. At the National Trust, which is targeting younger people by expanding its Summer of Music to 14 shows at six properties, I put it to the visitor marketing manager, Jorj Jarvie, that rock is traditionally dirty, sweaty, druggy and bolshy, qualities seldom associated with the National Trust. She replies: “All of us who were that way inclined in the heyday of Blondie and Simple Minds are now 35-plus, and there are 2.4 million of us. Isn’t it great to relive that excitement, but with champagne, good food, wonderful views – oh, and clean toilets?”
The rival season mounted by English Heritage is sponsored by Green & Black’s organic chocolate to the tune of about £500,000. Punters will be handed six free samples, along with “tasting notes”, at 32 concerts. Green & Black’s marketing director, Mark Palmer, says: “The big appeal is the profile of the audience – sophisticated and adult. It’s a very upmarket occasion.” Sophisticated and adult: what on earth is rock coming to?