London Student

Interview with Adrian Evans about the Totally Thames Festival: ‘it went from a party by the river to something about the river’

Anthony Walker-Cook chats with Adrian Evans, director of the Totally Thames Festival, which annually celebrates the River Thames through artistic events around and on the water.

As I walk along the Southbank to meet with Adrian Evans, I realise how much I love the area. Home to the National Theatre (and further along Shakespeare’s Globe), it’s an area I associate with relaxation and emotion, where I can spend an evening watching whatever latest show is being put on or sit with a drink and watch the world go by. Coming from a seaside town, I’ve spent a lot of my life near water, and the surprisingly calming presence of hearing the turbulent waters is forever one where I feel comfortable. Meeting Adrian in the OXO Tower early one morning, we begin by discussing how the Totally Thames Festival began.

‘This is the twenty-first edition. Tracking back all that time one has to imagine a very different central London landscape. In 1997, the Tate Modern, London Eye or Millennium Bridge had not been developed, so it was a different landscape. At that time there was not the pedestrian attraction to the Southbank. The policy of the Southbank Centre at that time was about events inside the building, the National had nothing outside, and there was little public-realm experience. People did not walk past the National where the river walkway narrows. Events that attracted people to this space was therefore seen as significant. It was politically between the demise of the GLC and the arrival of the GLA. There was a lot of fragmentation in London at that time, with smaller festivals disappearing since local councils could not afford to keep them going. All the exciting cultural stuff was thought to be happening elsewhere in Spain and France and not in London, so the Thames festival emerged as a celebration that spoke to Londoners that could bring the exciting stuff you read about in Europe to the capital. It emerged in that landscape. The thing that citizens of London felt and affinity towards and the landscape was to be around the Southbank.’

Adrian’s professional experience has revolved around festivals: he was pageant master for the Diamond Jubilee and spent the 1990s working on various festivals in the area. What did the first Thames Festival look like all those years ago? ‘It began with a high-wire walk across the Thames, which was perfect. Low-tide, gorgeous sunset, two wire walkers and the drama of what would happen when they had to cross. We commissioned some new music and it was sensational: it couldn’t have been a better launch and it was taken up by the media. The event has then grown with various events – night carnivals, dancing in the streets – and the atmosphere you have from a festival emerged throughout the Southbank. It then attracted sponsorship and, ultimately, we were attracting upwards of 750,000 people, which meant after Notting Hill Carnival it was the most populous event. Heading past the Millennium and with new policies at the Southbank Centre – especially with Jude Kelly as director – and what we were doing was starting over a weekend was becoming a regular event.’

Mudlark Walks Flotsam Talismans. Photograph: Matthew Goldsmith

Since then, the events and the nature of the programme have changed: ‘it went from a party by the river to something about the river.’ How did this change the demographic of the festival? ‘Immediately we had an ageing issue: the demographic for dancing-in-the-streets events is young people, and to change that (like we did) for events such as archaeology and even sport on the river. Art and art installations, which we used a lot at the beginning, is wildly different to dancing in the streets. Our challenge is to temper that with work that would appeal to a younger constituency. The more programmes we can do to bring young audiences to (and on) the river pays its dividends to the richness of people’s experiences.’

‘We wanted to attract communities across the board, the equivalent of a London village fete. When you change things from popular events (festivals, carnivals, music stages), then you’re being selective of the audience you are appealing to. Our challenge is to be true to our cultural programming – we want to do things about the river and that are destination events – but we want to attract an ethnically- and age-based variety. Much of how we select events is based on how we want to speak to communities across London. We are sensitive about developing a broad audience, and that also includes geographically. We have more events in Barking and Dagenham. These are the things we are eager to improve our audience base. Next year we are doing more theatre than ever before, which is an attempt to change audience.’

Why, then, did the Southbank, an area at least I now firmly associate with tourism and cultural variety, change? ‘Rivers in cities are not unique to London. All these cities look to the river to enhance the quality of life in the city itself. I think there is something like 22,000,000 people that walk between the Eye and Tate Modern and the tourist pull to these areas is immense. It’s a great place to be, so it’s not surprising – it’s self-serving. The river is calming and ever-changing landscape. It’s just a fantastic asset and people love to be beside it and businesses are taking advantage of it, as are builders and development. A flat can command up to a 60% premium for looking onto the river. The river fed London for a millennium and it now has a different value to the city. Through Totally Thames we are trying to remind people of the other aspects of the Thames and water. We need to reach a balance between the river being an amenity and it having an economic draw with it being a place for repose. It is a place that is being polluted so we are trying to encourage people to think of their environmental responsibility to the river.’

Adrian Evans. Photograph: Paul Blakemore

So, then, what is Adrian’s personal connection to the Thames? ‘I have grown to understand its potential – it is the way you can tell the story of a city through its waterway and the story of the peoples that live in it. I live in Ealing and the river and it’s a bucolic environment. But most of our work in the East of London where the environment is anything but pretty: it’s a raw, industrial, harsh environment. But it is a vibrant and dangerous place, a muscle that shouldn’t be toyed with, living and breathing. Unpredictable, soft-edged and governed by the moon, it is the opposite of the city. It has given so much to us and we must respect it and understand it.’

Looking back over the past twenty years, when asked what advice he wishes he could give to a younger self, Adrian’s answer reflects a greater desire to be involved with the river as an entity and space itself. The night carnivals were fantastic, he admits, but the festival’s now-greater investment in the river is one he is particularly proud of. ‘Peter Ackroyd writes that it’s impossible to understand a city without understanding the river first. I think that’s spot on: the story of London is embedded with the story of the Thames. The two are umbilically linked. That’s partly because London grew up with a series of communities on the river and it has a richness and depth that, say, Paris lacks. Paris’ Siene lacks the urgency and visceral muscularity of London. It feels trite but London would not be London without the Thames.’

Before we end, I ask Adrian which play musical he would like to see on the Thames. ‘I’m really excited by an immersive retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a story of journeys into spaces and psycho-geography, that we’ll be hosting next year.’ With this focus on the festival’s future, where does Adrian see it developing in the coming years? ‘It’s a real challenge: every year we have a challenge to raise the money. That requires stamina and commitment. For someone not involved, it is hard to understand: there is an assumption money falls off the wall. We must fight relentlessly to lever out the cash to pay artists, for events, etc. My dream would be that that became easier so we can do more of what we want to do and not constantly battling. We might lose the battle: we never assume each year we can provide a programme.’

How, then, can London students get involved with the Totally Thames Festival? ‘If they have ideas on what they want to do, they should contact us. Feel confident to come to us: we have an annual call out for events and some of our most exciting offers come through that. In the programme, around half comes from an open call. I would encourage people to reach out. Students have the ideas and desire to do. What we try to do is understand those artists we work with and then work together to bring these to fruition.’ You never know, the next big cultural piece of work could be just around the river bend.

Thanks to Adrian for taking the time to speak with London Student and to Suzie Jacobs of Chloe Nelkin PR for organising. If you want more information about the festival, including viewing this year’s full programme, check the website:

Feature photograph: Gabor Gergley