By Chris Hill
Thursday, January 16, 2014
The organisers of a summer music festival in Dereham aim to put this year’s expanded event on the national stage – by using the town’s resurgent Memorial Hall to entice a prestigious headline act.
The inaugural Dereham Blues Festival attracted 20 bands and an estimated 600 music fans to pubs and venues across the town centre in July, with visitors travelling from as far afield as London, Wales and Newcastle.
But one venue was conspicuously absent from the programme.
The regulations, technical requirements and cost involved in hiring Dereham Memorial Hall were beyond the means of the committee last year, so the newly-refurbished theatre – re-opened in December 2011 after a £2.3m renovation project by Dereham Town Council – was not used. But this year, with the help of the newly-formed Friends of Dereham Memorial Hall (FODMH), the Norfolk Blues Society is close to confirming a “nationally-revered” musician to top the bill – a coup which has only been possible with the appeal of a professional-quality venue.
The dates for the 2014 event have been set for July 11, 12 and 13 with the headline act, expected to be announced soon, due to play on the Friday night.
Festival organiser Doreen Aitken, treasurer of the Norfolk Blues Society and now an active member of FODMH, said she hoped to build on the festival’s initial success and raise its profile across the country.
“There will be more bands than last year,” she said. “The venues are not totally set, but we are adding a big one – the Memorial Hall.
“The arrangements for using the Memorial Hall last year were so onerous on top of everything else we needed to do for the festival that we could not see how to do it.
“Without the Friends group, I wouldn’t have been able to use the Memorial Hall for the blues festival.
“Now we are very close to securing a nationally-revered name to play on the Friday night. If we can sort this out, we will be able to launch the festival at a different level – a national level.
“There is a very vibrant blues scene in Norfolk, with really amazing players, and it will be great for Dereham to be the national shop window for them. We want to put Dereham on the map.
“If the Memorial Hall picks up, I think Dereham will start to become a cultural hub. With the Norfolk Blues Society coming together with other societies like the FODMH, the Jazz Society – and a lot of the Dereham Festival people are on the Friends committee too – it is all coming together.”
Preparations for the this year’s blues festival have started two months earlier, with the organisers keen to improve on the first event.
“At the end of last year we knew we got some things wrong, which we have now addressed,” said Mrs Aitken. “The timetable will be staggered this time, so something is not on at all the venues at the same time. People will be able to walk from pub to pub and always find some music and one venue, The George, will be exclusively acoustic.
“We are already getting interest from all over. Bands from within and outside Norfolk are already putting themselves forward and the venues reporting that their customers want to know what is happening this year.”
The FODMH was formed last year from a group of enthusiasts determined to help Dereham Memorial Hall reach its potential as an arts venue, with the aim of drawing more acts to the town, increasing audience numbers and boosting community activities.
The first show which the group has secured for 2014 will be the Norwich Puppet Theatre’s production of The Frog and The Princess on February 19 at 11.30am and 2pm. This show is intended for children aged four to eight, and tickets are now on sale at Sounds, Nunns Way.
While hosting a touring puppet show is a first for the Memorial Hall, it is familiar territory to Mrs Aitken – who used to work as a puppeteer in the Norwich Puppet Theatre 30 years ago.
“I have never lost my intrigue with it,” She said. “It is an amazing medium and children get so drawn into it.”
For more details and updates on the Dereham Blues Festival, see www.derehambluesfestival.org.uk.