More than a music festival?

Latitude offered a rather mixed standard on the theatre and literary side but the music produced som

If Glastonbury is the amiably stoned old-timer of festivals, and Reading the aggressive, angsty youth with “issues”, then the recently launched Latitude festival is surely aiming to be the respectable, middle-class family alternative.

Describing itself more than a little gingerly in its publicity as “More than just a music festival”, the three-day event on the Suffolk coast incorporated theatre, comedy, literature, film and some questionable stuff with mime into its broad sphere, to mixed results.

If your idea of a perfect festival is somewhere entirely safe, relaxed and laid-back, then Latitude will almost certainly be ideal. The sun shone (thankfully), children scampered happily and corporate whoredom was kept to a minimum.

The political agenda, such as it was, seemed to be vaguely liberal without attaching itself to anything so shocking as an ideology; thus, poets in the poetry tent were happy to be cheered for making vaguely risqué puns about Bush, and the event’s tone appeared to be epitomised by a Saturday evening interview with the writer and Comic Relief supremo Richard Curtis, whose jolly “Let’s all save the planet” spiel went down beautifully with the highly partisan audience, some of whom, incidentally, had shelled out upwards of £1000 to stay in the “boutique camping” area, complete with luxury teepees.

The literary content of the festival this year has to be seen as something of a missed opportunity.

Despite the flamboyant touch of the literary tent having a seven-foot mock-up of David Copperfield outside it, there was far too much sub-undergraduate comedy and little of the real intellectual playfulness that characterises such events as Hay or Port Eliot.

Likewise, the theatre tent was mostly a waste of time, seemingly unsure if it was peddling hard-hitting adult drama or the kind of whimsy that passes for humour at the Edinburgh fringe.

A highlight was the Royal Court’s “shuffle” series of short plays, each one based on a piece of music; Joe Penhall’s beautifully judged “Common People”, satirising the relationship between politics and early Britpop was a rare gleam of intelligence in an otherwise banal line-up.

The comedy tent boasted some top names, such as Bill Bailey and Dylan Moran; unfortunately, given the tent’s relatively small size, it proved impossible for more than a couple of hundred people to see (as opposed to hear) their idols.

Ironically, given the festival’s desire to succeed as an arts event, it was probably the music that attracted most people. If the line-up was more modest than the mega-festivals, it nevertheless produced several surprise pleasures, such as the witty Springsteenia of The Hold Steady and the beautifully judged, tender acousticism of the local singer-songwriter Tom Baxter.

Of the headliners, Damien Rice was pleasant, the Damon Albarn-fronted supergroup The Good, The Bad And The Queen’s detached meanderings about London identity felt out of place in a headline slot (despite offering music aficionados the rare chance to see Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen and Clash bassist Paul Simonon on stage together simultaneously), and the Arcade Fire were predictably stunning, aided in no small part by support from a typically witty Jarvis Cocker, whose re-emergence into public life with this and Meltdown serving to remind us how much we’ve all missed a man who once self-deprecatingly described himself as “the Judi Dench of indie rock”.

So, Latitude is hardly going to set anyone’s world alight, or get the teenagers along, who are supposedly the future of music audiences. Yet it seems unfair to carp at an event where people were noticeably friendlier and more laid-back than at larger festivals, where attractions including boating on the stunning lake and dyed sheep, and where, for all its faults, the patron was at least offered a genuine choice of attractions, rather than having to make the Solomon-esque decision between dull mainstream pop and bone-crunching nu-metal. For that, at least, the event deserves praise, and it would be churlish not to wish it well for many years to come, provided that the gulf between its ambitions and achievement is bridged somewhat.

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