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ARTS AHEAD ‘The best festival you never attended’

NIGEL COSTLEY previews the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival, which this year is happening online

IT WAS a sad day when we took the decision to cancel this year’s Tolpuddle Martys’ Festival. It had become inevitable, given the coronavirus pandemic.

Thousands will miss meeting friends and making new ones and being inspired by the debates, speeches and music.

The online alternative we’ve come up with will not, of course, be the same, but it offers ways to reach an even bigger audience, and there are even more options for speakers, discussion groups — and lots of music.

The launch event is a joint session with the People’s Assembly on Friday evening about the nature of protest and the need to mobilise to face the fight of our lives. The looming crisis for working people demands that we unite in the face of increasingly desperate capitalism.

In an exercise in “history from below,” the Tolpuddle Radical History School will offer sessions on the Great Chartist Meeting, and John Callow will talk about Jules Michelet, the French radical.

The Tolpuddle Radical Film Festival will run 10 films over the weekend such as The Grapes of Wrath and Wapping, the Workers’ Story. Old film and images from past Tolpuddle rallies will be shown, and the programme on Sunday will hear from trade-union and Labour leaders.

Currently almost 50 performers are providing short sets of music to suit all tastes. Graham Moore, who wrote the outstanding musical of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, will sing some of its great songs, while folk legends such as Eliza Carthy and Steve Knightly will perform, along with lots of fresh talent, all motivated by our common cause.

Maxine Peake is curating the Friday evening, with some lively performances and surprise guests. None have been asked to work for nothing, as they are at so many online events. The generosity of unions and donations will ensure they get paid.

As we can’t march through the small village, we have plans for a special alternative. You will be invited to post photos of your banners onto the Facebook Group page and the artist Bob & Roberta Smith is supporting us with a placard of his own.

To ensure that children are involved too, there will be an exciting range of activities, from story-telling to banner-making, thanks to the Woodcraft Folk.

Billy Bragg will round off the festival, as he so often does, with a rousing set from his Dorset home. It’ll be the best festival you never attended.

The festival runs from July 17-19 and it is all free — but please donate — and details are available  at and the Tolpuddle Martyrs Facebook group.

And you can check out the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Online Festival preview with me, Maxine Peake and Billy Bragg as part of the TUC’s Organise 2020 on Saturday July 11 at 2pm.



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