Two annual North Dorset events launch today. Shaftesbury Fringe starts its three-day run and in Gillingham, Gillfest, a ten-day series of music and comedy shows, begins.
“We are in our fourth year at Gillfest and it seems to be improving every year,” says joint organiser, Billy Kelly.
Don’t let the name fool you. Gillfest is not the sort of festival where you pitch a tent in a field and queue for portaloos. “No, not at all,” says Billy. “We have a number of venues around Gillingham and they are all enclosed with proper facilities. It’s concerts and talks mainly.”
Billy is proud of the programme that he and his team have put together. “We are a small town and we are bringing in acts that would not normally come to a place like Gillingham,” he says. Each year, Gillfest books household names and brings them to North Dorset. “We always go for a couple of mainline acts who are nationally recognised,” Billy says.
This year’s musical headliner is folk singer and songwriter Ralph McTell. “People will remember ‘The Streets Of London’. It was one of his major hits and he is still on the road,” says Billy.
“We also have the comedian Arthur Smith and people will know him from ‘Grumpy Old Men.’ The line up also features the much-loved Simon and Garfunkel tribute act, ‘Bookends’. “They have performed around here before and have quite a following,” Billy adds.
Billy is personally looking forward to attended Dan Bovey’s show. Dan was raised in North Dorset. “He plays the guitar and he’ll be performing with three other classical guitarists. That should be a spectacular event,’ Billy says.
So how does the Gillfest team decide which acts to book? “It depends on who is available during our event. We have to contact various agents and it can take a long time to put that together,” Billy explains.
Billy says it is gratifying that Gillfest’s well-known acts receive a warm reception when playing in North Dorset. “They like the atmosphere, the environment and the friendliness of the people. It is a different experience for them. They don’t come here for the money or the big venue. They come to connect with local, ordinary people,” Billy says.
The event is clearly associated with Gillingham. “Are Shaftesbury people allowed in?” I asked. “Reluctantly”, jokes Billy, quickly adding, “We have online ticket sales, so we can clearly see where people are coming from. I would say that as many people come from Shaftesbury as come from Gillingham.”
Billy works as part of a small team arranging Gillfest. “It takes quite a bit of effort. A lot of people give their input and the business community sponsor it. That’s very important. Without their help we couldn’t do it,” Billy said.
Billy is a born organiser. He runs a charity that operates in Rwanda. He’s just hosted a major fundraiser for that not-for-profit at Lords. He’s also worked with events in the UK and in his hometown of Limerick.
“In the past, when I was living in Ireland, I was involved in a number of small festivals. So I had some idea of what was involved – and the heartache and pain that goes with it,” he laughs. But Billy is serious about making a difference to locals’ lives. Through Gillfest, he is putting something back into the community.
“I moved to the UK about 15 years ago and this country has been very good to me,” Bill says. “I’ve always been involved in some kind of civic activity. I joined a group of volunteers and we put the event on. It’s something that hundreds of people can take part in it. I think it’s a positive contribution to the local community I live in,” he says.
Gillfest starts on Friday 29th June when North Dorset band The Songsmiths perform along with Howling At The Moon. The gig, at Gillingham School, starts at 7.30pm.
Other Gillfest highlights include Ralph McTell, supported by Smith and Brewer, on Sunday 1st July at Gillingham School at 7.30pm.
On Thursday 5th July you can enjoy the Simon and Garfunkel tribute band Bookends in Gillingham’s Methodist Church at 7.30pm.
Comedian Arthur Smith will have his audience at Gillingham School in stitches from 7.30pm on Friday 6th July.
Full details and online ticket sales are available at Gillfest.org.