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October 6, 2016

Preview: Blenheim Palace Literary Festival

By Alec Marsh

Sophie McIntyre chats to Richard E Grant and Nicholas Parsons ahead of their respective talks on gardening and nonsense poetry at Blenheim Palace’s Literary Festival.

Leaves fall, there is a chill in the wind, and it’s time for the annual Blenheim Palace Literary Festival.

One of the highlights of the autumn literary season, the boutique Blenheim Palace Festival of Literature, Film and Music will return to the grounds of the palace from Thursday 13th October to Sunday 16th October. As ever, the event presents an intriguing programme of discussion and debate in a special and historic setting. This year’s speakers include Darcy Bussell, Jo Malone, Justine Picardie, Richard E. Grant, and the wonderful Nicholas Parsons.

Spear’s was fortunate enough to speak to Nicholas Parsons and Richard E. Grant about their respective talks on the life of Edward Lear and the gardening talents of Isabel and Julian Bannerman.

Parsons is giving a performance of Edward Lear’s nonsense poetry (from memory, of course) along with an account of the poet and painter’s fascinating life. ‘I’ve always been interested in Edward Lear since my father read some to me when I was a little boy. I was never into Lewis Carroll in the same way,’ says Parsons.

Many of us are familiar with Lear’s verse – the runcible spoon, the Jumblies’ sieve; and even ‘Fish fiddle de-dee!’ – The Pobble Who Has No Toes. But few of us would know that Edward Lear’s life was a difficult one; he struggled with ill health and societal exclusion and had, according to Parsons, ‘a very highly strung sensitive nature’.

Parsons explains how Lear’s many ailments impacted his work: ‘I think his nonsense was not only a means of expression I think it was an escape for him. He wrote it because he was not very well – he suffered from asthma and bronchitis and he had fits and was epileptic and that, in those times, was akin to madness. He’d try and get away from people every time he had a fit and this haunted him for the rest of life.’

‘Yet, in spite of that he produced some of the most memorable, wonderful and delightful nonsense verse ever written,’ says Parsons.

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In light of this, Parsons will present the story of Lear’s life as a respected watercolour painter and poet, who, although late to fame, eventually rose to become Queen Victoria’s ‘art master’.

The Just a Minute stalwart aims to bring some real life context to many of Lear’s famous verses. ‘It is amusing, but there is a grain of fantastical truth running through all of his work. You have the Pobble that had no toes, which is a sad but hopeful tale; and there’s The Quangle Wangle’s Hat, which is all about frustration; and the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo was all about unrequited love,’ Parsons reveals.

This will be Parsons’ second turn at Blenheim after he performed his one man comedy show there a couple of years ago.

‘It’s a lovely setting for it. We did a recording of just a minute there a number of years ago. It’s got such atmosphere and such character and it’s a wonderful house and the family do fantastic work in the community and outside. The Oxford boys club which [they] run is wonderful.’

Richard E. Grant is also featuring at Blenheim for the first time this year. He will be chairing an interview with Isabel and Julian Bannerman about their first book, Landscape of Dreams, an account of the couple’s numerous garden designs.

If you don’t know the Bannermans, let Mr Grant enlighten you.


‘They have designed romantic gardens for the great and the good ranging from Prince Charles at Highgrove, to the Rothschilds, and a range of worthies listed in DeBrett’s, as well as creating their own astonishing gardens at Trematon castle where they live in Cornwall.’

‘Any spare time I have, is spent in our garden,’ says Grant. ‘We live in a Georgian rectory with a walled garden, in Petersham and I am obsessed with all things evergreen to avoid the winter glooms.’

Grant also gives Spear’s a restaurant recommendation during our brief interview – ‘Petersham nurseries cafe and restaurant – the setting is utterly magical and the food, delicious’ – before going on to tell us that the most indulgent thing he has ever bought were Concorde tickets. Who knew?

The festival will feature renowned speakers from the fields of music, food, fashion, literature and film during the four-day event in Oxfordshire. All tickets for the main Festival events include entry to the Blenheim Palace’s magnificent gardens and grounds on the day of the event.


Tickets are currently on sale for these events and booking is now open at or on 0333 666 3366.

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