A review of Henley Festival: messing about by the river


Ocelot deputy editor Ben Fitzgerald spent 20 minutes looking at YouTube videos attempting to tie a real bow tie before heading out to the Henley Festival for a long weekend of surreal sights, comedy, deep fried squid, celebrity chat, funk and jazz.

You know you have stepped through the magic wardrobe full of fur coats when you emerge from a tent to bump into a man pushing an antique pram full of cigars that he is offering for £50 a go.

Wafting through a crowd of the most beautifully dressed and beautifully spoken people – you saunter beside the river with a cone of deep fried squid like some Bohemian count jacked up on laudanum and absinthe while a trio of silver clad women with lampshades for heads slowly weave their way past you and disappear from view.

Then you catch a glimpse of someone you recognise… it’s flipping Johnny Ball, star of 1970s children’s TV and father of Zoe Ball, ex-wife of Fatboy Slim… that’s who! 

I tell him he’s one of my childhood heroes and mention that he parked outside my house once and then we part ways, leaving him baffled and me glowing with joy.

This all happened to me shortly after being invited backstage to chat to former power ballad legend turned jazz crooner Curtis Stigers.

“I can’t speak, I’m so tired..” he admits as he downs coffee to jumpstart his jetlagged brain. We talk briefly about his music, how happy he is to have put pop stardom behind him and why jazz is his new thing. But soon we’re talking about how strangely wonderful Henley is.

“I can’t get used to all these people wandering around in their sharp threads – it’s the only event where I’m worse dressed than my audience.” 

And then he clocks my bow tie – a real one – which took me a full 20 minutes of swearing and internet based videos to remind myself how to tie.

Mr and Mrs Fitzgerald

“It looks pretty good man.. It’s meant to look a bit lopsided and untidy, that’s how you know it’s a real one.” I think he was being incredibly polite.

I had my doubts about Henley, the idea of a strict dress code made me a little nervous that the whole thing would be like a Rotary meeting beside a river, with Nile Rodgers and Chic engaged in a futile bid to inject even a little funk into the proceedings. Far from it – the whole event turned out to be a total blast, small enough to be able to get around while wearing patent leather Chelsea boots or high heels but extensive enough to provide a range of simultaneous diversions – there’s comedy from the likes of Paul Merton, headlining music acts on the floating stage and strange and beautiful theatre as you wander. If you fancy a change from mud and irritating teenagers consider next year’s Henley Festival a viable option.