In Conversation with – Director of Chiswick Book Festival Torin Douglas

Last week, Marketing Executive Isabel Morrish was delighted to sit down with Director of the Chiswick Book Festival and former BBC media correspondent Torin Douglas to talk about this year’s programme, which will celebrate the festival's tenth birthday; being awarded an MBE at Buckingham Palace in 2013; his love for British humourists; and why the home of neo-classical architect Sir John Soane (1753 - 1857) is his favourite museum in London.

Chiswick House & Gardens

Chiswick House & Gardens © 2018

The launch of this year’s festival will take place in the beautiful grounds of the neo-Palladian Chiswick House & Gardens – now a tradition and an apt venue considering the evening will celebrate William Thackeray’s much-loved social satire Vanity Fair (1848), which is widely hailed as the founder of the Victorian domestic novel and was inspired by the author’s upbringing in Chiswick.

‘While the present century was in its teens, and on one sun-shiny morning in June, there drove up to the great iron gate of Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies, on Chiswick Mall, a large family coach, with two fat horses in blazing harness, driven by a fat coachman in a three-cornered hat and wig, at the rate of four miles an hour.’ – Vanity Fair, William Thackeray

This year’s event builds on an impressive pattern; 2016’s ‘Victoria in Fact & Fiction’ and last year’s ‘An Evening with Jane Austen’ illuminated the fascinating connections of each to Chiswick. Douglas comments, ‘Each festival has come together so well; Queen Victoria visited Chiswick House as princess and Queen and it is widely believed that Chatsworth, the sister estate to Chiswick House, was the model for Pemberley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.’

Thackeray does not fail to follow suit; not only was the author educated at Walpole House on Chiswick Mall, it gave him the inspiration for Mrs Pinkerton’s Academy in Vanity Fair, which is directly referenced in the novel’s opening paragraph. Douglas is delighted that this year’s programme is coming together so well, particularly considering it will mark the festival’s tenth birthday. Furthermore, it so happens that ITV are serialising Vanity Fair in the autumn. ‘I am lucky because I do a lot of different things that coalesce; I was at the Radio Times cover party in Claridge’s recently and met a member of the team working on ITV’s forthcoming adaption of Vanity Fair and we agreed that it would work brilliantly.’

When asked why the Chiswick Book Festival stands out, Douglas points out the wealth of talent that this leafy suburb has produced and inspired. ‘We always said that Chiswick really ought to have a book festival if anywhere was to have one; Thackeray and many other authors come from Chiswick. WB Yeats, GK Chesterton and John Betjeman wrote eloquently about the area and Chiswick is home to many creative types who appreciate the written word. Furthermore, the area has an array of fantastic spaces to host events, including St Michael & All Angels Church & Parish Hall, the Tabard Theatre, Chiswick House, ArtsEd and Chiswick Library.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Douglas is unable to pinpoint just one highlight of the festival since its inception nearly a decade ago, although he does emphasise the high calibre of speakers right from the get go. ‘One of the highlights was the first year's programme; I thought we would start slowly but I was working with Jacks Thomas, who is now the Director of the London Book Fair and her husband Malcolm Edwards, former deputy C.E.O of Orion Books and their idea of starting slowly was Antonia Fraser, Anthony Horowitz, Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Frayn. I did think, how are we ever going to follow this? What you soon realise is that there are lots of authors out there and every year they release new books. The actual challenge is persuading them to take part in the festival.’

Douglas mentions another notable highlight: hosting esteemed author, curator and television personality Lucy Worsley at the festival for three years. Worsley is Joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces and well-known for her BBC series including The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain (2014), A Very British Romance (2015) and Lucy Worsley: Mozart’s London Odyssey (2016). Last year, Douglas was delighted to have one of his journalistic heroes, British broadcaster and author of the only authorised biography of the Beatles, Hunter Davis OBE, speaking in the ArtsEd theatre – a beautiful space and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s foundation theatre.

When quizzed on the future of the festival, Douglas says that it will continue to be based around a weekend as the format works well. Launching on the Thursday night at Chiswick House, an equally large event then takes place on the Friday evening, followed by a packed agenda of competitions, quizzes and speakers over the weekend. Monday sees the end with an event at Chiswick Library. ‘We have fitted in more authors over the years and have added events at the front and back as it were; we now host a local authors party at Waterstones on the Wednesday which works well. The priorities are keeping the standard high and putting the finances on a sustainable footing. We rely on sponsors and ticket sales and these are only as good as our speakers each year.’

Torin Douglas

Torin Douglas receives MBE from the Queen © 2018

In 2013, Douglas was awarded an MBE at Buckingham Palace for services to the community in Chiswick - an accolade intimately connected to his 40-year love affair with W4. ‘Carol and I discovered Bedford Park in the 1970’s when a friend lived there. As the first garden suburb with beautiful Arts & Crafts houses, we thought it would be a rather lovely place to live. One of the local estate agents said to us that we would not be able to buy a house for £15,000 in Chiswick, but we did. That ages us, doesn’t it?’ Douglas remains an integral part of the Chiswick community today, dropping in his love for Foster Books, the Chiswick Timeline project and his admiration for a few well-known Chiswick residents, including actress Phyllis Logan, broadcaster Jeremy Vine and CEO of Walpole, Helen Brocklebank.

During Douglas’s 24-year career as full-time media correspondent for the BBC, he remained firmly connected to the local community. His first involvement was with the Bedford Park Festival, which he took over the running of in 2002. When Douglas was awarded an MBE, he was credited by the Palace press office for creating a ‘bubbling village community’ and transforming the festival ‘from a low-key parish event into a high profile annual attraction’, which raised money for local charities and health projects in Bangladesh. He explains, ‘because I was always on call at the BBC, and usually logged into a computer, I could fit in festival correspondence alongside my role there. However, if a big story broke, I could not do a festival event that day - but it was generally possible to make it work. In 2009, I said to Father Kevin, the vicar of St Michael and All Angels, that with our experience of the Bedford Park Festival and such amazing spaces to hold events, we really ought to start a book festival in Chiswick. How hard can it be I thought? Turns out it was harder than it looked.’

Chiswick Book Festival

Earl Spencer and Torin Douglas © Chiswick Book Festival 2018

When asked to pick his most memorable work moment, Douglas touched on a selection of the high-profile stories that he covered whilst working at the BBC, including the Jimmy Savile affair and crises within the organisation itself; notably when Director General Greg Dyke and Chairman Gavin Davis both resigned within 24 hours over a battle with the government regarding claims over weapons of mass destruction in 2004.

However, the most unforgettable had to be the unexpected death of Princess Diana – a story that he covered for many weeks following the tragedy. Douglas covered the Princess’s funeral and clearly remembers Earl Spencer’s controversial eulogy, which placed the media directly in the spotlight. Two years ago, Douglas and Earl Spencer met again when Spencer spoke memorably about his book, Killers of the King, during the Chiswick Book Festival.

Douglas admits that his late arrival to our meeting was because he had been looking at his bookshelves in an attempt to identify his favourite book and author – a question that I knew would be difficult to answer for a man with such diverse interests. He comments, ‘Trying to pick out just one book is impossible. My favourite authors are the humourists, particularly those who have written for newspapers and Fleet Street, including Evelyn Waugh, Keith Waterhouse, Michael Frayn, Bill Bryson, Alan Bennett and Alan Coren. Some write plays and some write novels, but as a genre it is inspiring and uplifting.’ He also enjoys a good thriller – citing authors John le Carré and Robert Harris in particular. I asked Douglas if he enjoyed the BBC’s adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy starring Alex Guinness as George Smiley and he confirms that during quiet periods like Christmas, when he has a chance to wallow, this is his go to series.

With John le Carré’s spy novel hanging in the air, Douglas mentions that Misha Glenny, author of McMafia, which investigates the spread of transnational crime since the break-up of the Soviet bloc and was recently aired on the BBC starring James Norton, will be talking at this year’s Chiswick Book Festival.

Pitzhanger Manor

Pitzhanger Manor © Arcaid Images Alamy 2018

Conversation progresses naturally from literature to museums – and the former home of neo-classical architect Sir John Soane in Lincoln’s Inn Fields is Douglas’s favourite in London. Douglas has an honorary degree from the University of West London, which he informs me is just down the road from Soane’s first home, Pitzhanger Manor. This impressive Georgian retreat in Ealing originally housed several of the paintings, books and architectural drawings, including Hogarth’s series A Rake’s Progress, that are now on view in the Sir John Soane Museum.

By 1800, Soane was famous and wealthy and he wanted a country estate that would reflect his social standing. The architect radically rebuilt the manor in order to showcase his skills and provide an entertaining space for friends and clients including JMW Turner and King Louis Philippe of France. The building is a rare example of a space that Soane designed and lived in and he used it to try out many of his innovative ideas such as decorative piers and elaborate paint schemes. Douglas adds that in 1901, the building was sold to Ealing District Council and extended to become Ealing’s public library. Pitzhanger Manor is currently closed as a multi-million-pound restoration project in association with Heritage Lottery fund take places, due to be completed in 2019.

The Chiswick Book Festival will take place from 13th – 17th September 2018. For more information, visit the official website