Behind the Scenes at the Victorious Festival

Having attracted a mammoth 120,000 people last weekend, the Victorious Festival has truly put Portsmouth on the musical map. In the run-up to the big event Maddie Wallace went behind the scenes to talk to the organisers about all the hard work involved in Portsmouth’s premier annual feast of culture and entertainment.

James Ralls (38), Andy Marsh (38) and Ben Miles (31) are all originally from Portsmouth, and it’s their love of the city that inspired them to put on the largest music event the island has ever seen. Last year Victorious brought in a £5.8m boost to the city’s economy, employed over 5,000 mostly local people and provided local artists and entertainers with an opportunity to perform alongside established players in their home town.

The festival is also philanthropic. James tells me, ‘Each year the 1,000 homes closest to the event are asked to nominate charities or good causes to receive awards from the festival, and after Victorious the same residents vote on where the money goes. The festival has ringfenced money for the City Council and will be helping to build a new fountain outside Southsea Castle, along with re-installing drinking water fountains around the seafront area for dog walkers and runners’. As well as this, Victorious has helped the D-Day Museum into a position where it can apply for government funding.

Fundraising for different charities also goes on throughout the festival. This year local yarnbombers are making flowers and bees and supporting The Rowan’s Hospice and The Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and the Southsea Alternative Choir will be performing on both days raising money for local charity Sam’s Fund.

So who are the people behind the event and how did they start out? James, Andy and Ben are local businessmen who converted the Little Johnny Russell’s pub on Albert Road into one of the mainstays of the Southsea social scene. Key to their success was bringing in big name bands and DJs such as Supergrass, The Libertines, Bloc Party, Scratch Perverts and DJ Derek.

Why did they move from running a small venue to coordinating a large festival? ‘We’re all from Portsmouth, we’ve all grown up here,’ said Ben. ‘When we were kids there was nothing of note going on except the Heineken Beer Festival and the occasional Radio One Road Show. So starting our own festival and growing it from scratch was really important to us.’ Andy and Ben were both in bands for years (The Ridgeway and the DTs respectively) and it was their passion for live music which encouraged them to create a successful festival in their own backyard.

In 2012, they put on the first Victorious Festival in the dockyard, where it stayed for two years before moving to Southsea Common in 2014. It’s got bigger and bigger each year and in 2016, 100,000 people flocked to it. This year, the organisers partnered with the University of Portsmouth which opened up its halls of residence to festival goers. Next year, the organisers will be involved in an undergraduate employment scheme.

Andy is responsible for booking the headliners and is already finding acts for next year’s event. ‘We don’t have the money of bigger festivals like Reading, Bestival and the Isle of Wight, but we know which bands will fit Victorious and our target audience. We are a family festival run by family people with no hidden agendas. It feels like Christmas Day when you get a band you really want.’

The family element is vital to the success of Victorious, and Tiff Gaskell and Rachel Grech run this side of the event. This year was a new 600-seater acrobatic circus doing four shows a day, the Swashbucklers from CBeebies, Ready to Rock (a rock school where kids can learn to play instruments) and a collaboration between the New Theatre Royal and the University of Portsmouth on an inflatable planetarium where children can learn about space.

‘It scares me when people ask how we’re going to make it better than last year,’ says Rachel. With Ickle Bambino Baby Raves, Little Kickers Football Academy, tennis lessons with Canoe Lake Leisure and zorbing balls – all from local sources – they are setting the bar higher each year for family entertainment.

There are five and a half kilometres of fencing to erect, eleven stages to build, nine bars all employing local staff, 150 flags, hundreds of toilets and only three weeks to build the site using eighteen different types of tradesmen.

James is responsible for sending plans to multiple agencies such as the police and fire service. They have to set up exit routes and run crowd management simulations with their security company, Portsmouth-based Vespasian. They learn lessons each year on how to improve, and this year have created access to the main stage through the new World Music Village, which will be operating in support of Arms Around the Child, and features a DJ set from Grammy-nominated artist Neneh Cherry.

In the week leading up to the festival, the boys and their team were on site working from 7am to midnight most nights. It was a rare opportunity for the public to see a working festival site in progress, and the organisers had to take into account the health and safety logistics of building a large scale festival site with members of the public able to wander around and watch.

Ben is in charge of stage production and liaised with the 52 headline artists at this year’s festival for their specifications, logistics, catering, sound checks and choreographed arrivals. He showed me the 16 page technical specification for Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – this year’s headliners – and admitted it’s a challenge working on an open site. He had to negotiate what stages are turning up, when and how they’re getting built, and coordinate the arrival of the five big screens and liaise with the PA and lighting technicians.

I asked Ben about one of the criticisms that has been levelled at the festival: they don’t pay local artists. ‘Local bands get free wristbands for the day they’re playing as well as the other day, worth £70 each, and they also get complimentary drinks. When we ask them to play we are very clear about the terms and we never get any complaints. Local bands get the opportunity to play to several thousand people in a culturally diverse festival. They jump at the chance.’

Portsmouth performers can apply to play at the festival via the website, and the organisers scout acts at the Icebreaker mini festival and at Johnny Russell’s Tuesday and Thursday acoustic nights. They also listen to the suggestions of studios like Casemates and Mayfield.

My visit ended with a trip to the festival yard, situated on the Avenue de Caen, where Graham Gaskell was taking delivery of flat-packed open-fronted sheds to be used by traders during the festival. He is the festival’s building man. In between erecting 40 sheds, over the next few weeks he sank the 150 flag poles in gantries, scanned the ground, built safety and toilet signs and was in charge of fencing the routes.

James told me that the infrastructure in the yard is used by other events such as Pride, the America’s Cup World Series, and the Council’s Remembrance Sunday proceedings, which helps everyone to save money. And this is one thing that’s very apparent with Victorious: from the deals offered to local traders for pitches at the festival, to the use of Portsmouth company The Landscape Group – who repair the common after the festival at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds – this is a local festival, run by local people, and they’re putting Portsmouth on the map.

Photography by James White.