Pompey’s DarkFest 2019: A Whirlwind Tour

Image courtesy of DarkFest 2019.

DarkFest is Portsmouth’s annual festival of the macabre and the magical that has grown from modest beginnings into a gorgeous monstrosity. William Sutton picks out highlights from the festival’s programme.

What is DarkFest?

In this breathless interview on BBC Radio Solent, I didn’t manage to refute the presenter’s take that it was some kind of extended Hallowe’en. But that doesn’t capture it. Author Matt Wingett explained the festival best when he was introducing the Cursed City project at the preview night of the exhibition running at Cascades.

‘This is the launch of DarkFest,’ he announced, ‘a three-week celebration of the strange, the magical and macabre.’

The strange and macabre are coming vibrantly to life in Cursed City, the festival’s most ambitious project. Not only can you attend the exhibition throughout and the wild Balkan music finale, but you can also get involved in the telling of the story on the Cursed City – against the tide Facebook page. This isn’t a standard story, told to you, fixed and immutable. This is a transmedia project, orchestrated by film-maker and mischief-maker, Roy Hanney. Inspired by Matt Wingett’s Portsmouth novel The Snow Witch, the story is constantly developing as followers collaborate to solve puzzles and stop the dark activity that threatens to overrun the characters and the city. All is brought to life through interaction on Facebook, but also with street art, fine art, film, new writing and – in a glorious feast of Balkan, Romani and Eastern European dance music – the final concert night at Groundlings Theatre.


DarkFest began four years ago. Dr Karl Bell, who leads the University of Portsmouth’s Supernatural Cities project, was launching a wildly inventive collection of stories by local writers, Dark City. As he was planning the launch night, I voiced a concern that it might clash with my annual Day of the Dead show, which has featured dozens of local writers and musicians.

Day of the Dead I - V
Will Sutton’s Day of the Dead, courtesy of Will Sutton.

‘A clash?’ said Karl. ‘No, no. It’s a festival.’

Thus was DarkFest inaugurated. Did we think it would take on? We hoped – Pompey does love its dark side. Did we think it would draw in artists of all disciplines and genres into a complex three-week programme? It pretty much got there in year two. Did we expect to have enquiries from writers, artists, musicians – and Bram Stoker’s descendant – asking to be in it? Now, that’s the kind of festival we can be proud of.

It’s encouraging to see comments like this, from Philippe Versailles, a digital content creator in Italy:

The festival preview, shot at the Cursed City exhibition, gives a wonderful flavour of the diverse talents on show throughout the three weeks.

‘This is so brilliant, there should be tons of people here,’ said Pete, halfway round our walking tour launch night of poetry-film app Dark Side/Port Side, inspired by the darker side of our maritime history.

‘No, no.’ I glanced round our ragtag assemblage of oddballs, misfits, iconoclasts and dissenters (a group weird enough that the Dockyard guard came out to ask what the hell we were up to). ‘What we have here is not the biggest audience, but it is the best audience.’

It was the beginning of DarkFest19, and the premier of this ground-breaking app, created by the region’s poets and film-makers.

’14 poets and film-makers have created this incredible trail all about the history of Portsea,’ said John Sackett, who alongside Roy Hanney led the project, inspired by the University of Portsmouth’s ‘Sailortown’ project. ‘Dark Side/Port Side is a self-guided poetry film trail through an imagined 19th-century Portsmouth. We think it’s a world first.’

I contributed one of these stories, writing a larksome ditty about a Mudlark who falls for a young lady who passes him every day on her way to the ferry. To see the film pop up on the elegant app as we arrived at the location (a tattoo parlour) was hugely satisfying. Everyone huddled over their phones to watch the films, discussing them animatedly between locations. Legends and injustices came to life in the shadowy half-light of the street lamps: villains and heroines, street slang and heartbreak, the lovelorn and the wartorn walked again on the echoing cobbles. As I sang in my launch shanty:

On the Dark Side, the Port Side!

Where histories teem

& ghouls they glide

On the Dark Side, the Port Side!

You’re meat fresh to be fried.


The events keep on rolling. Following last week’s Haunted Hunter-Gatherer, there’s more spoken word from T’Articulation with Here’s to the Spooken Word and Front Room’s Samhain on 31 October. There are art workshops alongside the the Cursed City project and original theatre at Coastguard, Scattering Salt, on 31 and 1 November.

The literary joys accelerate next week with three events at the University. A Dark Tourism panel on 5 November explores the challenges and thrills of travel writing and film-making. How to Write Gothic Fiction on 8 November features four award-winning novelists. Sandwiched between these, as if to sap their lifeblood, with the fabulous title Stoker on Stoker, Dacre Stoker comes to speak of the mysteries behind Dracula.

I’ll be leading coffee-drinking scribblers in 6 November Typewriters, Treason and Plot open workshop at Southsea Coffee, a gloriously anarchic affair where you need fear no correction: however you mark the paper, that is the contribution we are looking for.

Did I mention films? Portsmouth Film Society presents a Halloween screening of Us on 31 October, while Trash Arts presents a screening of ‘A Taste of Phobia’ at The Loft on 4 November.

DarkFest winds up with two concerts. After Raka & Balkan Village Band on 9 November brings an authentic Eastern European repertoire from the sweaty back rooms of North London’s clubs, I’ll be hosting Dark Songs/Moon Songs at the Square Tower: for the 50th anniversary of mankind’s first moon visit, my favourite singers and songwriters will be offering alternative ways into the lunar spheres of melodic music.

‘The Square Tower is a really atmospheric venue,’ says singer Eilís Phillips. ‘A beautiful natural acoustic. It’s the perfect venue, because it gives that added spookiness, perfect when you’re singing murder ballads.’

If you haven’t been along to anything yet, check the full programme for information & tickets or the Facebook events page for updates. You can also hear my witterings on BBC Radio Solent:


The festival runs in venues across the city until 10th November 2019, bringing together artists, writers, performers, academics, storytellers and musicians to explore ghost stories, urban legends, crime, horror and history. All events are open to the public, and many are completely free to attend: storytelling, dark songs, ghost walks, public talks, art workshops, immersive theatre, film screenings and murder mysteries.

Read more

Full programme

DarkFest on Facebook

Join in the transmedia project on Cursed City’s Facebook page

Follow the Dark Side/Port Side app

Video preview of DarkFest events

Twitter: follow the hashtag #DarkFest19  @imaginetheurban