When imagining of scene from a major festival, thoughts often turn to images of vast numbers of young people at Glastonbury and Reading covered in mud, revelling to the latest musical trend, free from responsibilities and reasonable standards of personal hygiene; not necessarily, therefore, an event to which likely want you’d take your kids. But Latitude Festival is different, as we rediscovered once again when we visited Henham Park this year for the annual arts event, this time focussing on family fun.
It’s important to highlight immediately that attending as a family is a totally different experience compared to going alone or with a group of adults; that said, Latitude is well known for being one of the most family-friendly of the nation’s festivals, winning a “Best Family Festival” award in 2018 – and rightly so. This year, it offered a wide range of acts suitable for families of all ages, from music to comedy and everything in between, as well as dozens of activities that festival goers of all ages could enjoy.
For those keen to share the experience of seeing huge pop acts perform live with their children, Latitude Festival is a great place to start. This year saw popular tunesmith George Ezra headlining Friday night on the main stage: a fantastic showman with an easy charm, he performed back-to-back hits – including “Budapast”, “Paradise” and “Shotgun” – that people of all ages know and love, filling the packed Obelisk Arena with bouncing energy. The infectious pop sounds continued with performances from the likes of Australian funk-soul combo Parcels on Friday and electro-pop songstress MØ on Saturday, making it practically impossible not to get your groove on at some point in the proceedings, should the urge take you.
What’s more, for modern teenage girls, there was also an appearance from Youtube musical sensation Robin Skinner – aka Cavetown – on Sunday, who delivered a set of endearing, tuneful melodies on his guitar to his excited and growing fanbase. Definitely one to watch out for!
But of course, Latitude isn’t solely about the latest musical acts; this year, it offered a number sets from more experienced performers that were enjoyable for all ages. Friday also saw performances from late eighties / early nineties pop artist Neneh Cherry, who very much showed she still has the voice and the swagger of her younger self from 25 years ago; while nineties rock act Primal Scream filled a packed BBC Sounds tent with a fantastic set, albeit aimed squarely at more dedicated fans of the group. On Saturday afternoon, Ben Folds – the charming and hugely talented frontman of nineties alternative rock band Ben Folds Five – kept a large crowd surrounding the Waterfront Stage entertained through indecisive weather conditions with just his piano, while the evening saw a solid headline set on the Obelisk Arena from nineties / noughties rock band Stereophonics.
The retro-hits didn’t end there. On Thursday night, comedian – and huge Prince fan – Marcus Brigstocke once again launched Latitude into the stratosphere with his always entertaining Princefest, full of great pop music, on-stage antics, audience participation, silly lip-sync action and a plentiful supply of purple inflatable guitars. Friday night concluded with hours of Guilty Pleasures at the Comedy Arena, featuring back-to-back classic pop hits from across the decades: a chance to educate your kids in proper music and/or an opportunity to embarrass them by letting loose with unending ‘dad dancing’, it was a definite win/win opportunity for parents at the festival. Similarly, Saturday night closed with good, clean cheesy sing-a-long fun for everyone from The Massaoke Band, who performed a joyful set of covers of huge pop hits – mostly 80s and 90s – encouraging an audience of thousands to sing the lyrics on display. If you didn’t leave with a sore throat, you really weren’t joining in properly.
Of course, Latitude Festival more than just a music festival: one of the main attractions is the large number high-profile comedians in attendance. However, coming from a family entertainment perspective, this year much of the comedy at Latitude was not entirely suitable for all ages, primarily due to the constant stream of adult language and content.
That said, amongst the numerous comedy acts were a number of performers who definitely were safe for all – the number one contender being Milton Jones. Despite making regular appears on adult-focussed current affairs-based comedy panel show Mock The Week, he performed what was essentially back-to-back daft / pun-ridden one-liners (“Years ago, I used to supply Filofaxes for the mafia… I was involved in very organised crime”) for 45 minutes straight. Similarly silly – although slightly racier – was Christopher Bliss, whose daft jokes about a thesaurus tickled everyone no matter what age. Mathematician and poet Harry Baker‘s new show I Am 10,000 was also family appropriate, being funny and poignant in equal measures. Clever, witty, touching and fun his show had something for all ages.
Other comedy acts that you could take your children and your grandma to watch – although possibly not of huge interest to the former – were the cynical but hilarious Marcus Brigstocke (again), who discussed the problems with overcrowding in Hell while dressed as Satan; and anxiety-ridden Mark Watson who discussed his inability to adult cope with life in general, on Friday and Saturday respectively.
Conversely, the very silly live-music extravaganza Amusical on Friday night – featuring comedians such as Marcus Brigstocke (yet again!), Sindhu Vee and Maisie Adam – having a fun stab at singing popular songs from musical theatre while dressed in ridiculous costumes – would have been entirely suitable for children, if not for the constant and disappointingly crude swear-ridden commentary from hosts Kiri Pritchard-McLean and Jayde Adams; if not for them, it would have been enjoyable family entertainment and an ideal closing show for the evening.
THEATRE AND FILM
Similarly, despite easily being family-suitable, neither film nor theatre faired well as go-to options for families this year either.
Although commonly promoted to pre-teens in schools, unnecessary coarse language negatively affected theatrical dance troupe Frantic Assembly‘s latest show, Sometimes Thinking, performed on both Friday and Saturday evening. It also didn’t help that the show was repetitive and tedious beyond the breaking point of artistic reasoning, and difficult to follow. Similarly, Not Too Tame‘s gig theatre production and celebration of the music of The Beatles, See How They Run, could easily have been suitable for families but, again, coarse language and adult themes made it inappropriate for young audiences.
Conversely, despite allowing access to adult content to comedy and stage productions on previous days, a licencing issue led to a sudden age-related restriction – strictly controlled by security – being put in place at the Film and Music Arena on Saturday afternoon, meaning that under 18s were unable to see a screening of the feel-good summer hit movie Yesterday, a film that the rest of the country could see at any age (albeit with under 12s needing to be accompanied by an adult – which is a general rule across the whole festival), leading to many disappointed families, especially as the screening was followed by an exclusive Q&A with film’s writer Richard Curtis and star Himesh Patel.
Family-suitable theatre was perhaps best represented by National Theatre Live‘s War Horse. Dramatic, powerful and visually interesting, the only (slight) drawback being that it was a screening of a West End performance from 2014, rather than happening live on stage, meaning it lacked that certain sensory quality that only comes with live theatre. With this in mind, probably the best live theatre show at the festival suitable for families was Amie Taylor‘s The Diaries of a Miserable Unicorn in the Kids Area, which gently presented LGBT+ themes to young children while at the same time introducing the concept of theatre to little ones.
Meanwhile, the only video content we could find suitable for the whole family were the series of space-themed short films (including A Grand Day Out featuring Wallace & Gromit) and an episode of David Attenborough‘s Our Planet at Unlimited Theatre‘s Space Shed, which although very good in themselves, did feel somewhat lacking in terms of quantity, in comparison to the amount of other content.
THINGS TO DO
But it’s not all bad – after all, Latitude isn’t just about sitting around being entertained by someone else: in addition to the music, comedy and arts content, Latitude also offers a vast range of fun activities for the whole family to enjoy together.
This year, the Kids Area contained a huge number of activities for under 13s. The pond dipping had kids of a various ages having a chilled out time, examining the contents of pond water and learning about nature while getting messy and wet, with supervision kept at a distance, the leaders successfully keeping the children engaged with helpful suggestions while enabling the little ones to feel independent. Also messy and not for the squeamish, the bug hunt had kids rummaging for spiders, earwigs, woodlice, and beetles – great fun for those enjoy getting mucky – while Wild Science had kids learning about gut bacteria, guessing the animal from its skull, and playing a life-size game of ‘Operation’ which oozed grossness in abundance.
And if that sort of thing wasn’t for you and your children, then perhaps the more civilised and creative activities in the Kids Area were more up your street, such as lessons in creating various creatures out of clay – which successfully combined Latitude‘s continued emphasis on supporting the natural world, with craft skills, bringing out kids’ imaginations in a positive creative way – or the old-fashioned but very relaxing craft of willow weaving; or maybe, for sheer basic exhilaration, you might have enjoyed Latitude‘s iconic helter skelter, which despite its historic appearance doesn’t ever get old.
On top of all this, for those over 12, there was the Inbetweeners area – a whole section of hands-on activities for young teenagers wanting to have a break from seeing bands and develop their interest in the creative industries. Opportunities included being a reporter for the local paper, including interviewing some of the festival’s high profile performers; creating new clothing fashions by upcycling old garments; creating street art; designing characters for video games, and much more. In addition, Access Creative College – whose alumni include Ed Sheeran and Let’s Eat Grandma – provided a stage for their upcoming music artists. All in all, it was fantastic area that truly encouraged young people to think outside the box, career-wise.
In addition, there were also activities that were suitable to all ages, particularly in the Enchanted Garden. With workshops on circus skills, T-shirt printing and yoga, it was an ideal place for entire families to explore and try things they may not have tried before, from the futuristic to the old fashioned. The Science Of Noise encouraged creative play, combining technology with sounds to create music in an amazing and innovative way. A glimpse into the future of music for the next generation, it was genuinely eye-opening. It was accompanied by more traditional fayre: fairground rides (ferris wheel, swing boats, target range) and animal petting – although this being Latitude, they weren’t the usual furry friends: instead, there were hedgehogs, meerkats, lizards, cockroaches and birds of prey!
There were further creative activities spread across the festival: in the Speakeasy, on Friday, wannabe artists of all ages and abilities were given the opportunity to Release Your Inner Cartoonist by Guardian cartoonist Harry Venning in a brilliant and interactive lecture that was simple to follow yet very informative and inspiring; meanwhile, in the Faraway Forest, the London Drawing Group guided an sizeable crowd in how to engage in life drawing on both Thursday and Friday, encouraging everyone to put chalk to paper. Creativity was also actively encouraged by Imelda May at her art installation Hallowed at the SOLAS, where she publicly created poems for her new book on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, while at other times, participants could explore her creative space and contribute to the area by expressing themselves in the form of written words that are added to the display.
Also all about contributing was And Remember … We Care‘s Danny Does The Crossword, which saw festival-goers collectively tackle the day’s Guardian Cryptic Crossword during every day of festival. Presented enthusiastically, it was a fun, intellectual challenge which, although difficult for very young children to engage with, it certainly allowed puzzle-solvers young and old to have a good time. Similarly suited more towards older teenagers and adults rather than young children was Saturday’s live game The Mission: Occupy Mars by Exit Productions. Essentially a science-fiction themed mass roleplaying game placing the entire audience in the position of being the first settlers on Mars, attendees had to collectively make group decisions on everything from power, politics and saving the lives of unexpected visitors. Well-presented with a great central concept, the game was intensely gripping and involving – you certainly don’t get anything like it at Glastonbury!
Babraham Institute‘s escape room game, Save Your Cells! – available throughout the festival in the Faraway Forest – was also mentally challenging and also clearly designed for older teens and adults to enjoy. Although it focussed on laboratory techniques and solving scientific puzzles, it also featured lots for younger teens and even younger children to do as they could help the adults find the clues in order to escape in time, while simultaneously learning snippets of science knowledge.
The escape room was not the only science-based content over the weekend; indeed, science often plays a noticeable part of the festival, and this year was no different. On Friday, climate change activists Extinction Rebellion presented the facts behind their view on global warming, successfully highlighting the reasons for fighting their cause; while on Saturday, Helen Sharman OBE gave a fascinating talk (followed by Q&A session hosted by Robin Ince) about her experiences in becoming the first Briton in space and her time on the Mir space station, and Professor Andrew Przybylski presented Screentime Debunked, focusing on the the myths relating to the allegedly ‘excessive use’ of devices such as phones, tablets, computers and TV screens by children and teenagers. This very interesting discussion captured the interest of children and adults, and was very relevant considering how parents often worry about how much screen time is too much. Apparently ‘screen time’ isn’t even a thing!
Overall then, Latitude Festival 2019 has proved once again that the festival is great for families. There is certainly room for improvement; there really should be more in terms of family-friendly comedy, theatre and film content (not to mention kids-friendly toilets, food and drink). However, despite this, the festival provided many opportunities for parents and children to have fun together, which is the main thing. Highly recommended.