An old tradition heading for the 21st century

Cello star Natalie Clein who was a regular competitor in the Festival  as a youngster

By Jeremy Miles

You can almost see the stalwarts recoiling in horror. Run for years by dependable tweedy types who bear more than a passing resemblance to Mr Chips and Miss Jean Brodie, the Bournemouth Music Competitions Festival is about to be catapulted into the 21st century.

New organiser Kevin Knight (pictured right) is talking about introducing things like beat-boxes and becoming more “customer-focused.” It’s not an easy transition as Knight himself acknowledges. 

But he insists: “We must keep up with the times and that involves being a bit more colourful and using new classes.  We have introduced street-dancing and hip-hop which we’ve never had before…” He pauses. This is not core Bournemouth Festival territory.

Knight, a businessman with a background in computers, is clearly as aware as anyone that this festival - originally launched back in the 1920s by the terribly straight-laced Sir Dan Godfrey (below left), founder of the BSO - is steeped in a particular kind of tradition.

It attracts literally  thousands of competitors every year  and provides a showcase for music, speech, drama and dance but, bizarrely, it remains little known outside its direct circle. 

Knight,  a former Westminster Abbey choirboy with a long-time love of the theatre, admits he’s perplexed: “The Bournemouth Music Competition’s festival  is one of the town’s best kept secrets and for the life of me I can’t work out why,” he tells me.

As an am-dram enthusiast, Knight  has appeared in everything from panto to musicals. His love of the performing arts is unequivocal. He has, he says, puzzled long and hard over the problem of selling the Bournemouth Music Competitions festival to a bigger audience. He knows it wont be easy.

“The people that are involved in it absolutely love it.” he says. “ It offers fantastic family fun and attracts people aged from six to 80 plus, but you try telling people about it…”

Sir Dan Godfrey (1893-1934

It’s a curious problem because the festival has taken place every year since 1927 with the sole exception of 1943 when, faced with World War II bombing raids by the Luftwaffe, organisers deemed it too dangerous to stage.

Things were soon back to normal however and the competition not only continued but in recent years has thrived with thousands of young people, both local and visitors, heading for Bournemouth to compete in front of a team of internationally recognised adjudicators.

For many years the festival was staged at Bournemouth’s Winter Gardens. For many that venue came to be regarded as its spiritual home. When it was demolished five years ago there were those who predicted that festival’s days were numbered.

That was not the case but for many the idea of the festival remains stuck in a bygone era. 

To understand what a huge task changing  public perception of an event that is inextricably associated with the past you need to understand the kind of people who have kept it running since the mid 1920s.

“I suppose a lot of people are still quite old fashioned in their approach.” says Eileen Rawlings (pictured below right) the festivals public relation’s officer.

“For instance I’ve only been doing this for a few years and I don’t use a computer or email. I suppose for some people that’s like something out of the dark ages. There are many people who have been involved for a lot longer than I have. We have to accept that things are changing.”

However Eileen, a former schoolteacher and one-time Bournemouth Mayoress, remains totally committed saying: “So many people have been involved in the festival for years. It’s a vital part of the town’s cultural calendar. We want to attract more people to events not only as competitors but as spectators too. She points out that tickets cost just a few pounds a day and for £16 you can buy a season ticket for the entire festival.  

“It is astonishing value for money,” agreed Knight as he prepared for this year’s festivities which kick off with dance classes being staged early this month (June) and  the main speech and drama events following in late June and early July.

He hopes there will be a big ticket take-up this year. “There’s  such a good family atmosphere which has been  passed down from generation to generation.  If you are into a bit of music, a bit of drama and a bit of dance, it offers the opportunity to be involved with all those things at all levels. 

“Everyone from the competitive mum to the 82-year-old viola player will finds something to engage them.” It also offers serious competitive practice for those at the cutting edge.

Past  success stories from the not too distant past have included the international cellist Natalie Clein who as a child prodigy used to regularly perform in the festival. Even then it was jaw-on-the-floor time for  adjudicators as they watched the young Clein coaxing extraordinary music from her cello.

Bm'th Music Competitions Festival 2006

 She went on of course to win the BBC’s Young Musician of the year competition. Now, nearly two decades later she’s virtually unrecognisable from that gawky but impassioned young girl who so impressed the judges at Bournemouth. However, she  may be a world-class soloist recognised for her poise grace and elegance, but she hasn’t forgotten her roots. The latest festival brochure contains a special message from Natalie sending “warm greetings” and speaking of her fond memories of performing in the festival.

Other leading entrants have included another BBC Young Musician finalist the pianist Alison Farr and the young  dancer Joseph Connor who went on  to appear in West End productions of Wicked and Lord of the Rings.

Meanwhile another festival star, budding musical theatre actress Bessie Cursons, reached the  finals of TV's Britain's Got Talent. She was just 12 years-old at the time. Since then she has also appeared in the West End in Oliver with Rowan Atkison.

Changing people’s attitudes to the Bournemouth Music Competitions Festival however will be a problem. The thousands who already know what it is love and respect it. Those who don’t are either indifferent or have never heard of it.  Festival chairman Douglas Eyre, Kevin Knight is determined to ring the changes.  Douglas  and I have been going out and talking to primary schools  we even  joined beat-box training classes and told the teachers about the festival. 

“This year so far we’ve doubled our entries just by going out and talking to people. So might we see beat-boxes in the festival? Knight says he can’t see why not, although he admits that  efforts to introduce any kind of backing track in place of the traditional piano accompaniment has so far been “significantly resisted”.

He insists however “We will get to the time when we have to introduce backing tracks and eventually to the time when beat-boxes and things have to be allowed in simply  because that’s what people are doing.”

Knight clearly doesn’t underestimate the enormity with which this change would be viewed and draws a surprisingly dramatic analogy. 

 “Four hundred years before I was born Queen Mary was on the throne, chopping people’s heads off and setting fire to them. Things have moved on a bit since then.”

*Bournemouth Music Competitions Dance Festival takes place at the Bishop of Winchester Academy in Bournemouth from May 30 to June 3 while the main Music, Speech and Drama Festival runs from June 27 to July 8 with competitions held at the Bournemouth Natural Science Society lecture hall in Christchurch Road and at the Bournemouth Pavilion. A Festival Concert featuring  some of the best entrants will be staged at the Pavilion on July 9. For a full programme details contact the festival office at 39 Christchurch Road, Bournemouth BH1 3NS. Telephone 01202 556023, log-on to  or email

© Jeremy Miles 2022