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How birthday bash grew into the best small festival in the country

By Burton Mail  |  Posted: April 24, 2014

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HOW do you fancy having The Stranglers around for your birthday party this year? 
Or maybe legendary Joy Division and New Order main man Peter Hook or possibly that nice Ali Campbell from UB40? Now that would be a birthday to remember – wouldn’t it?

For Rich Bryan, that’s the kind of party he has become used to enjoying every year after his birthday bash got a little out of control.

For what started as a private event in a Derbyshire field with a bit of music thrown in has turned into what was last year named the Best Small Music Festival in the country.

As Rich says: “I probably have the biggest birthday party in the world.”

This year, The Bearded Theory Festival is promising to be bigger and better than ever as it moves to another new home, Catton Hall, near the South Derbyshire village of Walton-on-Trent. It takes place from May 22-25.

The festival has already outgrown venues at Hulland Ward, Carsington and Kedleston Hall, near Derby, after thousands of music fans have discovered its unique atmosphere and now want to come back year after year.

No wonder last year that Bearded Theory took the Best Small Festival prize at the prestigious UK Festival Awards at London Roundhouse in front of an audience of some of the key figures in the industry.

Earlier in 2013, Bearded Theory had already been awarded the Best Family Festival Gold Award by Festival Kidz.

Now, the event, which brings an annual £1m boost to the local economy, is looking to top even that success at its new home and will welcome acts such as Carter USM (a UK festival exclusive), The Stranglers, Peter Hook & The Light, Oysterband, The Blockheads, Hayseed Dixie, The Orb Soundsystem, Fishbone, King Prawn and Merry Hell.

Closing the festival will be founder UB40 members Ali Campbell, Astro and Mickey Virtue, now reunited and back touring together.

It has been an amazing journey for an event that started with such small ambitions.

Rich says: “It has been incredible. It just started out as private function in a field in 2006.

“But the first public festival we held at Carsington sold out in two weeks.

“We moved to Hulland Ward and got 2,500 people through the gates and it has just continued to grow from there really.”

Music favourites Dreadzone and 3 Daft Monkeys have been there all the way.

“They are part of it all, that’s why we keep having them back,” says Rich.

The bizarre thing is that Rich and his fellow festival organisers didn’t start Bearded Theory out of with any great passion for music or with any special mission.

“We just fell into it,” he says. “Because my birthday party went so well my friends said that we should do it again for charity. So we did and it has snowballed from there.”

What makes Bearded Theory’s success story even more surprising is that it has taken place during five years of economic hardship that has seen the demise of some much bigger music events.

Rich says: “I think it’s because compared with the big festivals like Glastonbury, which are more than £200 a ticket this year, we have always been very afforadble. People can bring their own drinks into the arena and if they buy from us we cap the bar prices.”

The annual plan to get as many people as possible wearing false beards also happened by accident rather than design.

Rich says: “It came from a drunken conversation in Holland and we got stuck with it. We want to get rid of it really but can’t.”

Even now Rich is always amazed when people turn out in force to support the festival, never seeming to be put off even by the worst of the English weather (they were nearly blown away by freak winds one year).

He says: “We are always gobsmacked really. We are taken aback by how fast it has grown and how sustained the success has been.”

Rich is now part of a 35-strong year round team that works on the event. The festival weekend itself needs around 1,000 people to ensure it all runs smoothly.

“It was just me and a few others to start with – now we have an office,” says Rich. “Sadly it has taken over. If I knew then what I know now I might not have started. I still work full-time as a surveyor but away from that I do around 30 hours a week for the festival.”

Rich is pleased to have booked the reunited former members of UB40 for 2014.

He says: “We were originally looking to book Ali Campbell but when we learned they were getting back together we were delighted. They are a real party band who can belt the hits out and everyone will sing along and be happy.”

The festival has kept moving to keep up with demand but there is now room to grow at Catton even though Rich says there isn’t necessarily an ambition to get even bigger.

“We don’t have plans,” he says. “We never have done. We just listen to feedback - that’s what the whole festival is based on. If people want this beer or that kind of children’s area, we do it.

“We are intrinsically lazy and just go for what people request. It’s their festival more than ours.”

But Rich also points out that despite the amateur beginnings everything is now done very professionally.

“We have the best health and safety methods in the country,” he says. “The HSE have just adopted them. We have learnt really well.”

It’s things like that that helped Rich become shortlisted for the Promoter of The Year prize at the UK Festival Awards in 2013.

Not bad for your annual birthday bash.

“I don’t really have a normal birthday party anymore,” Rich laughs. “This is what I do every year.”

Tickets for Bearded Theory are on general sale online and via Tourist Information Centres in Derby, Nottingham, Burton and Tamworth.

Go to www.beardedtheory.co.uk.

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