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Tom Hollander (wearing a lovely shirt from Indigo Island) and Ian McShane at Wilderness Festival 2017 after performing at Letters Live on Sunday 6th August. Both chaps looking gorgeous in blue 🙂

A lovely surprise this weekend was discovering that Tom Hollander was at the Wilderness Festival in Oxford. He took part in two performances of Letters Live (in which actors read out letters – the letters can be funny / sad or from famous / non-famous people, it’s a really great event) over the weekend. The first performance was – annoyingly – a surprise / secret one on Saturday night which I missed hearing about until the next day (although Letters Live did actually tweet about it) – and that was how I discovered that Tom was at the festival – hooray.









Letters Live at Wilderness Festival 2017 - participants close-up

The ‘cast’ of Letters Live taking a well-earned bow at the end of a lovely event.

I was delighted that he was at the Sunday afternoon performance too though (Mark Strong, who’d been at the Saturday evening performance hadn’t been able to stay so I’m sorry to have missed him) and he read some lovely letters along with Russell Brand, Ian McShane, Tony Robinson, Louise Brealey, Benedict Cumberbatch, Amanda Abbington and Zawe Ashton.

The line-up of speakers is kept secret before the event (though I suppose the cat was slightly out of the bag on Sunday morning after the surprise gig) and the actors bring the letters to life, and it’s all rather magical. Zawe Ashton’s been acting for a while though I hadn’t actually come across her before, but she was absolutely brilliant reading letters from a very young Madonna to Stephen Lewicki, and a rather miffed Billie Holiday to Tallulah Bankhead.

I wrote down (on my phone) a very scrappy list of readers and the letters they read (and please let me know if you spot errors or omissions). Apologies if you’re one of the people who read and I’ve misattributed anything, it’s all a bit of a lovely blur now. You can hear Jo Whiley’s interviews with the actors (from 1hr 8min onwards) including Amanda Abbington, Tom Hollander, Mark Strong and a longer one with Benedict Cumberbatch on letter-writing for another month [at 10 August 2017].

John Lloyd introduced, off-stage, each letter and its reader.

  • Ian McShane and Russell Brand read an exchange on the marvels of whiskey/whisky
  • Tony Robinson read a letter which I didn’t manage to make a note of
  • Zawe Ashton read Madonna Ciccone’s letter to Stephen Lewicki
  • Benedict Cumberbatch read a letter from Iggy Pop to Joshua Berger, he also read a letter from his mum Wanda (delivered on-stage by the Wilderness Festival’s own ‘Post Office’ team!) which thanked him and last night’s crowd for singing her a happy birthday video
  • Russell Brand read a very funny letter from a man who’d spent an entire year trying to seduce his wife and recording every rejection she’d given him.
  • Louise Brealey read a lovely letter from Rachel Carson, about life and monarch butterflies
  • Tom Hollander read the unintentionally hilarious proposal from a farmer, Simon Fallowfield, to his intended Mary Foster. The letter was written in 1866 but the proposal was rejected (possibly the P.S. didn’t help, haha). Tom did a brilliant accent for this letter.
  • Amanda Abbington read a letter from a convicted woman to her two children before she and her (also convicted) husband were executed






Letters Live at Wilderness Festival 2017 - Louise Brealey and Benedict Cumberbatch

Louise Brealey and Benedict Cumberbatch pondering the relative merits of cats and dogs

  • Louise Brealey and Benedict Cumberbatch had a lot of fun reading a series of exchanges from the Guardian’s letter pages (one example here) on whether cats are more fascistic than dogs
  • Ian McShane read a letter from Hunter S Thompson in reply to Anthony Burgess who’d written asking if he could send a 50,000 word novella in place of the ‘think piece’ he’d promised Rolling Stone magazine. Thompson’s reply pulled no punches.
  • Tom Hollander read a brilliant letter from someone with bipolar disorder who wrote complaining that a cartoon on the topic had offended him… though on reflection a few days later he changes his mind 😉
  • Zawe Ashton read Billie Holiday’s letter to Tallulah Bankhead
  • I’m afraid I didn’t write down who read the letter from Edmund Howard, written in 1535 to a woman who was trying to cure his kidney stones. It sounded painful.
  • Ian McShane read a letter from Kurt Vonnegut in support of his son who wished to be a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War
  • Amanda Abbington read Tina Fey’s pithy responses to internet trolls
  • Tom Hollander read John Steinbeck’s letter to Marilyn Monroe requesting her autograph for his smitten nephew
  • Tony Robinson read, hilariously, a letter from Lewis Carroll apologising to a friend with whom he’d promised to do a photography project
  • Ian McShane read a letter from Sir Archibald Clark Kerr to Lord Reginald Pembroke
  • Louise Brealey read Patti Smith’s letter to Robert Maplethorpe
  • Benedict Cumberbatch read a letter written in 1919, I think from Katherine Mansfield to John Middleton Murry but sadly my notes on the topic were poorly taken

I was lucky enough to meet Tom shortly afterwards and get his autograph, thanks Tom 😀

Also thank you to Letters Live for a lovely event (my fourth) and to the Wilderness Festival for a wonderful five days’ entertainment and relaxation. What a lovely place to be.

You might also enjoy Tom Hollander’s Letter to my younger self, and his own writings in The Spectator and elsewhere.





















And from the previous night’s gig at which Tom read a letter from Leonard Cohen and one from composer Percy Grainger, on his rather enthusiastic sex life: “Rev star Hollander brought roars of laughter from the audience as he faithfully quoted an outrageously graphic love letter by Country Gardens composer Percy Grainger, as florid as it was pornographic.”




What’s Letters Live?
Letters of Note (Twitter) began a few years ago thanks to Shaun Usher, with a website sharing all sorts of amazing letters and then later he came up with the brilliant idea of having them read live, and Letters Live (Twitter) was born.

The next Letters Live event is on 27 August in Edinburgh (part of the festival) and tickets are still available at the time of writing, but they tend to sell out.

What’s the Wilderness Festival?
A wonderful, relaxed festival of music, crafts, art, glitter, talks & debates, fine dining and excellent loos which takes place every year in Cornbury Park in Charlbury, Oxford. 2017 was its seventh outing, there’s a nice review of one of the early events here. (Website, Twitter).