Bestival is the festival that doesn’t take itself seriously. I realised this halfway through my toboggan ride. Skirting the hills on the outskirts of the site, the rickety toboggan (slogan: “Your safety is in your hands”) trundled uphill on a conveyor belt. It passed one sign that ordered me to “OBEY ALL SIGNS”, then another that simply read “!!!”, at which point it reached the top of the hill, pulled a sharp U-turn, and gave me a commanding view of the festival down below. I saw a spider-shaped stage spewing flames (see photo), a funfair, Tinky Winky, Princess Mononoke, Jigglypuff, and 55,000 other costumed revellers. I was on all kinds of highs when the toboggan abruptly plunged downwards.
The festival’s objective – to “bring magic to [the Isle of Wight] and spread the love worldwide” – is decidedly Woodstock, and it’s fulfilled by the neo-hippy crowds and relaxed psychedelia of the décor. Also crucial to the festival’s sense of easy-going camaraderie is its relatively small scale. The site (in contrast to the website) is easy to navigate – unlike Glastonbury, it doesn’t span an area the size of Sudan, and unlike Benicassim, it isn’t split in two by a village. How it fit the whole of North London is a mystery. Yet this was the year Bestival was upgraded to the major league – its lineup was for the first time world-class, and its tickets sold out faster than ever before. Rumours that it will relocate to a far larger site in 2011 worry me.
For Bestival is also the festival that doesn’t take its logistics seriously. Though smaller than Glastonbury and the others, it nevertheless has the task of shifting tens of thousands onto and off a tiny island. The organisers did not rise to the occasion. In a bizarre inversion of the Speed films, ferries and buses crawled along as if stoned; the return buses on the Monday morning drove past every twenty minutes, ironically pumping The Beatles’ “Get Back” as they picked up thirty passengers at a time from the mile-long queue. If Bestival is to expand in next year, this problem will have to be addressed.
The lineup didn’t quite suit the 1969 vibe, because Bestival aims to be as musically diverse as possible. Curator (and Radio 1 DJ) Rob da Bank compiled the best and most eclectic festival setlist of the summer, cramming in hip hop, two-step, indie, and a whole lot of that new strain of wistful folk-rock. He himself turned up on Saturday afternoon, looking stressedival, to treat the dance tent to an hour-long mix of Prince’s greatest hits.
Of the headliners, The Flaming Lips best summed up the festival’s ethos. Their set was gimmicky, colourful, and totally euphoric; most importantly, singer Wayne Coyne incited a sense of community in his audience, engaging them in call-and-answer singalongs and feel-good conversation about drugs. On the following night, The Prodigy – a bunch of evil people – went headlong against the Bestival spirit, but still sparked the crowd like a live wire. The two bands have rightfully been hailed as the highlights of the festival.
2010 caught Bestival in a period of transition. On the back of a stellar lineup, Rob da Bank’s festival was larger, more popular and varied this year than before, and it has begun to strain at the seams – I felt that the site was messier and more crowded than in 2009. All around lay cans and pizza boxes, in flagrant violation of the festival’s green credentials (it received the “Outstanding Greener Festival Award” in 2009). How the hippies deal with these problems remains to be seen next year.