ILKLEY Literature Festival began in 1973 with words of support from JB Priestley. Praising the organisers, he noted the difficulty of a literary festival in that: “Authors have little to show and are no treat as a spectacle.”

The years since have proved him wrong, with some of the biggest names in literature, entertainment, sport and politics delighting sell-out audiences at the annual festival. Among them have been Maya Angelou, Alan Bennett, Margaret Atwood, Sebastian Faulks, Michael Palin, Benjamin Zephaniah, VS Naipaul and PD James.

This autumn is the 50th anniversary of Ilkley Literature Festival, featuring a glittering line-up guests including Dame Jacqueline Wilson, Stuart Maconie, Monica Ali and Poet Laureate Simon Armitage.

The North’s oldest literary festival welcomes poets, novelists, biographers, and journalists in 100 events from October 6-22. Here are some of this year’s headline acts: Children’s author Dame Jacqueline Wilson will introduce her new book, The Best Sleepover in the World, Iranian-born comedian Shaparak Khorsandi talks of her self-discovery following her ADHD diagnosis, and presenter and broadcaster Melanie Sykes shares the challenges she has faced as a neurodiverse woman.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Shaparak Khorsandi discusses her ADHD diagnosis Shaparak Khorsandi discusses her ADHD diagnosis (Image: Heathcliff O'Malley)

Gyles Brandreth offers an intimate portrait of the late Queen Elizabeth, historian and BBC broadcaster Tom Holland looks at the Roman Empire, while Tracy Borman delves into Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I. TV presenter Clare Balding discusses her new book exploring the world of dogs, and Helen Skelton delves into her memoir covering her time on the Strictly dance floor and life in the great outdoors.

Columnist Grace Dent invites us to her kitchen table, with “unfussy, honest, and filled-to-the-brim tales all about comfort foods” and adventurer Ray Mears, inspired by learning from the last remaining indigenous peoples, shows us how to live inclusively in nature. Philosopher AC Grayling addresses death, love, meaning and hope, and Bob Cryer, son of the late Barry Cryer, shares stories of the beloved comic, with anecdotes from his famous friends to reveal a glimpse of the man behind the jokes.

A current affairs strand sees journalist Gavin Esler looking into the government’s recent crises, including Brexit and Partygate. Luke Harding brings reportage from the frontline of Ukraine. Tim Marshall takes off with the space race and global politics, and columnist, broadcaster and former BBC editor Polly Toynbee recalls her family of” left-wing rabble-rousers” and offers a frank conversation about class in Britain.

For lovers of fiction, broadcaster James Naughtie talks of his latest espionage thriller, Stef Penney brings to life a tale of love and loyalty in 19th century Paris, and Dan Jones discusses his trilogy following a band of British soldiers in the Hundred Years War.

Ilkley has been a champion of poetry since 1973 with appearances over the decades from luminaries including Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, and Carol Ann Duffy. This year Poet Laureate Simon Armitage will discuss his first-ever collection of lyrics, Never Good with Horses, and stories of his ventures into the music world in an evening celebrating the music of language.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Simon Armitage will share his experiences in the music world Simon Armitage will share his experiences in the music world (Image: Peter James Millson)

The festival’s Poet in Residence position has launched the careers of emerging poets in the North, and this year it features two - poet and theatre artist Chris Singleton from Leeds, and Sheffield’s award-winning poet, Freya Bantiff.

“Running Ilkley Literature Festival is a little like inheriting a great estate, passed down by previous generations,” says festival director Erica Morris. “It’s a big responsibility, and we’ve had to navigate the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. So, we’re proud to mark half a century, and carry on the vision and ambition that has always characterised this arts charity. We hope 2023 is true to the spirit that has animated the festival since 1973.”

With themes encompassing the State of the Nation, Explore Moor (experiencing the natural world) and Food for Thought, the 2023 festival programme demonstrates the eclectic breadth the event is renowned for.

The festival is nationally acknowledged for its artistic standards, diverse programming and writer development initiatives for children, young people and adults.The two-week festival brings work of national and international significance to audiences of more than 22,000, and showcases new work by emerging and established writers.

This year’s milestone event will recreate inaugural festival events from 1973, including a Puffin Books Tea Party for children and a panel celebrating women’s writing featuring acclaimed novelist Monica Ali to mark the joint 50th anniversaries of the festival and feminist publisher Virago.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Monica Ali discusses women in literature Monica Ali discusses women in literature (Image: Ilkley Literature Festival)

Adds Erica: “Our festival not only develops pathways for young creatives, it can enrich lives. It expands what your aspirations can be, or at least your understanding of the wider world. I think that curiosity and openness helps to create better communities as well.”

* 50th anniversary facts: Ilkley Literature Festival was launched in 1973 by the poet WH Auden. Over the last half century it has weathered recessions, funding cuts, a pandemic and, organisers claim, being ignored by national media because of its ‘northern remoteness.’

The 1980s were turbulent for the festival. It fell out with major funder Yorkshire Arts Association and despite headliners such as Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Alan Bennett, the festival’s first female artistic director, June Oldham, declared in 1982: “The future, we have to say, looks a pretty bleak one...”

The 1990s were lean times until 1994, when the festival was declared a triumph under new artistic director Jonathan Davidson. Alan Ayckbourn and Willy Russell headlined, Tony Harrison delivered a film event, and a celebration of poet WS Graham featured Harold Pinter. In his first three years, Davidson initiated projects with schools and brought international writers to the town.

In 1998 Benjamin Zephaniah headlined the 25th anniversary festival, exploring a new generation of performance poetry and pop video artists. The 200s and 2010s have seen more young people’s events, including WordFest, and the Festival Fringe, offering everything from poetry speed-dating to Japanese drumming. And the 50-mile Stanza Stones Poetry Trail, created with Simon Armitage, leaves a lasting festival legacy across the Pennines.

* Tickets go on sale on Tuesday, August 29. Visit or call (01943) 816714.