Camp Bestival founders Rob Gorham (aka Rob da Bank) and his wife Josie mark 15 years of the festival with an interview that covers everything from breaking Guinness World Records to taking the event north to Shropshire.
Riding the wave of success that followed the launch of Bestival (cap. 40,000) in 2004, Rob da Bank and his wife Josie reflected their changing circumstances, and lifestyle, with the launch of pioneering family festival Camp Bestival in 2008.
Echoing the abundant creative energy of Bestival but with a more family-friendly focus, the first Camp Bestival (25,000) took place at Dorset’s Lulworth Estate, with headliners including The Flaming Lips.
Since that band’s frontman, Wayne Coyne, came rolling down the steps of Lulworth Castle in a giant transparent ball and rolled his way across the entire crowd to the main stage, Rob and Josie haven’t looked back. Camp Bestival in Dorset has sold out every year since its launch, gone on to outlive Bestival, and last year was expanded to a second site in Shropshire.
Josie says the idea of Camp Bestival first came to her when she was organising the second edition of Bestival while pregnant with her first child, Arlo.
“I instantly wanted to put on a festival that was suitable for where I was going in life; being a mum,” she says. “We called Lulworth Estate and within a few days we were doing site visits and we did a land deal. It happened almost overnight.”
That first event broke even, which as any organiser knows is rare for an inaugural festival. “People just loved it, even nonfamilies loved it because it was very calm, safe and clean,” says Josie. “At that point, festivals were starting to really ramp up in terms of the partying, which was getting really intense, so it just went down really well and the offering has been the same ever since.”
Rob da Bank, whose music industry career has also involved being a BBC Radio 1 DJ and running independent record label Sunday Best, says the initial transition from booking adult-oriented acts for Bestival to more family-focused artists wasn’t entirely seamless. In 2009 he booked PJ Harvey for Camp Bestival, as a UK exclusive.
He says, “She played an incredible set, just her on the piano and guitar, but the rules that came with it were that no other amplified sound could be played at the same time as her set, which on a Friday night, at a family festival, was quite a challenge.
“We had to turn everything else off. I remember having to race around the fields telling people to turn everything off. It was all very confusing for people who didn’t want to watch PJ, but she was absolutely stunning.”
Camp Bestival became synonymous with eye-catching illustrations, the colourful dressing of stages and areas, the unusual and imaginative activities on offer, and remarkable creations such as The World’s Largest Disco Ball.
Having had Guinness World Records confirm the standing of the super-sized disco ball, some 10.3 metres in diameter, they were called back to oversee the world record for the Largest Disco Dance. The successful attempt took place last year with 600 people performing a routine at the Dorset event. Proceeds from the initiative were channelled into long-time charity partner the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust.
Josie, who oversees all artwork, illustrations, the décor and design of the stages, along with the festival layout, says that among her favourite features on site is the Bollywood area: “It is one of the things that makes the festival really unique. Robby and I go to India most years and it’s very apparent when you get to Camp Bestival that there’s this big Indian influence there.”
The duo has worked hand in hand with the team at production specialists APL Event since the outset, with APL’s Paul and Anita Ludford having handled the festival’s production prior to their offspring Vicki and Philip taking over the reins.
“Vicki is my right hand on production and has been forever, I love working with her,” says Josie. “I also have an assistant called Cara Kane who has been with me for 15 years. I’ll come up with an idea like ‘let’s make a boat called HMS Bestival’, and she will turn it into a reality for me.”
Other long-time key contributors, who Rob says have been with them for “pretty much the whole ride” are production managers Andy Grey and Neil McDonald from Clockwork Productions.
“Andy has one of the calmest heads in the business, whether it’s Grace Jones needing a riser with a fan blowing her hair, Dick and Dom getting out of hand with squirty cream or Chuck Berry needing a hand to get up on stage,” he says.
Another team member that Rob rates as among the best in the business is Ginger Owl, who handle Camp Bestival’s artist liaison and transport. A more recent collaboration is with Far And Beyond, which handles aspects of the event including traders and guest list.
“Josie and I run things in a cottage industry, family way. I’d like to think a little bit like Michael [Eavis] and Emily sitting around the kitchen table and having meetings with the kids getting involved,” says Rob.
Among the wider creative team is Continental Drifts music director Chris ‘Tofu’ Macmeikan who oversees Caravanserai, which is described as a festival inside a festival. Created by the artist Pete Bateman, it’s a mix of installations and fairground activity combined with live acts
curated by Continental Drifts and Cirque Bijou. Another long-time contributor to Camp Bestival is Greg Butler who curates Pig’s Big Ballroom.
Since 2018, the Camp Bestival team has grown to include Live Nation, with the conglomerate having acquired it after Bestival and Camp Bestival went into administration after horrendous weather cut short the former festival and resulted in huge losses.
While Bestival has not yet been revived, Rob and Josie both emphasise their appreciation of the support that having Live Nation behind them brings.
“It’s been hugely positive and I’m very grateful for it,” says Josie. [Live Nation] very much leave us to to get on with it but they’re there as a great backbone, a huge support. I don’t think I would still be going if it wasn’t for them.”
“Live Nation is one of the best things that’s happened to us,” agrees Rob. “We love working in a small team that expands a lot around festival time. Some people like Bruce Hay [marketing] and Jo Bennett [brand development] have been with us for ages, and we can walk into the Live Nation offices and see old members of our crew and it’s great. We can also talk to the bookers from Latitude, Boomtown or Download. I absolutely love it. To be part of a big family is sometimes really helpful.”
A Family affair
Camp Bestival also involves input from Rob and Josie’s immediate family, with their children not only coming up with ideas but actually performing at the event. In the case of their son Arlo, he began DJing at Camp Bestival, alongside his dad, when he was 15.
“That’s a beautiful thing for me,” says Rob. “I’ve never encouraged him to do it but for the last couple of years we’ve done a back-to-back session. He’ll be out there at the beginning saying, ‘Dad, don’t leave me whatever you do. You play most of them and I’ll play one’ and then after he’s played one tune, he’s like, ‘Dad, wait, you’re not playing anymore. Go away!’ He plays the rest of the set in front of screaming girls, it’s great.”
More broadly, Josie has found one of the most satisfying things involved in the creation of Camp Bestival is getting the children away from their phones.
“Keeping the kids for a whole weekend off their phones is so brilliant and important to us,” she says. “That’s hard these days. And it is so important they are camping and seeing their parents have fun from a very young age. It is very hard in this day and age for parents to have fun because they have so much responsibility and we’re always working, so it can be hard to put a smile on your face. I’d like to think that once they get through the doors of the festival, and they have put the tent up, they can relax and let go.”
In late 2021 the team announced the launch of a Shropshire-based Camp Bestival the following year, which some considered a brave move so soon after the pandemic.
“It was a calculated risk but Live Nation and everyone involved thought it was going to work,” says Rob. “There’s a huge number of festivalgoers that would think twice about driving six hours with their kids down to Dorset every year, but now we have this huge catchment area of people who can easily access the festival at Shropshire’s Weston Park.
“I was a little bit nervous about who was going to turn up, and that wasn’t some snobby southern thing, I just didn’t know whether it would be the same audience, but it’s a very similar audience of people who share our love of the fun and the magic that we put on.”
With the Shropshire event having sold around 12,000 tickets last year, and it being set to shift 20,000 this year, the future looks bright for Camp Bestival and Rob is not ruling out a revival of the event that first got the ball rolling: “Bestival was incredible for a number of years. It’s having a long break. Whether it will come back, I don’t know.”
This feature was published in the Summer edition of Access All Areas, which is available to read for free HERE.