According to the music festival’s director and partner Ben Turner, Bestival got its start as a series of parties created by BBC Radio DJ Rob Da Bank called Sunday Best, which took place at a tea shop in London, UK. Da Bank would invite “legends of our nightlife world and DJs to play for nothing” and the audience would pay a mere 99p (.99 cents) per person to get in, says Turner.
Da Bank’s wife Josie, co-founder of Bestival, and who would later become the festival’s creative and artistic director, decorated the venue to give it atmosphere. “We would all congregate there religiously every week, and it kind of grew and became this event that people wanted to be at, that artists wanted to play at,” Turner adds.
Sunday Best officially formed in 1995 in the Tearooms des Artistes in South London. Rob and his friends played host to artists like Fatboy Slim, Groove Armada, Basement Jaxx, Harvey, and Andy Weatherall among them – some of them would become known as pioneers and innovators of dance music. Sunday Best Recordings emerged in 1997. Turner would join the label in 2000 working alongside da Bank and Sarah Bolshi, its managing director who joined the record company that same year.
There were many parties, but one particular party changed things. They participated in the Glastonbury festival on Ibiza in Spain where Sunday Best hosted a stage with BBC Radio 1. Fatboy Slim played the stage and it was a huge success. “It was a really special feeling,” Turner recounts. It was there that Rob and Josie got the inspiration to do their own festival.
Rob and Josie chose to have the festival on the Isle of Wight where they spent their childhood vacations, which Turner describes as a charming holiday destination with beautiful beaches and lots of old people. He also spent his summer vacations at Robin Hill Country Park when he was young.
It was 2004. The park was so busy during the summer that they had to postpone the festival until the kids had gone back to school. “It’s a bit of a beautiful accident,” Turner admits, but it’s a nice time on the calendar. The festival “became know as the last festival of the English summer,” the last memorable show of the year that people go to, he says. Since then, Bestival has headlined some of the world’s biggest artists like Stevie wonder, Florence and the Machine, and Elton John. The gathering grew exponentially over the years from 5,000 to 50,000 people.
They throw a party with passion and have received the recognition for it in the form of the Best Major Festival in the UK award three times, in 2015, 2012 and 2010. They were the ‘Fans’ Favourite Festival’ in 2011 and ‘Best Medium-Sized Festival’ four times between 2005 and 2009.
As I talk with Turner, we’re standing on the deck on top of a red mini-bus, which serves us cold beer on a hot day, and the sounds of the jackhammer resound in the air. We’re overlooking the park. The stage is being constructed and the site is coming to life. Hours later, as if by magic, the place will be transformed into a forest filled with colour and light and streamers and peace signs, and some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met.
As time went on they had many offers to take the festival to Australia, Malaysia, China, and a lot of other countries, but there was something about Toronto as a market, Turner says, and we had strong connections here, that makes it an excellent choice, not to mention that the city’s musical taste is very similar to the UK’s.
Woodbine Park was one of the first venues they looked at but they were enchanted by Hanlan’s Point on Toronto Island because of its similarity to the Isle of Wight, the original site of Bestival when it first began.
“We had some problems getting that number of people off the island on time,” Turner says, so for the second Canadian festival they decided to stay in Toronto but move the festival to Woodbine Park. The site is on the mainland, in the east end of the city, hidden in a lush green setting across the street from Lake Ontario, close to local transportation.
Meanwhile, the main festival keeps surpassing expectations, over its four days in early September at The Lulworth Estate on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast each year. From its beginning with co-founders and partners Ziggy Gilsenan and her partner John Hughes, they’ve branched out to Camp Bestival, a family-friendly festival, to House of Bestival, the branding arm of the ever-expanding company, this part run by Josie and Ziggy. Other offshoots are the Bestival FM live and archived radio show, Bestival Toronto, which was started in 2015 and the Common People festival created in 2016.