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Triumphant Close for Hay Festival Digital After 490k Event Streams


The first ever Hay Festival Digital came to a triumphant close this year, earning close to half a million event streams over two weeks of events. 

Book lovers tuned in from around the world to engage and converse with writers, and with each other, in interactive events. People from more than 69 countries joined free sessions featuring over 100 award-winning writers, global policy makers, historians, Nobel Prize-winning economists, pioneers and innovators, under the theme #ImagineTheWorld.

Highlights over the fortnight included an exclusive preview of Stephen Fry’s next book, Troy, and David Mithell’s upcoming Utopia Avenue; an all-star Wordsworth 250 anniversary gala; a one-off film screening by Ali Smith; a Shakespeare megamix performed by Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West; conversations with novelists Maggie O’Farrell and Anne Enright, artist Grayson Perry, former US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, writer Lisa Taddeo, historians William Dalrymple and Hallie Rubenhold, lawyer Philippe Sands, statistician David Spiegelhalter and global health expert Devi Sridhar; an hour of live painting with Jackie Morris; a performance by classicist Natalie Haynes, accompanied by illustrator Chris Riddell; original lectures from Welsh poet Mererid Hopwood, journalist Afua Hirsch, former CMO Professor Sally Davies, novelist Elif Shafak, historian Simon Schama, economist Paul Krugman; and conversations about the future of Europe with the Hay Festival Europa28 selection: novelists Leïla Slimani and Zsofia Ban, actress Lisa Dwan, social activist Hilary Cottam, and writers Kapka Kassabova and Caroline Muscat.

A free digital Programme for Schools ran 18-22 May for KS 2, 3 and 4 pupils, mixing storytelling and live performances to inspire a love of reading for pleasure. Speakers included Waterstones Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell; broadcaster Konnie Huq; award-winning writers Patrice Lawrence, Mohammad Khan and Lucy Worsley; rising stars Onjali Q Rauf, Sue Cheung and Dean Atta; illustrator Liz Pichon; and activists Laura Bates and Laura Coryton.

Events, originally streamed via the Festival’s Crowdcast channel, are now available to view over on Hay Player (, which is home to the Festival’s full audio and video archive.

Hay Festival Medals were awarded to writer and dramatist Inua Ellams for Poetry, journalist and writer Lydia Cacho for Journalism, and two-time Booker Prize-winning novelist Hilary Mantel for prose. Meanwhile, following a public call-out for submissions, organisers at the close of the Festival released an #ImagineTheWorld reading list of 20 titles to offer inspiration and vision for the months ahead.

Hay Festival Digital was supported by principal sponsor Baillie Gifford and principal global partner the Welsh Government, while the Programme for Schools is also sponsored by the Welsh Government.

Peter Florence, director of Hay Festival, said: 

“The combination of intimate conversations and the global audience able to participate online has reinvented the festival. We’ve had hundreds of thousands of viewers who’ve never been to Hay before. We’ve seen writers and actors and scientists respond to the technology with imagination and daring. And my brilliant colleagues have aced the innovation and the delivery. We’re going to absorb the wonders of all this and think carefully and quickly about how to move forward. It seems like a moment of adventure and opportunity.”

Michelle McLeod, sponsorship manager at Baillie Gifford, said:

“It has been an incredible journey for the Hay team to deliver the digital festival in such a short space of time, and an extraordinary achievement. Although we greatly missed the usual event in Hay-on-Wye, it was remarkable to hear so many inspiring and entertaining conversations, all beamed to thousands of people across the globe. Well done to the team at Hay Festival and to all the authors who took part.”

Broadcaster Sandi Toksvig, closing out the final Festival session, said: 

“This has been an extraordinary experiment. Going to Hay is one of the great glories of my life. I love it. But this has been watched by over half a million people, all around the world, many for the first time. These are dark times but Hay Festival represents the obverse. It’s the place of stimulating conversation, of soothing words, and reminding ourselves of the glory of the human imagination. And we really, really need this now.”


Finest fiction

Award-winning novelists and poets presented new work and discussed the power of literature in times of crisis. Hilary Mantel discussed the final chapter in her award-winning Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light; Anne Enright talked Actress; Ali Smith presented a one-off film Screening with Sarah Wood, The Beginning of the &; and novelist Elif Shafak joined lawyer and writer Philippe Sands to deliver the English PEN Platform. Polly Samson joined musician David Gilmour to talk A Theatre for Dreamers; Roddy Doyle previewed his upcoming book, Love; Hannah Rothschild launched her new novel, The Trelawneys; David Mitchell previewed his new book, Utopia Avenue; Ingrid Persaud presented Love After Love; and Jessie Burton talked The Confession. Mererid Hopwood delivered the Anthea Bell Lecture; and John Simpson, Bettany Hughes, Paul Boateng and Mehiyar Kathem teamed up for a BookAid International panel on what it means when libraries are lost to conflict.

Health and wellbeing

Global health and the Covid-19 pandemic took centre stage in conversations with Professor of Immunology Daniel Davis and Devi Sridhar, the global health expert who delivered a prescient Festival event two years ago predicting the pandemic; and former chief medical officer Sally Davies delivered the 2020 John Maddox Lecture, The Drugs Don't Work. Behavioural scientist and “happiness expert” Paul Dolan discussed F**k the Narrative; statistician David Spiegelhalter looked at the numbers behind the pandemic; while author and broadcaster Claudia Hammond talked The Art of Rest: How to Find Respite in the Modern Age.

Science and the human body

Scientific historian Naomi Oreskes asked Why Trust Science?; Nobel Prize–winning physicist James Peebles talked Cosmology's Century, while Carlo Rovelli talked The Order of Time; science writer Ainissa Ramirez presented The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another; theoretical physicist Jim al Khalili presented The World According to Physics; and John Troyer talked Technologies of the Human Corpse.

#ImagineTheWorld after Covid-19 

Internationally acclaimed writers and thinkers shared their thoughts on a post Covid-19 world in a new Hay Festival film series run in partnership with SURA featuring international trade lawyer Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, economist Nick Stern, Spanish writer Javier Cercas, philosopher Fernando Savater, Mexican activist Lydia Cacho, and Turkish novelist Elif Shafak.


Climate campaigner and diplomat Christiana Figueres presented The Futures We Choose; teen activist Dara McAnulty talked to American writer Steve Silberman about his new book Diary of a Young Naturalist; Mark Lynas talked Our Final Warning; botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger delivered the inaugural Black Mountains College Lecture; and journalist Frank Gardner joined Kew Gardens’ Alex Antonelli to talk about environmental protection. Meanwhile, Trans.MISSION – Hay Festival’s global collaboration with the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) pairing scientists and storytellers – culminated with the release of new films and animations based on cutting-edge climate science.

Literary greats

Marking 250 years since the birth of William Wordsworth, Jonathan Bate presented The Poet Who Changed the World: William Wordsworth and the Romantic Revolution and a showstopping cast including Simon Armitage, Margaret Atwood, Benedict Cumberbatch, Monty Don, Stephen Fry, Tom Hollander, Toby Jones, Helen McCrory, Jonathan Pryce and Vanessa Redgrave celebrated his life. Allie Esiri was joined by Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West for a journey through her Shakespeare collection, A Year of Shakespeare (Or What You Will); and James Shapiro talked Shakespeare in a Divided America.

Activism and social justice

Gloria Steinem spoke to Everyday Sexism founder Laura Bates about her latest book The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off: Thoughts on Life, Love and Rebellion (out now as a special Hay Festival Podcast); Tori Amos talked Resistance; Simon Schama discussed The Age of Tribal Nationalism; Welsh writer Eric Ngalle Charles talked about his journey from Cameroon to Europe; journalist Afua Hirsch delivered the 2020 Christopher Hitchens Lecture on the future of journalism; while science broadcaster Adam Rutherford discussed How to Argue with a Racist and Rhidian Brook presented Godbothering: A spiritual commentary on our lives and times.

World affairs

Pulitzer prize-winning author and former United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power presented We Need To Talk About America; Director of the Wales Institute for Sustainability Jane Davidson hosted a series of #FutureGen discussions around Wales in the world; philosopher Roman Krznaric talked The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long-Term in a Short-Term World; and philosopher AC Grayling presented The Good State: On the Principles of Democracy. Writers Kapka Kassabova, Leïla Slimani, Caroline Muscat, Zsofia Ban, Lisa Dwan, Hilary Cottam and Sophie Hughes presented their visions for the future of Europe as part of the Hay Festival #Europa28 project; meanwhile, recent winners of the Hay Festival and Eccles Centre Writer’s Award – Chloe Aridjis and Daniel Saldana – talked about their connections to Latin America.

Global economics and the future of work

Economist Esther Duflo talked Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems; Daniel Susskind presented A World Without Work; Tim Harford talks The Next Fifty Things that Made the Modern Economy; Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott discussed The New Long Life: A Framework for Flourishing in a Changing World; while Accenture MD Peter Lacy talked The Circular Economy.


Classicist Daisy Dunn offered up her deeply researched collection of stories reflecting the eclectic richness and depth of the classical literary canon, Of Gods and Men: 100 Stories from Ancient Greece and Rome and myths were brought to life by classicist Natalie Haynes alongside illustrator Chris Riddell in an evening of live reading and drawing.

Past reimagined

Historian Rutger Bregman made the case for a new view of human nature with Humankind; broadcaster Greg Jenner talked Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen; entrepreneur Yan Lan looked at the foundations of modern China through the lens of her family history, talking House of Lan: A Family at the Heart of a Century in Chinese History; William Dalrymple talked The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire; Gavin Schaffer looked at the social history of the Birmingham Pub Bombings; Michael Wood talked about his latest study, China; while Philippe Sands spoke to Stephen Fry about his new book The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive, revisiting the aftermath of WWII following his bestseller East West Street.

Wordplay, comedy, food and entertainment

Hay Festival President Stephen Fry gave an exclusive preview of his next book, Troy; artist Grayson Perry joined journalist Jacky Klein to talk about his life; Sandi Toksvig presented her long-awaited memoir, Between the Stops; Colombian ballet dancer Fernando Montaño offered a late night performance from his New York loft; poet, playwright and performer Inua Ellams invited the audience to an evening of spoken word; presenter of the BBC One’s Escape to the Country Jules Hudson presented his new book; Festival favourite David Crystal presented Let's Talk; and the trio behind the latest Ottolenghi cookbook, Falastin – Sami Tamimi, Tara Wigley and Yotam Ottolenghi – discussed cooking in the time of covid-19.

Programme for Schools

A series of broadcasts for KS 2, 3 and 4 pupils aired 18-22 May, mixing storytelling and live performances to inspire a love of reading for pleasure, co-funded by the Welsh Government. Speakers included Waterstones Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell; broadcaster Konnie Huq; award-winning writers Patrice Lawrence, Mohammad Khan and Lucy Worsley; rising stars Onjali Q Rauf, Sue Cheung and Dean Atta; illustrator Liz Pichon; and activists Laura Bates and Laura Coryton.

Hay Festival’s global series of digital initiatives under the #ImagineTheWorld banner will continue to connect, inspire and entertain book lovers and home educators throughout the summer. These include a newly launched Hay Festival Podcast, a monthly book club, and ongoing availability of the free Programme for Schools archive, while Hay Player continues to offer full digital access to the full Hay Festival archive of video and audio.

The digital Festival followed the cancellation of this year’s event in Hay-on-Wye due to the Coronavirus / Covid-19 outbreak, which was followed by the launch of an ongoing fundraising campaign to secure the Festival’s future at