If you’ve not yet heard of Letters Live, the premise is simple: high-profile actors, musicians and cultural figures get together to read some of history’s most notable written correspondence. Inspired by Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note and Simon Garfield’s To The Letter, the event was launched by publishing house Canongate in 2013 and, despite its perhaps unlikely sounding format, was an instant hit. In the years since letters by the likes of David Bowie, Che Guevara, Charlotte Bronte and Marge Simpson have been read by Benedict Cumberbatch, Ian McKellan and Olivia Colman.
In that time it has also become a cultural highlight of Wilderness festival. As always, this year’s performers remain a tightly guarded secret but, as a taste of what’s to come, here’s our pick of the best Letters Live performances to date…
Antoine Leiris to his wife’s killers - Read by Colin Firth
While the majority of Letters Live performances are pieces written by historical figures of note, this reading by Colin Firth is a powerful exception. Performed in July 2017, Firth read an open letter written by Antoine Leiris, a French journalist whose wife was killed by gunmen during the attack on the Bataclan theatre in November 2015. Leiris’ emotional message to his wife’s killers – that he will not give in to the anger and hatred they wish to spread – coupled with a beautiful tribute to the love he shared with his wife and a vow to give their son a happy and free life, is delivered in a hugely respectful and moving way with all the gravity you would expect of one of Britain’s foremost actors.
“Don’t touch his hair” - Read by Olivia Colman
A more light-hearted reading, Olivia Colman’s matter-of-fact style is the perfect foil to this letter written to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958 by three Elvis Presley fans imploring the President not to cut Presley’s hair when he joined the army. A perfect encapsulation of the fan mania surrounding Presley, Colman’s performance even goes so far as to deadpan the writers’ poetic sign off, “Presley, Presley, is our cry, P-R-E-S-L-E-Y”.
“Yours in distress” by Alan Turing - Read by Benedict Cumberbatch
Cumberbatch has long been involved with Letters Live and, as one of the event’s producers, now helps shape its direction. Among the numerous, varied performances he has given, the stand-out is a series in which Cumberbatch reads the letters of World War II code-breaker Alan Turing.
Created to coincide with the release of The Imitation Game, for which Cumberbatch received Oscar and Golden Globe nominations in his role as Turing, the letters focus not on Turing’s mathematical work but on his later conviction of gross indecency for having a relationship with another man. Written to fellow mathematician Norman Routledge in 1952, shortly before pleading guilty, “Yours in distress” is an elegant piece that at once reveals Turing’s turmoil and fear while hiding it behind mask of 1950’s stoicism.
“I am the dead one” by Spike Milligan - Read by Andrew Scott
One of the most eye-opening things about Letters Live, and the personal correspondence of stars in general, is that their problems, worries and issues are often not too dissimilar to our own. Read by the incredibly talented Andrew Scott, this scathing letter layers Spike Milligan’s signature wit with sarcasm as he chides his elusive friend George Harrison for never picking up the phone. Everyone has that one friend who is impossible to get hold of or always cancels plans – it’s comforting to know that even if you’re a world famous comedian or a member of The Beatles things are really no different.
“Dear Mama” from Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City - Read by Sir Ian McKellan
An intriguing aspect of Letters Live is that the authors of said letters do not always have to be real people. A case in point is this stunning delivery of an excerpt from Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City – which chronicles the lives of a group of 1970s San Franciscans – delivered by Sir Ian McKellan. The excerpt is a letter by Michael Tolliver, a fictional gay man writing to his mother in response to discovering she has joined Anita Bryant’s anti-homosexual Save Our Children movement. Tolliver’s heart-wrenching monologue about growing up gay in a community that didn’t, and continues not to, accept, understand or tolerate homosexuality is made all the more poignant by McKellan’s long and well-documented career campaigning for LGBT rights.