Anne Hailes: Betty Craig, the woman who made festival maestro's vision a reality

Betty Craig, former assistant director of the Queen's Festival, now the Belfast International Arts Festival, at 92

BEHIND every successful man there’s an amazing woman. True? Certainly in the formative years of Queen’s Festival, when that woman was Betty Craig. As assistant director she worked with the maestro, Michael Barnes. He had the vision and she made that vision work.

“Over a few gins and tonic his ideas would pour out but he didn’t know how to action them so I took over and began to do deals.”

She had the personality and the expertise to take that vision and, despite the Troubles, put it on stages throughout Belfast. In the 70s and 80s people didn’t go out because there was nowhere to go so when Festival opened it’s doors each November it was a mega two-week event.

When Betty was seconded from her job in the Student’s Union in 1973 it was for six months. Her brief was to address a debt of £60,000 but this determined woman succeed only a few years later when Queen's Festival (or the Belfast Festival at Queen's, to give it its proper title, now the Belfast International Arts Festival) was named the second largest in the UK.

She printed a tabloid newspaper listing all the events and news of visiting artists, she sourced every available venue, from church halls to leisure centres. She invited Jan Branch to mastermind the complex ticketing system and together they built success on success.

It was very hands-on; spot an opportunity and go for it.

When Michael Palin was signing one of his books in Easons, Betty went along, waited till he finished and then confronted him with an invitation. He agreed and became a regular visitor after that. She had no shame.

In Edinburgh she went to a midnight show during their festival.

“It was mostly couples in for a snog – and me. I was impressed by the comedian, I laughed out loud and each time he bowed to me and said ‘Thank you madam, you’ve a lovely laugh.’” She waited for him at the stage door, invited him to come to Belfast festival and he invited her to dinner. And that’s how Rowan Atkinson was recruited.

I recall one late-night show in the Arts, a very poor comedian on stage, people were muttering, a man in a raincoat stood up and berated the comic: "I could do better," he said. "Prove it," So this audience member swept everyone aside and made for the stage and he wowed the audience. Rowan Atkinson had arrived in town thanks to Betty Craig.

When Victoria Wood lost her luggage at the airport, Betty whisked her to a charity shop to find suitable costumes for her act. It worked, and on stage, looking for her friend Kimberlay, the creator of Mr Overall had touched down.

Jazzman Humphrey Lyttleton flew in on a particularly bad day during the Troubles so it was no surprise when Betty’s little Mini was halted at a security check.

“Humph was so tall he was crouched down, unable to look up at the soldier. The case in the boot was challenged. What’s this? Humphrey Littleton’s trumpet. "I’ve not heard that one before.’’

They ordered Lyttleton out of the car, not to be frisked but to be asked: "Could you to play us a wee tune?" He did.

I was lucky to get tickets for the Billy Connolly show, I actually tumbled out of my seat with laughter. A two-night booking turned into a six sold-out nights. Was he easy to cater for? “Absolutely, he just wanted to taste poitín! I was told to ask a policemen and mysteriously a bottle appeared on my desk next day addressed to Mr B Connolly.”

In the 70s Betty was invited to the Hong Kong Festival. She hitched a lift in a plane chartered to transport the Halle Orchestra and the Royal Shakespeare Company. By the time they touched down at Kai Tan airport Betty had signed up the orchestra and the RSC to come to Belfast.

When in 1978 she was caught in a bomb blast and ended up in hospital, the entire Cwmbach Male Voice Choir came to her bedside to serenade her, such was their regard for this special woman.

However, one memorable night would not have happened if Betty hadn’t challenged her boss. She wanted The Brendan Voyage for the Whitla Hall.

Michael disagreed. She tried again, again rejection. Eventually he tired and told her – go ahead but on your head be it.

It was a night to remember. Shaun Davey’s major orchestral suite with Liam O’Flynn on uilleann pipes playing out the story of St Brendan’s voyage in a small curragh from the Kerry coast to the shores of North America. It was emotional as we listened to the storms and rough seas pound the little boat and the peaceful relief when it reached its destination. Talk about cry!

When she retired in the mid 80s Betty thought she’d have time to relax. No chance.

“I got a phone call from Brum Henderson at Ulster Television. ‘So you think you’ve retired? Well, you haven’t: come and see me in the morning.’

"Suddenly I was in at the deep end, this time setting up the first Telethon, a 27-hour programme where each region in the network took part in this fundraising extravaganza.”

Since then she has been a major fundraiser for hospitals, music therapy and setting up the Children’s Cancer Fund.

But Michael was always in her life. He was head of his festival family. She’d be there to cook turkey at Christmas, always in the mix. When he died in 2008, he left a note asking Betty to organise a party, held in Queen’s Film Theatre, now celebrating 50 important years.

What a life Betty has had and, with Michael and Jan, her hard work ensures a firm foundation for Festival now and in the future.

At a vibrant 92 she looks back. “It was magical. I lived every moment and as I walked through Botanic Gardens each morning on my way to the Festival office, I thanked God for my job.”

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