Cheltenham Literature Festival could have been mistaken for a pop concert last night as Sherlock fans screamed for the show's headline act Benedict Cumberbatch, while Harry Potter author JK Rowling's appearance was met with outpourings of love from her devoted followers.
Cumberbatch had no book to promote and was interviewed by his co-star Louise Brealey, who plays pathologist Molly Hooper. Nor did the young, largely female audience bear much resemblance to the typical Cheltenham crowd. When the actor removed his coat to reveal a buttoned-up blue shirt, there were wolf whistles and shrill screams of appreciation.
Tickets for the event sold out in eight days and festival organisers, who were visibly shocked at the fans’ ardour, admitted they’d never known anything like it. “I had callers in tears when I told them it had already sold out,” confided one box office employee. “I felt heartbroken on their behalf.”
Of the hundreds of events programmed during the ten-day festival, only JK Rowling sold out more quickly than Cumberbatch. When the author took to the stage earlier in the evening to promote her first book for adults, The Casual Vacancy, she joked that she was simply the “warm-up act” for Cumberbatch, but when fans were given the chance to take the mic, even Rowling herself must have been surprised by the extent of the affection.
Most questions to the author began "I love you," while many were asked through tears, and one female audience member was allowed to come up to the stage to deliver in person a bouquet and a letter to the author she had been carrying with her.
Both Rowling and Cumberbatch’s talks were held at The Centaur, a 2,000-seat auditorium at Cheltenham Race Course. It’s the first time the festival has had to use such a large venue. Earlier in the day, Michael Palin, David Suchet and Roger Moore also spoke there to appreciative, if more demure, audiences.
Afterwards, an impatient queue snaked around the building and Cumberbatch stayed until midnight giving out autographs. Earlier in the day the local branch of Waterstones had sold out of Sherlock Holmes books as fans rushed to buy them for the actor to sign.
Overall, the 2012 festival has so far sold 130,000 tickets, already breaking last year’s previous record total of 119,000.