Hay Festival 2020: the 14 must-watch talks now that it's digital and free

The literary event will stream a host of virtual sessions featuring Gloria Steinem, Margaret Atwood, Benedict Cumberbatch, Helena Bonham Carter, and more this year

Benedict Cumberbatch, Margaret Atwood and Helena Bonham Carter will all make appearances online for Hay Festival 2020. EPA
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Much like film and music festivals around the world, one of the most internationally well-regarded literary gatherings has been cancelled for 2020.

While the Hay Festival will not physically take place in its Welsh namesake town this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the literary event is set to move its proceedings online.

Hay Festival Digital will kick off later this month, bringing together a host of more than 100 names for talks, presentations and performances. Child-friendly sessions will take place from Monday to Friday, May 18 to 22, while the main programme will run from Friday to Sunday, May 22 to 31.

"We will be zinging the programme as if from a green field in Wales and welcoming readers from around the world into a digital party," says Peter Florence, director of Hay Festival.

Broadcasts will be streamed free via Crowdcast, but those interested in watching will have to register, with limited digital spaces available for the sessions. Many will be followed by an interactive Q&A, where viewers can engage with authors, politicians, actors and more.

Those interested in seeing the full programme and booking sessions should visit hayfestival.com, but in the meantime, here's our pick of the appearances to add to your virtual calendar.

1. Gloria Steinem

Friday, May 22, 2.30pm (5.30pm in the UAE, GST)

In this audio-only session, the celebrated activist, feminist and journalist will talk to Laura Bates, author of Everyday Sexism. Steinem will talk about her 2019 book, Thoughts on Life, Love and Rebellion. The read is made up of Steinem's most inspirational and stirring quotes, which the writer will discuss in depth, sharing her views on relationships, equality and politics.

2. Margaret Atwood, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, and more

Friday, May 22, 6.30pm (9.30pm GST)

An A-list cast of names that also includes Simon Armitage, Tom Hollander, Helen McCrory, Jonathan Pryce and Vanessa Redgrave, will perform poetry by William Wordsworth, to mark 250 years since the wordsmith's birth. Readings will include Intimations of ImmortalityDaffodils, Upon Westminster Bridge, Tintern AbbeyThe Prelude and We Are Seven. They will also read passages from the journal of Wordsworth's sister, Dorothy, no doubt all delivered with gravitas and searing emotion.

3. Hilary Mantel

FILE - In this file photo dated Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013,  author and winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award for 2012 Hilary Mantel poses for photographers at the Costa Book awards ceremony in London. Hilary Mantel’s book “The Mirror and the Light” and Bernardine Evaristo’s “Girl, Woman, Other” are among six finalists for the international Women’s Prize for Fiction, with the winner due to be announced on Sept. 9, delayed because of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Hilary Mantel. AP

Saturday, May 30, 2.30pm (5.30pm GST)

The Booker Prize winner – who scored an award apiece for Wolf Hall and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies – will discuss the book that closes the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. In an audio-only conversation with Peter Florence, Mantel will proffer insights on her Thomas Cromwell series ... so read the last one now if you do not like spoilers.

4. Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West 

Saturday, May 30, 5.30pm (8.30pm GST)

This session will focus on some of William Shakespeare's greatest verses, with readings by The Crown and The Wire actors. Together with curator Allie Esiri, the trio will discuss the Bard's body of work, as well as shine a light on some of his lesser-known scenes and sonnets.

5. Sandi Toksvig

Sunday, 31 May 31, 5.30pm (8.30pm GST)

The British-Danish comedienne and TV host, who has fronted both QI and The Great British Bake Off, will make a digital appearance to discuss her memoir, The View of My Life from the Top of the Number 12 Bus. The talented orator will close the programme by opening up about her storied life, during which she both performed at university with Emma Thompson and formed the Women's Equality Party.

6. Elif Shafak

WB1ACT Edinburgh, UK. 22 August. 2019. Turkish-British novelist, Elif Shafak attends a photo call at Edinburgh International Book Festival. Pako Mera/Alamy Live News
Elif Shafak. Alamy Live News

Saturday, May 23, 8.30pm (11.30pm GST)

The Turkish author, whose novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, will not discuss her work in this specially commissioned short talk. Instead, the keen activist will "reflect on issues close to her heart, such as social justice, dignity, human rights, equality, public benefit, diversity", particularly in the context of the current pandemic.

7. William Dalrymple

Saturday, May 30, 1pm (4pm GST)

If you missed the historian's appearance at Hay Festival Abu Dhabi earlier this year, here is another chance to hear him talk about his latest book, The Anarchy. Dalrymple, who is also behind works such as In Xanadu, Nine Lives and The Last Mughal, will discuss the history of the East India Company, and how the British committed one of "the most supreme acts of corporate violence in world history".

8. Sami Tamimi, Tara Wigley and Yotam Ottolenghi

Monday May 25, 7.30pm (10.30pm GST)

Palestinian chef Tamimi, the long-time business partner of chef Ottolenghi, will appear to discuss his first solo cookbook, Falastin. Created with writer Wrigley, the book features more than 100 recipes inspired by his travels across the distinct regions of his homeland, from Bethlehem and Nablus to Haifa and the West Bank. Expect insight into the flavours, cuisines and culture of Palestine, as well as a rumbling tummy.

9. Leila Slimani, Lisa Dwan, Hilary Cottam and Sophie Hughes

LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND - MARCH 09: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been converted to black and white) Author Leila Slimani poses ahead of Kering Women In Motion talk at Rencontres Lausanne 7 Art on March 09, 2019 in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)
Leila Slimani. Getty

Tuesday, May 26, 6.30pm (9.30pm GST)

Moroccan-born Slimani, who won the Prix Goncourt for her novel Lullaby, is joined by Irish actor Dwan and activist Cottam to chat to translator Hughes about their works, causes and the current global climate.

10. Greg Jenner

Saturday, May 23, 11.30am (2.30pm GST)

The historian and author is expected to present an eye-opening deep-dive into the culture of celebrity, and our centuries-old obsession with it. Recounting juicy tidbits from his book Dead Famous, Jenner will explore how the concept of celebrity burst on to the scene in the 18th century, but how its roots reach far deeper, as well as the psychological burden it can bestow on its recipients.

11. Jon Sopel

Saturday, May 23, 6.30pm (9.30pm GST)

Five months ahead of the election that will determine if US President Donald Trump will hold on to the reins for another term, the BBC's North America editor will take a look inside the White House under Trump's tenure. Using references from his book A Year at the Circus: Inside Trump's White House, Sopel will explore the impact this presidency has had on a number of American institutions, as well as offer insight into the history of the presidential residence itself.

12. Miriam Gonzalez Durantez

Sunday, May 24, 8.30pm (11.30pm GST)

The Spanish lawyer, and wife of the UK's former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, will offer a short talk focused on the "unpaid and undervalued" domestic work that allows families to function but is still not adequately accounted for in the legislation of the European Union.

13. Roddy Doyle

Wednesday, May 27, 7.30pm (10.30pm GST)

The Irish novelist and screenwriter, who won the Booker Prize in 1993 for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, will host a special preview of his upcoming work, Love. The novel, which is due to be released in June, is centred on two old friends, who meet up in a Dublin restaurant where each reveals a secret that causes them to spend the evening revisiting past memories to discover what really drove them apart.

14. Jim Al Khalili

Thursday, May 28, 4pm (7pm GST)

The Iraq-born physicist, who has been awarded accolades including the Stephen Hawking Medal, will present a sure-to-be mind-bending talk on modern physics. Questions set to be tackled include: "Where does fundamental physics research stand today?" and "Are we closing in on a theory of everything or is the true nature of reality still a mystery?" While they might be big topics, the quantum physicist and author will make them digestible for even the most amateur scientists.