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Sir David Attenborough and Chris Packham among speakers as first Cambridge Festival gets under way

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Broadcasters Sir David Attenborough and Chris Packham are two of the lead speakers at the new online festival launched by the University of Cambridge.

The first ever Cambridge Festival, which brings together the hugely popular Cambridge Science Festival and the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, aims to tackle and offer solutions for humanity’s most pressing issues, from pandemics, climate change and global economics, to human rights and the future of democracy.

Sir David Attenborough. Picture: Keith Heppell
Sir David Attenborough. Picture: Keith Heppell

Starting on Friday (March 26), the festival, supported by the Cambridge Independent, is hosting more than 350 events over 10 days to April 4 for all ages including debates, talks, exhibitions, lab tours, family workshops and games, films and performances.

Naomi Clements-Brod, festival manager (sciences), said: “Through its sheer volume and scope, the Cambridge Festival is a true reflection of the immense impact the University of Cambridge continues to have on our world through its research. We are excited to be sharing and involving people, from right across the world, in the forward-thinking work of the university and its collaborators during the 10 days.”

The festival programme is divided into four key themes: health, environment, society and explore. Highlights include a series of films under the banner Earth Optimism.

Chris Packham
Chris Packham

Led by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative, Sir David Attenborough, Liz Bonnin and Chris Packham, along with leading conservationists, it will celebrate environmental success stories from around the world.

Sir David said: “We all know that there are great problems but we don’t hear enough of some of the successes. Successes which can give us the courage, information and the inspiration which we need to continue.”

Earth Optimism includes talks such as Why Nature Inspires Optimism by award-winning author Helen MacDonald; Lessons from the Dodo: Saving Species and Rebuilding Ecosystems by Carl Jones, a conservationist who has saved more species from extinction than almost anyone else alive; and Stubborn Optimism with Tom Rivett-Carnac, one of the key instigators in the UN’s Paris Climate Accord.

Filming for Earth Optimism, part of Cambridge Festival
Filming for Earth Optimism, part of Cambridge Festival

More than 30 passionate speakers in the Stories of Hope sessions will present compelling accounts of conservation success from the restoration of Wicken Fen to a group of women saving the golden eagle in Mexico, sharks in the waters around the Maldives and the critically endangered Mauritius kestrel.

The event will also be hosting a film festival with global documentaries.

In the Importance of the Natural World, TV star and presenter Chris Packham will explain his reasons for being optimistic about the future of nature. During Hope for our Planet, Liz Bonnin discusses how to solve the planetary crisis with Sir David Attenborough, who will also be answering questions sent in by audiences around the world.

Managing the filming of these 75 documentaries has been no small challenge during the pandemic.

Oggi Tomic, who has been filming 75 videos for Earth Optimism, part of the Cambridge Festival. Picture: Keith Heppell
Oggi Tomic, who has been filming 75 videos for Earth Optimism, part of the Cambridge Festival. Picture: Keith Heppell

Bafta award-winning filmmaker Oggi Tomic was part of the Earth Optimism team who directed Sir David and his daughter Susan to set up a camera over the phone.

Oggi, who lives in Cambridge, said: “With Sir David Attenborough we had set up his studio remotely by sending cameras and microphones to his house and direct it from the keyboard in Cambridge.

One of Oggi Tomic’s videos
One of Oggi Tomic’s videos

“It’s been a hell of a challenge but we have produced outstanding films which will feature as a part the Cambridge Festival.

“We were planning to interview David at his house in London but unfortunately due to his age we couldn’t take the risk. We couldn’t go near him for his own wellbeing so we were tasked to come up with a solution whereby he doesn’t move from his house while still producing a high quality film.

Oggi Tomic, who has been filming 75 videos for Earth Optimism, part of the Cambridge Festival. Picture: Keith Heppell
Oggi Tomic, who has been filming 75 videos for Earth Optimism, part of the Cambridge Festival. Picture: Keith Heppell

“We could deliver the equipment to his doorstep but not go inside. Luckily he and his lovely daughter Susan have been absolute stars working with us to get this done by talking them through it on calls.”

During the recording of the films Oggi lost his adoptive brother and fellow filmmaker, William George, to cancer. He said: “Sadly my brother was not able to see the end of this project. Working on this has helped us to stay busy and occupy our minds.”

There will also be plenty of family fun including virtual escape room games, craft workshops, explosive experiments, a talk about poo and the science behind ice cream.

Among the prominent figures involved in the Cambridge Festival are:

  • carbon footprinting expert Prof Mike Berners-Lee
  • statistician Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter
  • marine biologist, broadcaster and writer Helen Scales
  • Tom Rivett-Carnac, who is widely credited for achieving the Paris agreement
  • professor of politics David Runciman
  • theatre director and producer and WOW Foundation founder Jude Kelly
  • autism expert Prof Sir Simon Baron-Cohen
  • human rights barrister and author Philippe Sands
  • author and broadcaster Nina Schick
  • Dr Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury
Oggi Tomic with his brother. (45433969)
Oggi Tomic with his brother. (45433969)

The Cambridge Independent is media partner alongside BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. Festival sponsors are AstraZeneca and RAND Europe.

The festival is free and event tickets can be booked at festival.cam.ac.uk.

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