THE star speaker at this year’s Charleston Festival in May is the broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

His latest series, the BBC documentary series Blue Planet II, was regarded as a cultural event last year and he has been announced as the winner of the annual Charleston-EFG John Maynard Keynes Prize.

It recognises his “outstanding contribution to society” and he will deliver the annual lecture at the festival at Charleston, the Sussex home of the Bloomsbury Group, on May 21.

Titled Beauty and the Beasts, it will see him make use of new video evidence to answer the divisive question of whether some animals can justifiably be described as artists.

Dame Liz Forgan, chair of the advisory panel for the prize, says, “David Attenborough’s exceptional gift of communication has made it easy for us all to share his deep understanding of the natural world. He has been our trusted guide and teacher in the air, under the sea, in desert, tundra and jungle with humour, colour, imagination and good science. If our grandchildren inherit a sustainable planet he will deserve their gratitude.”

Also on the programme is an appearance by Hollywood actress Gemma Arterton, who starred in the 2008 Bond movie Quantum of Solace with Daniel Craig. She discusses her role of poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West in the upcoming film Vita and Virginia, which dramatises the decade-long affair between Vita and the writer Virginia Woolf, whose country retreat with her husband Leonard Woolf was Monk’s House in Rodmell. The film, which doesn’t yet have a release date in the UK, also stars The Night Manager actress Elizabeth Debicki as Woolf as well as Isabella Rossellini, the actress daughter of screen legend Ingrid Bergman.

Gemma will be in conversation with the film’s director Chanya Button and Juliet Nicholson, Vita’s granddaughter, who gives a “privileged insight” into the relationship.

Described as “the home of lively conversation and a search for truth in the spirit of the Bloomsbury Group”, the Charleston Festival has been held for the past 29 years at Charleston, near Lewes, the farmhouse that was the home of the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and became a meeting place for the major of creators and thinkers of the early 20th century, including the writer Virginia Woolf.

Festival organisers describe this year’s festival as “exciting”, adding, “In a period of exceptional political and social volatility, expect this festival to feature heated agenda-setting debates, mirroring the impassioned discussions that took place at Charleston in the past.

“As sexual politics dominate the media, Bloomsbury’s association with feminism has never been more relevant. It celebrates the centenary of women receiving the vote… and we are inspired by brave women who took artistic and social risks.”

The programme includes last year’s Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid, whose works of art address colonial history and racism. Born in Zanzibar and raised in the UK, she was the first black woman to win the award and discusses her “wilderness years” and all she still hopes to express with Jennifer Higgie, the editorial director of frieze magazine.

The author Jeanette Winterson will talk writing, politics, women, sex and pleasure on the 90th anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

In discussion with broadcaster David Dimbleby is author Robert Harris, whose latest book Munich is a thriller set over the four days of the 1938 Munich Conference, controversially attempting to restore the reputation of Neville Chamberlain and asking whether he was an appeaser or simply playing for time. 

Biographer Claire Tomalin has turned the spotlight on herself with her memoir A Life of My Own, which she discusses with Guardian associate editor Claire Armitstead.

Ali Smith, the author of the prize-winning novel How To Be Both, transforms The Famous Women Dinner Service – produced by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant for Kenneth Clark in 1932 – from decorative ceramics into creative prose in a unique commission for the Charleston Festival. In her own words, she describes it as “a free-form, free-wheeling, plate-spinning celebration of the Bloomsbury Dinner Service – its fruitfulness, its witty politic, its Woolfian routing of tradition and its brilliantly crafted, crafty reinterpretation of everything from notions of service to doing the dishes”.

Also on the festival programme are broadcasters Evan Davis, the Newsnight presenter who discusses fake news and media distortion with journalists Anne McElvoy and Jonathan Freedland, and Jon Sopel, the BBC’s North America editor, who gives an insider’s account of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Susie Orbach, author of the seminal Fat is a Feminist Issue, reveals what goes on in the mind of a therapist.

The authors Aida Edemariam, whose book The Wife’s Tale is a history of her Ethiopian grandmother who was married at 10 and endured civil war and revolution, and Kevin Powers, whose novel A South in the Ruins is set in the American Civil War, discuss the theme of their books.

And Kamila Shamsie, the author of the novel Home Fire, and Neel Mukherjee, a contemporary re-imagining of Sophocles’s tragedy Antigone, discuss the ability of fiction to interpret the turbulent times we live in and to re-think pre-conceived ideas.

The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency author Alexander McCall Smith will talk about his books, including his latest in the series The House of Unexpected Sisters, his bassoon playing in The Really terrible Orchestra and the islets he has bought.

Simon Armitage, the poet of his generation and the Oxford Professor of Poetry, discusses his work and career with Kate Kellaway, poetry editor of the Observer.

The comedian, actor and writer Robert Webb, one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb with David Mitchell and star of Channel 4 sitcom The Peep Show, talks to author Miranda Sawyer about his coming-of-age memoir How Not To Be A Boy, which examines the shifting sands of male identity against the backdrop of his own difficult upbringing and his student years at Cambridge.

Author Alan Hollinghurst also discusses his sixth novel The Sparsholt Affair, following a group of friends bound together by art, literature and love across three generations from the Second World War to contemporary London. 

Among the other prominent names appearing at the festival are Helen Pankhurst, the great-granddaughter of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas, former politician Tristram Hunt, now the director of the V&A in London, actress Eve Best, who played Vanessa Bell in BBC2’s Life in Squares, human rights activist Peter Tatchell, the playwright Michael Frayn, design critic and author Alice Rawsthorn, the author Lyndall Gordon, the broadcaster Joan Bakewell, the philosopher and writer A C Grayling, who is one of three former Man Booker Prize for Fiction judges taking part in The Man Booker Prize 50th Anniversary Debate, McMafia author Misha Glenny, the author and critic Blake Morrison, and philanthropist and Tetra Pak heir Sigrid Rausing, the author of the memoir Mayhem about her brother’s long-term addiction and his wife’s death.

The Charleston Festival is at Charleston, Firle, from May 18-28. Phone 01323 811626 or visit

Above: Gemma Arterton

Main picture, top: David Attenborough

Below: Gemma Arterton in a scene from Vita and Virginia with Elizabeth Debicki

Above: Ali Smith

Below: A ceramic from The Famous Women Dinner Service

Above: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Below: A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee 

Above: Sigrid Rausing/picture: Tom Rausing

Below: Mayhem by Sigrid Rausing