Bluedot 2017

At Jodrell Bank observatory, Cheshire, 7-9 July

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Late on Sunday night, in a tent overlooked by the awe-inspiring Lovell Telescope, hundreds of people are screaming along with comedian John Robertson’s deranged live version of old-school videogames. It’s an appropriate end to a festival that truly allows its guests to “choose your own adventure”. Whether you want hard science, out-of-this-world music, geeky comedy or even a playground for your kids, Bluedot has you covered. Navigating a mixture of pulsars and Pixies is a joy I won’t soon forget.

Friday’s science highlight comes in the form a talk by Chris Parkes of CERN (European Laboratory for Particle Physics), examining why the universe is almost all matter when the Big Bang created equal parts antimatter. Including a gag that posits Jeremy Corbyn as the human to Theresa May’s alien, plus a look at antimatter’s practical applications in medical diagnosis and industry, it’s a fascinating snapshot of the current science – although the best moment comes thanks to a bleeding edge discovery that happened only a couple of days earlier from the Large Hadron Collider. It’s a thrill to hear from one of the actual LHC scientists about the newest particle to be discovered from the experiment.

At no other festival can you delve into particle physics, then shift to the main stage and ask Where is My Mind? with force of nature rock anti-heroes the Pixies. Through dramatic rain, Frank Black howls and yelps over Beach Boys melodies from an alternate universe to close out an exhilarating Friday.

Science is built on the power of the dissenting voice and so Angela Saini’s dig at how the discipline has got women wrong is a breath of feminist fresh air, even though the festival was melting under punishing sun by Saturday afternoon. Saini is the first of a few big minds to be betrayed by PowerPoint displays that don’t want to do as they’re told. Astrophysics lecturer Rene Breton’s celebration of 50 years since pulsars were discovered is also bedevilled by squonky visuals, but is no less mind-blowing for that.

Having invented so many new sounds – and the kit needed to make them – Radiophonic Workshop fit right in to Bluedot. The BBC sound effect unit responsible for work on Quatermass, Tomorrow’s World, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and – of course – Doctor Who, are now in their late seventies and early eighties, but a packed tent is electrified by their retro vision of the future. And, for my money, their version of the Doctor Who theme – all sinuous electronic wails and strange pounding bass – raises the hairs on the back of your neck more than Orbital’s main stage version later on Saturday night.

Back in the same tent, early on Sunday, another bit of soundtracking provides some esoteric delight. The strange, at times scary 1980s film The Moomins and the Comet is rarely screened – and even more rarely re-scored to such trippy effect. Armed with a battery of instruments and props, including a box of cornflakes, post-punk avant-garde composer Graeme Miller releases the weird heart of Tove Jansson’s tale, which was influenced by political and social upheaval in Finland in the 1940s.

We’re treated to a true classic of audience participation when one kid asks: “Is Darth Vader friends with My Little Pony?”

Although prefixed by an incredible Bollywood version of The Imperial March from the Rajasthan Heritage Brass Band, Darth Vader’s visit – in the form David Prowse, the guy in the suit, not that booming voice – is one of the few things that doesn’t grab you by the throat. Prowse is the person with the least love for Star Wars in a two-mile radius. But he’s joined by movie sculptor Brian Muir, who’s happy to discuss making snakes for Indiana Jones, sharks to fight Bond and the famous Vader mask. And we’re treated to a true classic of audience participation when one kid asks: “Is Darth Vader friends with My Little Pony?”

Closing out the main stage, Alt-J mix flashes of beauty with existential dread. Surely one of the oddest bands to find mainstream success in recent years, they wisely lean into their geeky image for the occasion. Their fidgety, glitchy folk-rock really soars, buoyed by a location and an audience that’s ripe for intelligent music that pushes at the edges of populism. Breezeblocks smashes it – brimming with heart and head, just like this uniquely spectacular festival.

Beyond the main stage, there’s still a world of delights to explore, from a field of fire to a dancefloor dominated by what looked like a giant woodlouse. In the final moments of the festival there are experimental saxophones to be found and, looking up, the telescope is still lit up with an art installation by Tokyo-based artist Daito Manabe, based on his residency at Manchester University. Whichever path you chose, the Bluedot adventure is expansive, intelligent and utterly thrilling.

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