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My Gurus: Refusing to take no for an answer

After a career spanning 42 consecutive October festivals since she started volunteering in Belfast in 1981, Rosie Turner is now retiring as Director of the Canterbury Festival. Rosie was recently invited to speak to Arts Professional, reflecting on the people who have most influenced her work. You can view the article at or view the full text below:

I have been very fortunate to have some extraordinary people in my life to support me in my career, starting with my father.

George Turner – Father

My father sparked my interest in the arts from the get-go. Had his own circumstances been different – his father was killed when he was only five – he would probably have become a professional musician.  

He was a teacher and a well-known pianist in Northern Ireland, so my childhood memories resonate with his playing the piano in the room below where I slept. He also wrote and produced legendary pantomimes which were my first experiences of theatre. We read voraciously, all kinds of books, and went to the cinema regularly. He encouraged me to reflect on and discuss what we had enjoyed. 

Perhaps because he had been raised by his widowed mother and some ferocious aunts, my father considered women to be the equal – if not mostly superior – to men. So I grew up in an atmosphere of ‘girl power’.

Malcolm Smith – Lecturer in Drama

After university (BA Hons Drama at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth), I joined Rupert Stanley College of Further Education (now Belfast Met). At 21, I was the youngest lecturer they had ever appointed. 

The students were mostly more worldly wise than me, so I learned more than I ever taught. My teaching partner was Malcolm Smith – debonaire and vastly experienced both in the classroom and in technical theatre. 

Malcolm demonstrated professionalism, how to make amazing things happen with limited resources, and how – by sheer strength of personality – others can be encouraged to help and support especially where the arts and young people are concerned. 

Malcolm also invited me to volunteer with the Belfast Festival at Queen’s University in 1981. Neither of us imagined then that a career-long involvement would be the result.

Jan Branch – Producer/Arts Consultant

After 11 years teaching and volunteering with the festival, I considered making the transition to full-time festival work. I needed experience in events and programming, so I wangled a year’s sabbatical, producing a large-scale Halloween event for Belfast City Council. 

Basing myself in the Old Museum Arts Centre under the management of all-round arts guru Jan Branch, I was exposed to a frantic year of events, funding crises, the management of a listed building, all in the centre of a city still struggling with the impacts and challenges of The Troubles. 

Jan was my first professional female role model; I gleaned so much from her. Apart from her administrative genius and dogged problem-solving, she taught me never to underestimate the importance of keeping up a confident appearance, with the value of a well-cut jacket, or the impact of big earrings and a slick of lippy to transition from daywear to evening.  

Jan took me to Dublin for some serious clothes shopping prior to my going to London with the Belfast Festival and Guinness NI to receive a national sponsorship award from Princess Diana, in one of her final public engagements. I still have the suit. 

Robert Agnew – Director, Belfast Festival at Queen’s

Robert had left a secure job in industry to follow his passion for the arts which, to me who constantly worried about money, seemed remarkable. Urbane and conscientious, Robert blossomed during the festival fortnight when he was highly visible in a red cashmere scarf, visiting multiple venues nightly, greeting artists and staff, treating everyone to drinks and checking, checking, checking that all was running smoothly.  

From him I learned that it’s all in the detail – a million opportunities for error which meticulous planning can mostly mitigate. In the days of long lunches with sponsors, Robert showed me how to speak to the profitmaking sector and how to negotiate a good deal. He could both tell and sell a story to inspire support, loyalty and to promote the work of the festival. 

Peter Williams – President (and former Chair), Canterbury Festival

Peter chaired my interview for the role of Canterbury Festival Director. Most memorable (apart from his bristling eyebrows) was his journalistic questioning. “What, exactly, do you mean by that?” created a vacuum into which this nervous candidate rushed headlong. It’s a tactic I often employ to this day. 

When Peter rang to offer me the job, I braced myself to decline it – an unexpected opportunity has arisen to accompany my musical director husband on a year-long world tour. Peter wasn’t accepting that. Within an hour, he had arranged for the previous Festival Director (Mark Deller) to hold the post for a further year, allowing me to go on tour with an exciting new job waiting for my return.  

Peter taught me that it was possible (occasionally) to have it all. So, I seldom take no for an answer but use it as an invitation to find yet another creative solution.