FIVE years ago, the village hall committee in Wootton, near Woodstock, was having a meeting when the discussion turned to the question of fundraising to repair the run-down centre.
Among the blizzard of ideas, somebody suggested putting on a few talks – identifying speakers through both local contacts and those further afield.
At best, the committee thought back in October 2008 that the project might last for a few months – but it has exceeded everyone’s expectations.
No one expected the idea would touch such a nerve, but organisers are about to celebrate its fifth birthday next month, when their 55th speaker will be Lord Blair, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner.
Speakers are arranged by journalist Andy Morgan, but he stresses the events are a team effort, with 10 people looking after the website, bookings, technical equipment, photography, food and drinks, backdrop design and posters.
“The team is still amazed at how many well-known people agree to come and speak for nothing, often travelling from London,” said Mr Morgan.
“Sometimes, they sell and sign books supplied by the Woodstock Bookshop, but their generosity is always acknowledged with a couple of bottles of fine wine.
“Humorous speakers always go down well – Bill Turnbull, the BBC Breakfast presenter, who was a natural stand-up comedian; Tricia Stewart, one of the original Calendar Girls, had the hall in stitches; and David Rooney, from the Royal Observatory, somehow made the story of time hilarious.”
Audiences average about 120, with regulars coming from as far away as Rugby and London, as well as from across Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
Henry Porter, the novelist and journalist, came to speak and wrote in The Observer that the talks, held on Friday evenings, seemed to cater for the growing thirst for live events, away from the TV screen. Villagers welcomed him by constructing a mini-Berlin Wall as a backdrop to his talk about his latest spy novel.
So far, the project has raised more than £30,000 to upgrade Wootton’s 1920s timber village hall, with work including a new kitchen and toilets, as well as new lighting.
Cedar shingles were put on the roof to replace the ancient green corrugated iron and a new front path has just been completed, while the hall floor has been sanded and varnished to a dazzling gleam.
By any standards, the list of people speaking in Wootton is impressive. It includes Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman, former Chancellor Geoffrey Howe, renowned architecture expert Lucinda Lambton, Esther Rantzen, Prue Leith and Craig Ogden, the leading classical guitarist, who played and talked about his life as a professional musician.
Jon Snow, the Channel Four broadcaster, was forced to pull out twice when he was sent to cover the Haiti earthquake and the Cairo uprising.
But he kept his word and finally made it to talk to a packed hall.
Other speakers have included Robert Hardy, the actor; Mark Damazer, former Controller of BBC Radio 4 and now Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford; Laurence Rees, the Second World War documentary-maker; and John Lloyd, the comedy producer of Blackadder and Spitting Image, along with John Mitchinson, his fellow QI creator. Their talk was filmed and has had over 8,000 hits on YouTube.
Gerry Anderson, creator of Thunderbirds, also made a rare public appearance, bringing along some of the original puppets, before his death last year.
Speakers have also come from Wootton itself – talking about subjects such as lute-making, third world diseases, the blues and botanical art – and also talking to full houses.
Simon Heighes, a BBC Radio 3 broadcaster and Wootton resident, spoke about Christmas music and is also found dispensing wine and good cheer as a part of the talks team.
Entry to the talks has always cost £6 and there is free food after the talk, which encourages people to stay and chat with both the speaker and each other.
“It’s very much a social evening.”, added Mr Morgan.
“Some speakers have even suggested the atmosphere is like a party, with a talk attached.”
There are now 430 people on the Wootton Talks group email list who receive information on events, and Mr Morgan believes this is a key factor behind the project’s success – along with the generosity of speakers.
“The talks’ success is a product of the internet age,” Mr Morgan said.
“Alerting people to a village event — and for them to be able to book with a simple click — is one of the reasons that the evenings are now usually sold out.”
Four years ago, demand for a talk by Danish conservationist Lone Droscher Nielsen, speaking about her Indonesian orangutan sanctuary, was so great that she spoke on consecutive nights. Her talk will again be packed when she returns in November.
The hall will also be full in January when Paddy Ashdown is due to speak about the Cockleshell Heroes, the legendary raid on German shipping during the war.
Over the past five years, the format has appealed to many other speakers.
Clive Aslet, former editor of Country Life, spoke about the villages of Britain, while Paul Smith, from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, detailed the global work of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership.
Marek Kukula, public astronomer at the Royal Observatory, made the trek from London to talk about galaxies and Robin Lane Fox, the Financial Times’ gardening writer and Oxford ancient history don, gave a peerless performance for over an hour without consulting any notes.