She was a multi-Grammy winner, star of one of the most famous films of the 1970s and one of the biggest-selling artists of the 20th century. But one of the lesser-known accolades of Olivia Newton-John, who died this week, was that she was patron of a Norfolk arts festival. ROWAN MANTELL reports

Olivia Newton John was just 16 and a virtually unknown singer-songwriter when she appeared on an Australian television show – directed by Norfolk man John Kirkbride.

She went on to worldwide fame, including a starring role in Grease, while John and his family returned to Norfolk.

But decades later Olivia remembered the man who gave her that first television break and immediately agreed to become a patron of Norfolk’s Hostry Festival, co-founded by his son Stash.

Eastern Daily Press: Stash KirkbrideStash Kirkbride (Image: Stash Kirkbride)

Stash Kirkbride said: “My father played a part in giving Olivia Newton-John her first television break.

“He was the director of a show featuring unknown artists, called Boomeride.

"She sat on a stool and did a song with a guitar. The show went on to be sold around the world.”

Mr Kirkbride, co-founder and artistic director of the Hostry Festival, paid tribute to the star, and festival patron, who died this week aged 73.

“On behalf of us all at the Hostry Festival, it was such sad news to hear about Olivia's passing away.

“To have had her support by being a patron of the festival since 2016, has meant so much to us.

“On a personal note, my communications with her during this time have always been so encouraging, and she even filmed a piece to camera to wish us all success on reaching our 10th anniversary last year.

Eastern Daily Press: Olivia Newton-John during a visit to the Oncology department at Addembrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, in 2009Olivia Newton-John during a visit to the Oncology department at Addembrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, in 2009 (Image: PA Archive/PA Images)

“She was very supportive in whatever way she could be, considering she and I never met personally. Her memories of working with my father on his ground-breaking show obviously meant a lot to her.

“My late father's ability to place an artist on a simple stool on stage, with very little production fuss surrounding them, was precisely what he did with Olivia.

“Fast forward 40 years, and this is what we do at the festival. We always look to showcase artists from Norfolk in a simple effective way, so that their true talent can be celebrated.”

Soon after Stash was born the Kirkbride family moved from Australia to settle in Norfolk. Although he is always known as Stash, his actual name is Stanislas. “I was named after a Russian submarine captain who came and docked his submarine at my parents’ oyster restaurant in Perth, Australia, in 1966,” he explained. (John Kirkbride was a restaurateur and artist as well as a television producer.)

John died when Stash was just 15. Stash went on to train as an actor and also worked as a theatre producer before launching the Hostry Festival, with friends Rebecca Chapman and Peter Barrow, in 2010.

Looking for a venue to stage a play, Stash fell in love with the new Hostry building at Norwich Cathedral.

He secured permission to produce a play and a concert. The Hostry Festival has gone on to commission more than 100 projects and host more than 200 events.

Mr Kirkbride recruited several famous patrons, as well as Olivia Newton-John, including Melvyn Bragg, Hayley Mills and Susan Hampshire. “I have never just been an actor. I have never just been able to do one thing. It seems to be my destiny to bring good people together,” he said.

He has sent his condolences to Newton-John’s family – along with a new recording of a song he wrote for his late mother in 2006 as a way of expressing his grief.

Eastern Daily Press: Stash at the pianoStash at the piano (Image: Hostry Festival)

“Olivia had a voice that to this day has inspired me. Her phrasing is uniquely clear, without being too clever. It simply is. On her songs Hopelessly Devoted To You and Suddenly with Cliff Richard, it’s all there to hear; pure vocal clarity and expression," said Mr Kirkbride.

“Her more recent recordings showed her development into a whole new area of songs. her spiritual journey was showing in what she chose to record. I admire her determination and belief in life, she will remain an example, on so many levels to so many, the world over.”

This year’s Hostry Festival gala launch night is on September 7 and the festival itself runs from October 21 to November 6, with a programme of drama, music, conversation and celebrities, showcasing internationally-known names alongside local people and its Total Ensemble inclusive theatre company.