Rick Wakeman: Grumpy and happy!

Four Norfolk villages, four quaint churches – not the places you would expect to find celebrities performing for little more than a cup of tea. And all organised by a man best known for being grumpy. TOM SMITHARD meets Rick Wakeman as he puts the finishing touches to his festival.

Rick Wakeman is a busy man. Later this month his band are playing their first small-scale gig in years, at Norwich's Waterfront, then headlining a festival in Norway and, later this summer, another in Canada.

Following massive success in TV show Grumpy Old Men, the 57-year-old is regularly booked to “moan” at corporate events - and is currently writing Rick Wakeman: Grumpy Old Rockstar which will lift the lid on countless anecdotes from his long career.

But before all of that there is the little matter of staging his second 4 Churches Festival, in which a series of his celebrity friends will be brought into Scole, Brockdish, Billingford and Thorpe Abbotts to raise money for the church buildings.

Running from May 7 to 11 it features big names such as Nicholas Parsons and his Just a Minute crew; Dad's Army and Eastenders star Ian Lavender; musicians Don Maclean, Paul Field and Gordon Giltrap; and magicians John Lenahan and Steve Rawlings.

“Originally, last year was going to be a one-off, but we need to raise money for these buildings every year and running this festival is a lot of fun,” Rick said.

“Church buildings are not just for worship, they pin together whole communities. So many villages have lost their pubs, shops and, scandalously, now their post offices. Churches are some of the only community buildings left and need to be preserved.”

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All of the line-up are, once again, mates of the Norfolk-based music experimentalist, who said he “pulls every flanker under the sun” to help get the star names to the villages on the Norfolk Suffolk border - returning the favour for events they run.

“The people who I got last year were treated so well by the audiences and had such a good time that it was easy for me then, speaking to people I wanted this year, to tell them to give last year's guests a ring,” he said.

“Gordon is one hell of a good guitar player and Don and Paul are coming back by popular demand. I think Steve and John will be the night people who don't go will wish they had. They're unique. I've seen Steve countless times and would still pay to see him again.

“Just a Minute sold out the day tickets were released. It will be a cracking night, as will Ian Lavender, who's such an interesting character and has some great stories to tell.

“I've tried to pick nights and people who you'd get what you expect from them but also a lot more. All will be fun nights, all will be a mixture of music and proper laughter, not just polite laughter.”

Since moving to Norfolk a few years ago with the idea of slowing down, Rick has gone from one challenge to another.

“I thought coming here I'd quieten down but I was wrong,” he said. “The great thing about getting older is you get to diversify. Roundabout the late 40s people gave up pigeonholing me and let me do what I want. If 20 years ago I said I wanted to do a television show, radio show and classical music people would have laughed. Now I'm even organising my own festival.”

Rick has become a well-known celebrity face around south Norfolk and is regularly called upon for civic duties such as Christmas lights switch-ons, joining a rota that includes actors Martin Shaw, Bernard Hill and Helen Fraser, author Louis de Bernieres and newsreader Stewart White.

Those who bump into Rick around the local shops cannot fail to be impressed by his lack of pretentiousness, his strapping height - and his steady stream of anecdotes on the rich and famous.

He is a strong supporter of the Tory party, regularly meets David Cameron (though was unavailable when Cameron toured Diss last week) and helped teach William Hague to play the piano after he was trounced in the 2001 general election.

Following three failed marriages - and six children - Rick now shares his Norfolk home with 32-year-old health writer Rachel Kaufman.

“Every day is different these days,” he said.

“Since I stopped doing the long touring, less than 20pc of what I do now is music-related. But I'm being kept really busy - and I'm loving it!”

More details on the 4 Churches Festival events and tickets are available by calling 01379 668875, 07810 032025 or e-mailing fourchurches@btinternet.com

t Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble play The Waterfront in Norwich on May 16, tickets £25, available on 01603 508050 or www.ueaticketbookings.co.uk