With 180 acts - from musician Billy Bragg to physician and comedian Dr Phil Hammond - the organisation of the annual Frome Festival is a tall order. MARION SAUVEBOIS meets the man charged with making sure it all goes to plan

FROME Festival is a story of two Martins.

Martin the First, better known as actor and former mayor Martin Bax, dreamed of a cultural bonanza. With two theatres, more halls and ‘music pubs’ than he could shake a stick at, the groundwork was already laid out for an arts festival; all the thesp had to do was fill them. By 2001, he had rounded up no fewer than 50 acts, comedians, troupes, actors, authors and artists for the inaugural Frome Festival.

When his successor, Martin the Second, aka creative director Martin Dimery took up the mantle in 2008 the arts extravaganza had grown into a town fixture, treating thousands of revellers each year to a packed bill of 150-odd events from performances by the likes of Van Morrison and stand-up gigs to free community workshops, open studios, low-key productions by local amateur dramatics and intimate sessions with up-and-comings bands.

But the artistic director has not rested on his forbear's laurels, lazily heeding a well-honed formula. In fact, the reigning Martin has spent the past eight years booking new acts, securing big names such as Dr Phil Hammond, who will headline the 15th annual festival this summer, to raise the event's profile while keeping a healthy balance of newcomers and home-grown talent.

Under his lead, the event has blossomed into a real contender on the summer festival scene. It has been hailed as the largest (and longest) community arts fest in the South West with a mind-boggling 180 shows and activities spread across 10 days.

"I was asked to step in and they’ve retained my services for eight years so it’s a good sign," laughs Martin, who splits his time between organising the festival - a year-long task- and his role as programme manager of Frome's non-profit venue The Cheese and Grain.

"Frome is remarkably well served with venues – not by design but more by accident - and to some extent it’s determined the kind of town it’s become. But 180 events, it is a big challenge. We ensure we incorporate something suitable for everyone, including children, and that we appeal to people across the board. And we have made sure to have a lot of free events. We have a very dedicated audience and we sit in the festival season quite nicely.”

This year the bar remains as high as ever and the team have cooked up a fun-filled calendar with top-brass headliners Billy Bragg, The Jam's Bruce Foxton, chart-topping rock band Reef, and James Brown's legendary saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis. Amsterdam folk group Snow Apple, who were virtual unknowns when Martin gave them a chance two years ago, will also make an anticipated return.

“They’ve increased their status and now they play in America. It’s great to take a chance on a new band and watch them go on to bigger things. Discovering people is something that happens rarely and now they keep coming back. It’s easy to focus on the big names but that’s what we’re about too.”

Drawing diamonds in the making to the confines of Somerset is all well and good but Martin is not losing sight of the festival’s core tenet.

“It’s a community event at heart,” he insists.

As such town troupes and orchestras will be duly represented between July 1 and 10.

Frome Drama Club will unveil a new production of bittersweet comedy The Private Ear by Sir Peter Shaffer while Frome Symphony has planned an eclectic programme of Russian and Polish suites.

The open studio and Hidden Garden trails will run alongside the main festival as will the popular Food Feast.

As in previous years little ones will get to potter about, get the creative juices flow and burn off pent-up energy with a special children's festival.

Visitors will also be invited to take part in a variety of free or cut-cost workshops each day, from yoga and meditation to vintage hair and makeup.

And for the first time, Martin, a performer in his own right, will cross the line between crew and 'talent' to mark the 400th anniversary of the bard's death with his show Shakespeare Rattle and Roll. The humorous production reimagines the playwright’s songs and verse in the styles of Elvis, Buddy Holly and The Beatles.

Claiming his share of the limelight and potentially exposing himself to scrutiny was not a decision he took lightly.

"Throwing yourself in the limelight you’re asking for trouble," he chuckles. “I did it with great fear that nobody would want to come and see it but it’s selling quite well. If you’re the director of a festival and you give yourself a headlining slot on the busiest night people start asking questions. But it's on a Tuesday so that's fine.”

Again this year, 12,000 residents and visitors from Wiltshire, Somerset and beyond are expected to attend the festival – quite a coup for a town with a population of just 26,000.

Running such a huge undertaking has had its advantages, namely offering small bands a platform to grow, but with recognition comes responsibility (not least juggling artists' special demands or request for gluten-free snacks) and astronomical costs.

A single high-profile act can set the team back £16,000 and the bill usually adds up to a sobering £50,000 each year. Except for a £10,000 grant from the town council, the festival is funded through ticket sales.

Thankfully for the festival's harried accountant further expansion in not on the cards. There would be virtually nowhere else to put on shows or book events.

"I think we’ve reached the optimum size," he adds. "There is not much more room to grow. When people take it for granted, then it will be time to look at changing and making it more exciting. But for now we've reached a point where we have a formula that works and we're not under any pressure to change or reinvent ourselves. That's a nice place to be."

The 2016 Frome Festival runs between July 1 and 10. To book tickets or for a full line-up visit www.fromefestival.co.uk. Alternatively call the box office on 01373 455420.