Jude Kelly on leaving the Southbank Centre, her dream WOW Fest guest why women can't be passive about pay

Susannah Butter
Matt Writtle

When Jude Kelly was appointed artistic director of Southbank Centre, she drew a picture of what she thought it should look like.

“I’m not a great artist,” she says. “But I think about what I’m doing by drawing; I drew gardens and fountains and markets.”

That was in 2006. Now, 12 years later, those plans have become a reality. And Kelly, having overseen them, is leaving to work full-time on the festival she set up there, Women of the World (WOW).

This weekend marks WOW’s eighth year. It started with a picture plan too — and has spread across the world, with 49 festivals in 23 countries. Highlights of this year’s include the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in conversation with journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Carrie Gracie speaking about her experience with pay at the BBC.

Kelly, 63, started thinking about working full-time on WOW in the summer. “It wasn’t exactly because of Harvey Weinstein but the combination of all the #MeToo activity was a trigger, and the gender pay gap discussions that have now burst forward. People started ringing me saying they want a WOW here, there and everywhere. The Southbank has been amazing, but I like new challenges.” She’s just come back from Russia and Australia, where she was discussing putting on WOW festivals there.

As well as expanding WOW, Kelly has just contributed to a report about pay called What Women Want, which was launched yesterday in the House of Lords. When Kelly started her career, working as a theatre director, she says: “For years I never wondered what men were getting, it was more ‘what is Equity’s directorial level of pay?’ Then, as a head of companies, I’ve accepted what they’ve offered. The whole BBC revelation is a huge shock to lots of women. It has made women realise that being passive on pay is going to produce poor results.

“Women are taught not to be pushy about things, including money, and we need to tackle that. Being a nice girl heads you straight into a cul de sac. And the financial sector has not thought about women as customers properly. If you leave work for maternity purposes or hold your career at a particular place because you need more flexitime, you are not investing in your pension and so women end up far poorer than men. I want women to understand their pension rights.”

She compares discussions about money to speaking out about periods and the menopause. But does she ever baulk at how many articles there are online about periods, holding forth on everything from bowel movements to sex? Are there drawbacks to reducing feminism to talk of bodily functions? She laughs. “When you’ve not been allowed to talk about something and then you are, there is an outburst of maverick behaviour, which might feel overwhelming but it will calm down again.”

Jude Kelly with Salma Hayek at a screening of animated feature film

Growing up in Liverpool (where she was taught by John Lennon’s old headmaster), Kelly discussed feminism “more with my dad than my mum”. He fought in the air force, then joined the civil service and believed his daughters “could do anything”. Her mother left school at 15 and was a secretary. Kelly and her sisters were the first in their family to go to university. Her sister Barbara now runs a recruitment business, while Trisha is in Doctor Who with the “great” Jodie Whittaker. Her youngest sister, Caroline, died of multiple sclerosis when she was 30.

Kelly’s daughter is also called Caroline. She’s 30 and a poet. Her son Robbie is a choreographer, aged 27. She is separated from their father, writer Michael Bird. “He’s supportive and we are great friends — I could not have done everything I did unless he was prepared to believe in me.”

She adds: “I knew I wanted children. I’d seen a lot of women who didn’t have them because they felt they had to make a choice between that and their careers, and sometimes that was a source of sadness.

“It was really hard but that doesn’t ever mean don’t do it. I’m glad I did. Just get on with it. You get there through higgledy-piggledy life and a lot of mess. I brought my babies to the office and breastfed at work. OK, I was the artistic director but me doing it made it easier for other women to do the same.”

Caroline came out at 13. “She was brought up in a household where we talked about the right to self-determine so she felt she was supported and had the permission to be gay.” For Robbie, there was a disconnect between home and school. “There were values and belief systems he wanted to be part of at home but then he had the pressure at school of fighting in the playground to be a boy. He was quite a boyish boy and there is little support for the idea that boys can show their feelings.”

To complement WOW, Southbank Centre puts on the Being a Man festival, which Kelly plans to continue to support. “A gender-equal world is also about what that means for boys, and boys get little support in thinking about that. Some men are baffled as to how to be appropriate, some feel threatened [by feminism] and some are delighted but feel silenced by others who ridicule them. Ridicule is a big weapon against all of us. And people who are frightened when things move too quickly, try to pull them back.”

This is all compounded by social media. “People extend their personality there and sharpen their pencils and attitudes to make sure they are given voice time. I’ll always remember asking the Standard’s art critic Brian Sewell if he needed to be that vituperative and he said he had to pay his mortgage.”

What about the risk that a festival about women’s rights is too niche? “Do you mean it’s earnest? You can be serious and committed without losing a sense of fun and happiness. WOW covers everything, there’s rock-climbing, the politics of afro hair. People can learn about things they would never have thought they’d hear about.”

She started the day at a breakfast for Women in Music. “It was packed with female composers from across the spectrum of classical to grime. Thirty-seven music festivals have said they are going to have gender equal line-ups. Some people are making changes because there’s pressure on them, some out of excitement. You can bring in as much legislation as you like but what changes hearts and minds is when society says it wants things to look different.” We saw it recently on Twitter, when a picture of a festival line-up was circulated with all the male artists on the advert crossed out, leaving just three women. “People suddenly look incredibly behind the times — woe betide a contemporary music festival that looks old fashioned.”

The headhunters are drawing up job descriptions to find Kelly’s replacement as we speak. “The board has encouraged me to have a good leaving do. Not expensive but good. It’s been a happy time and it will be happy going forward.”

Before she launched WOW she “anticipated more hairy moments than I’ve had”. “I worried that people would feel that a woman in a senior position using that position to discuss women would lead to hostility but that didn’t happen — it might have been the timing of it.”

She’s taking some staff with her from the Southbank and is looking for office space and financial backers. Who would be on her dream WOW line-up? “Michelle Obama.” Is there anyone who wouldn’t be welcome, a Trump perhaps? “I don’t believe in controversy for the sake of it.”

One of her last jobs at Southbank will be directing Leonard Bernstein’s theatre piece for singers and dancers, MASS, next month. She is also directing a radio play in June about Indigo children — “they have special needs but are thought of like angels and their parents don’t give them treatment”.

Directing is consistent with her overarching mission. “Humans change through stories and it depends what stories you tell about whom and for whom. I’m interested in propelling forward the idea of a human story as a different set of rights and ideas.”

WOW runs at Southbank Centre until Sunday, supported by Bloomberg, southbankcentre.co.uk