ELVIS Presley never performed in the UK, let alone in south Wales, so why Porthcawl ended up hosting an annual celebration of the King of Rock ’n’ Roll is one of the area’s more intriguing questions.

Since the first event in 2014, the Porthcawl Elvis Festival has put the seaside town on the map, drawing thousands of people – many of whom arrive in fancy dress – for a weekend of music, shows and parties dedicated to Presley.

And after last year’s event was cancelled, thanks to the pandemic, this year’s comeback festival is a big deal.

“It’s ridiculous, really,” festival organiser Peter Phillips told The National this week. “You couldn’t think of a more ridiculous place for an Elvis festival than Porthcawl.”

What is today the crown jewel in the resort’s calendar started out almost by accident, when there were rumours locally that Porthcawl’s Grand Pavilion events hall was threatened with closure.

“The concern in the town was if the venue closed as an art venue, it would only be one further step to [losing it altogether],” Peter said. “At the time I was talking to the then-manager, and she asked if I wanted to have a tour of the place. I was wandering around talking to her, and she asked if I had any ideas for shows.”

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As a matter of fact, Peter – who had some experience organising events and contests – did have an idea, one he pitched as “the Grammys for Elvis tribute acts”. His suggestion went down well, and after securing the support of the Brentwood Hotel and the Hi-Tide Inn, as well as the interest of a film crew, Peter and his colleagues launched the first edition late that September – a last hurrah for Porthcawl’s traditional summer season.

Compared with more recent editions, that first festival was a small event, but the organisers still managed to bring in big names: Charles Stone, who was once Presley’s tour producer found out about the Porthcawl show and brought over with him internationally-renowned tribute performer Kraig Parker, while country performer Linda Gail Lewis – the sister of Jerry Lee Lewis – also performed at that inaugural festival, the main event of which was, and continues to be, the Elvies award show.

“It grew from there, quite quickly, and suddenly we’re running the biggest festival in Europe – which is what the press release said, and it wasn’t disingenuous because it was the only Elvis festival in Europe in those days,” Peter said. “More and more venues in Porthcawl got behind it and it grew from there. It wasn’t some sort of well thought through plan, put it that way. It sort of happened by accident.”

The festival continued to grow in stature and earned a reputation among international Elvis fans as a must-see event, drawing visitors not just from the rest of the British Isles but from much further afield: Peter has met festival-goers from Malta, Finland, Germany, Canada and the USA; and there is even a continental version of the festival that takes place annually in Benidorm.

The National Wales: Elvis tribute performer Darren Graceland Jones. Picture: Chris Cook (courtesy of the festival)Elvis tribute performer Darren Graceland Jones. Picture: Chris Cook (courtesy of the festival)

The bulk of attendees in Porthcawl are from Wales, and it wasn’t until the festival had established itself over several years that Peter learned of the hugely-popular day trips that were being made every September by communities around the nation. “I didn’t realise – I was chatting to somebody in a pub somewhere who said it was like an institution,” he said. “Everyone puts on a day trip to go the festival.”

Not bad for a nation that has no obvious connection to Elvis, though Peter is keen to point out that one academic has suggested there may be genealogical ties between the name Presley and the Preseli Hills.

Porthcawl is now preparing for this year’s comeback edition and the benefits it is set to bring – pre-coronavirus, the festival welcomed 40,000 visitors and injected an estimated £5m into the local economy, Peter said. But while spirits are high in anticipation of the upcoming festival on September 24-26, Peter has criticised the “Orwellian” Covid risk assessments that have to be completed, and is all too aware that not every Presley fan will be ready to attend big events.

The National Wales: Elvis fans in Porthcawl. Picture: Juliet Eden (Courtesy of the festival)Elvis fans in Porthcawl. Picture: Juliet Eden (Courtesy of the festival)

“I think people are apprehensively excited,” he said. “There are a lot of people who just want to go and party. They’ve been cooped up for ages and want to have a party. On the other hand there are people who say they’re nervous about going out.”

He added: “We’ve been lucky this year that it’s late enough in the year for us to go ahead. I think it’ll take a year to get back, I think it will be busy but it will be next year that it gets back up to speed.”

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