CELEBRITY guests have been a staple of the Borders Book Festival since its launch in 2004.

Clearly, festival founder Alistair Moffat has no shortage of impressive contacts to draw upon.

Yet some readers might be surprised to learn the identities of the pair he would most like to see in Melrose.

“Ant and Dec,” blurts Moffat, 69, without a moment’s hesitation.

Describing the Geordie duo as “great guys”, he says: “I’ve been trying to persuade them and they know I’ll never give up – and they’ll crumble one day.”

This year, though, there will not be a famous face in sight within the walled gardens of Harmony House.

With coronavirus restrictions putting paid to any chance of a physical gathering, the showcase – which was originally planned for this weekend – is set to take a virtual form.

Beginning on July 12, authors will star in events available for streaming from the festival website.

Moffat is still in the middle of booking guests, but he has already snapped up some well-known figures, as ever.

“In a way, it’s easier for people,” he says, “because all they have to do is sit in front of their laptop camera – they don’t have to come to Melrose.”

It’s now looking more likely than not that Moffat and his fellow directors will triumph over the obstacles posed by COVID-19.

But back in March, when the virus began to take hold in Britain, a sense of despondency hung over the group.

“We were absolutely heartbroken, because virtually all of our work had been done by then,” says Moffat.

As it became clearer that a physical event would not be possible, Moffat and his colleagues realigned their ambitions and channelled their energies into simply making sure that the festival would survive.

To Moffat’s relief, the idea of an online version found favour with sponsors and the Friends of the Festival.

“Only three people wanted their money back and what’s amazing is we had a tsunami of supportive emails from the public,” says Moffat, calling the response “very moving”.

Everyone will be able to watch the streamed events without paying a penny, says Moffat, with viewers merely invited to make a donation if they can afford it.

“Some festivals have charged for these things, but we don’t think that’s right,” says Kelso-born Moffat, himself an author of more than 30 books.

“We’ll invite people to donate if they wish, but these are hard times – people need to put food on the table.”

Notwithstanding his delight at being able to run the festival this year, despite the difficult conditions, Moffat is already looking forward to the return of a physical format.

“There’s nothing like being in the same place as Melvyn Bragg or Joanna Lumley or Gordon Brown and being able to ask them questions,” says Moffat.

The appeal of the Borders Book Festival, according to its founder, lies in the event’s “sociability”.

“The famous people are not all herded off into a sealed container – they’re there to talk to you,” says Moffat.

“People who are extremely well-known, that all peels away and we’ll see them standing chatting.”

Which brings us neatly to comedy twosome Ant and Dec, the showbiz stars whose presence Moffat so dearly craves.

“What people would see from Ant and Dec is just something completely different,” he says, admiringly, having known the TV personalities for many years.

The pair have a book coming out this year, according to Moffat – so perhaps his dream might yet come true.

Full details of the virtual events, set to run for 12 weeks, will be published at: www.bordersbookfestival.org