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The Edinburgh Festival Must be Saved from Edinburgh

The Naked City – How the Edinburgh Festival is too important to be left to Edinburgh.

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The Edinburgh Festival Theatre on Nicholson St. has been around in one form or another since 1830. It’s auditorium is an exotic collision of art nouveaux and neo-classicism. Colin Ross’s bold glass exterior, added in 1994, turns the theatre into an event in itself, revealing the crowds swimming around inside like exotic fish in a giant tank.
When it is illuminated, that is. But this year, every time I have passed the Edinburgh Festival Theatre on my way to shows at the Edinburgh Festival, it has been dark. The lights seem have gone out. There have been performances there – seven of them – but you really wouldn’t know there was a festival going on at all.
It’s the same across Edinburgh. We’re always told that this is the biggest arts festival in the world – but Edinburgh goes to remarkable lengths to conceal it. The Ross Bandstand in Princess St. Gardens is dead and sad despite the best summer weather Edinburgh has enjoyed in years. Princess St is decked out as usual by cheap shops and sale signs. There are no flags, no celebrations, nothing to remind you that – right here, right now – you are in the greatest concentration of cultural capital on the planet.
They have a name for this kind of civic salesmanship in the marketing world. It’s called “dressing the city”. Well if so, Edinburgh should be called the naked city – it certainly hasn’t put its glad rags on. Even the Royal Mile, which used to be a mayhem of street theatre seems constrained to a confined pedestrianised space. Indeed, were it not for the Military Tattoo on the Castle Esplanade, which booms and bangs every night, you could be in any provincial city at the end of the holiday season.
The lack of any obvious sense celebration of the Edinburgh Festivals – or even recognition of their existence – is an acute frustration for the Fringe venue producers, who mount the vast majority of the shows running in Edinburgh in August. These are the arts-entrepreneurs like Bill Burdett-Coutts, of the longest-established independent venue, the Assembly Rooms; Ed Bartlam, of the upstart Underbelly; Julian Caddy of Sweet, the newest and smallest of the venues. They all tell the same story: Edinburgh is complacent, apathetic, ignorant of the value of its Festival.
The City doesn’t support it with adequate infrastructure, transport or promotion, despite increasing the cost of theatre licences this year by 300%. The arts Establishment in Edinburgh, I’m told, is riddled with amateurism and complacency, and sometimes behaves as if the Festival is its own private club, which they would really rather not spoil by letting new members in the door. As for the Scottish Executive and Holyrood – they might as well be on a different planet.
Granted, the Fringe venue producers aren’t the only “stake holders” in the Edinburgh Festivals, and they aren’t above criticism themselves. They have been steadily allowing ticket prices to rise year on year, and the venues take in around seventy five million pounds in the space of three weeks. Organisations like the Pleasance are big commercial enterprises, with rich backers, who perhaps could be recycling a little more revenue into promoting themselves.
Last week, they formed a new association of independent venue producers to get theri act together. But the big four – Gilded Balloon, the Pleasance, Assembly Rooms and Underbelly – have been responsible for the phenomenal growth of the Festival in recent years and they really have to be listened to. Anyway, you only have to look around Edinburgh to see what they mean. It’s like being at a party where there is no host, and where the guests are left to amble around looking for the action until they get bored.
Now, I grew up in Edinburgh and one of the main reasons I wanted to return in 1999 was the Edinburgh Festival, which still has no parallel anywhere, and remains one of the cultural wonders of the world. But I am increasingly perplexed at the crazy way this unique cultural asset is being managed. Something is missing; it is slipping away.
You feel that Edinburgh is like an over-inflated balloon, puffed up by its own pretensions, and about to be pricked by sharp newcomers from the North of England, like Manchester and Liverpool. Festivals who want a piece of Edinburgh’s cultural action and know exactly how to go about it. The Manchester International Festival has offered the outgoing director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Brian McMaster, a place on its board.
Edinburgh is awash with statistics at this time of year. But here’s the important one: Liverpool is spending more promoting its “spend a day in Liverpool” campaign than the entire annual promotion budget of the Edinburgh Fringe.
Some other numbers: Taking all the Festivals together (film, fringe, official, jazz etc..) there were 2.4 million attendances in Edinburgh in 2004. This year, there could be around three million bums on Edinburgh seats. That’s a colossal attendance, matched only by events like the Olympic Games – and it is every single year. Yet who outside the arts promotion world actually knows this, let alone appreciates its significance? Precious few in Edinburgh, let alone Glasgow or London.
More numbers: London is spending pounds12 billion on the 2012 Olympics. The Scottish Executive is prepared to spend at least pounds 200 million on the 2014 Commonwealth Games. But the Edinburgh Fringe, the Olympics of the arts world, selling 1.4 million tickets, gets a grand total of – wait for it = pounds 64,000. That is simply absurd. It is an act of cultural self-mutilation.
It sometimes appears as if city is actually embarrassed by its Festivals. That like its celebrated absence of knickers, Edinburgh would prefer to conceal them behind a genteel exterior. The bulk of the Fringe is hidden in in subterranean caves in the Cowgate, in the sandstone fortress of the Pleasance, or behind the concrete blocks of Edinburgh University.
This absence of celebration would be more understandable if the people of Edinburgh were hostile to the arts community that descend on the city to pay their inflated rents, but they aren’t. Incredibly, the majority of tickets for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – around six hundred thousand of them – are sold in Scotland, predominantly around Edinburgh and the Lothians. The days when Edinburgh folk grumbled about there being “nothing for us” in the Festival are long gone. Imaginative promotions, like the two-for-one deals have created a huge domestic market.
However, this is a mixed blessing. The big venue promoters all complain that the Edinburgh Festival is in danger of becoming parochial. It is not attracting the punters from London and beyond that it needs if it is to maintain its pre-eminent world status. The performers still come, but the metropolitan critics are losing interest, and if they stop coming, so will the acts.
The Independent commentator, and playwright, Johan Hari, says that “if you can’t afford a ticket to the world, a ticket to Edinburgh is the next best thing”. Perhaps – but the world isn’t coming back. And the newer generation is going taking its tickets elsewhere. The Edinburgh Festival is becoming middle aged. Even at the youngest and most lively mega-venue, the Underbelly, the majority of tickets are bought by people over forty years of age.
There is a lot of slack too. This year, the Fringe venues say that they are only filling, on average, around fifty percent of their seats. Many come, but more are needed. The writing is on the wall, and it says: “Thundering Hooves”. That’s the title of a report published in May, part-sponsored by Edinburgh City Council, which warned in the starkest terms that the Edinburgh Festival’s days could be numbered, This is because of the number of rival arts festivals galloping behind. But if so – and nobody disputed the report’s findings – why is Edinburgh lying back and waiting to be trampled?
It’s easy to attack Edinburgh City Council – and in many ways that is unfair. The council is no longer filled with prudes and philistines complaining about nudity and bad language. Councillors nowadays are right behind the Festival – as they should be given the hundred and twenty million it generates for the local economy – and say they are prepared to put a million pounds into keeping Edinburgh ahead of the race.
But the municipal commitment is belied by unbelievable acts of bureaucratic pettiness. Example: There have been repeated appeals this year to the city authorities to make space available for a camp site so that people who can’t afford to blow #500 on a long weekend in the city can take part in the Festival. This might put Edinburgh on the UK festival circuit and open up a new market. Individual councillors I have spoken to believe it is an idea worth looking at, but the official line is that Edinburgh isn’t in the business of camp sites – except for one off events like the G8 last year, when it accommodated some fifteen thousand people around the Jack Kane Centre. But why not? Twice as many come to the Festival every year as came to G8.
The council has rejected the idea of a tent city on the Meadows, which is fair enough. It is a World Heritage Site. However, I simply cannot believe that it is beyond the wit of Edinburgh’s city fathers to organise a bit of green space. Similarly with transport. You can’t get back to Glasgow after half eleven, which makes attending late shows impossible for people who can’t afford the high prices of staying over. Why not special trains to take the pressure off accommodation and give Glasgow a stake in the Festival?
Indeed, why not go one step further and get the West of Scotland properly involved in the Edinburgh Festival? Too many people still believe that Edinburgh is only about orchestras and obscure foreign language dramas. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is challenging material at the Edinburgh International Festival, which which is as it should be, but there is a huge amount of highly accessible art like Ron Mueck’s incredible shrinking sculptures. Every comedian worth knowing about comes to Edinburgh. Plays like the sensational “Black Watch” by the new National Theatre of Scotland echo the epic productions staged in Glasgow in the 1980s by Bill Bryden, and match the production values of the West End of London at a fraction of the price.
The point is that the Edinburgh Festival is now too big for Edinburgh – it needs to be embraced by Scotland as a whole, both politically and economically. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is not like subsidised theatre. This is a consumer-led phenomenon, unique in the British arts sector, indeed in the world – 1,867 separate productions over 231 venues No one curates the Fringe, no one tells it what to do, which means you can get everything from “Puppetry of the Penis” to “Midsummer Night’s Dream” under the same roof. You get shows as diverse as the hip hop musical, “Into the Hoods” round the corner from “My Name is Rachel Corrie” – a sobering play about eath in Palestine.
What the Edinburgh Festival needs isn’t artisitc direction and it isn’t even really about money. It is a huge attraction requiring elementary infrastructure. What is required is essentially an information exercise – a project in mass communication. Everything is there, it just needs to be broadcast, to Scotland, Britain and the world. “T in the Park” is better promoted than the Edinburgh Festival, especially in Glasgow where the Festival is regarded as something for the Edinburgh cultural establishment
This isn’t just a tourist attraction, or an opportunity for student thespians to express themselves – it is a window into the way the world sees itself. Created sixty years ago as a means of reviving war-torn Europe through artistic endeavour, the Edinburgh Festival represents one of the great achievements of European civilisation. From the writers who flock to the Edinburgh Book Festival in Charlotte Square, to the stand up comedians in the Cowgate, all human life really is there. But it may not be for very much longer.

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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