Brian Ferguson: Festival wake-up call from Glasgow 2014

The Commonwealth games reached the '500 days to go' point yesterday. Picture: Robert Perry
The Commonwealth games reached the '500 days to go' point yesterday. Picture: Robert Perry
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THERE will be two big – but very different – beasts competing for the headlines, column space and that all-important social media traffic in the next few days.

But in their own ways they will set the tone for Scotland’s cultural landscape over the next 18 months.

The annual hoopla around the capital’s summer festivals always seems to begin when the wraps come off the Edinburgh International Festival programme.

It can be quite a jolt suddenly trying to envisage what you might be doing in the middle of August on the dates when many high-profile shows are being staged. I won’t be the only one with a furrowed brow and diary in hand on Tuesday evening.

At some point over the next year-and-a-half, there will be a handover from festival director Jonathan Mills of the organisational baton. Officially, it won’t be until after the last firework is fired in early September 2014. But under the timetable set out by the festival last year, as it triggered the recruitment process for his successor, he or she is intended to be firmly in place by this August.

Although the new director will not be expected to start working on the event full-time until October 2014, it still seems a pretty lengthy run-in. It is certainly a lot longer than that afforded to Mr Mills, who started full-time seven months after his appointment.

A key factor, I’m sure, will be the huge amount of behind-the-scenes planning for what will be a Commonwealth-themed EIF next year, with the jewel in the capital’s cultural crown getting under way just five days after the Games’ closing ceremony in Glasgow.

The, thus far, impressive marketing campaign for Glasgow 2014 has cranked up a few gears in recent weeks – the deadline for volunteers prompting more than 50,000 applications, the reaching of the “500 days to go” point yesterday and today’s unveiling of the international route for the Queen’s baton relay.

As with the London Olympics, the EIF appears to regard the Commonwealth Games as a huge opportunity, rather than a threat. It’s hard to disagree. As with the UK-wide 2012 Cultural Olympiad, both the Games, and the 2014 Year of Homecoming which will accompany the EIF, will offer significant additional public funding pots to be tapped into. And I’ve no doubt Mr Mills will rise to the challenge for his swansong.

But I can’t help thinking it is the wider cultural implications of the Commonwealth Games that will hold the real intrigue, particularly for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Glasgow has admirably lofty artistic ambitions for 2014. Hopes are high that the Commonwealth Games will put the city on the international map like no other event since its European Capital of Culture reign in 1990.

You don’t have to look far for plenty of quotes from council leader Gordon Matheson that Glasgow already now is “Scotland’s cultural capital”. And I can’t be the only one to notice Glasgow 2014 now being openly promoted as Scotland’s “biggest ever sporting and cultural event”.

Around £4 million has been set aside for a dedicated cultural programme around Glasgow 2014. A key focus will be a city-wide extravaganza during the Games which organisers say will see the equivalent of the Edinburgh Festival burst on to the streets of the city.

The dates clash between the Fringe and the Commonwealth Games is not as significant as the one with the Olympics, which badly affected the first two weeks of Fringe shows in 2012, but it is still there. There will be five days of previews and early Fringe shows before the Commonwealth Games wraps up, but ticket sales rely on media coverage, a lack of competing attractions, and punters with money in their pockets.

Not only will the Fringe have Glasgow’s cultural programme to contend with, but it is likely many of those Glaswegians who normally head east will have to plenty to occupy themselves on home turf. More significantly, much of the Fringe’s key audience, who live in Edinburgh, will be heading west during the school holidays before and during a festival they know will be there the following year.

If all of the above doesn’t act as a wake-up call to the Fringe, after a difficult summer up against the Olympics last year, I don’t know what will.