Brian Ferguson: Only one show in town at film festival’s 70th birthday

Jason Connery during the filming of "Tommy's Honour". Picture: Leon McGowran

Jason Connery during the filming of "Tommy's Honour". Picture: Leon McGowran

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You would be forgiven for not realising this, but 15 June will herald the start of events to mark the 70th birthday of Edinburgh’s festivals. But when the red carpet is rolled outside the Festival Theatre there will be only one show in town.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival’s opening gala will see Sir Sean Connery’s son Jason unveil his eagerly-awaited golfing drama Tommy’s Honour, a rare world premiere for the festival curtain-raiser. If ever there was an occasion to lure Sir Sean back from the Bahamas for the first time in years this should be it.

The film festival has, somewhat admirably, elected to jump the gun, not once but twice, with its birthday celebrations – ahead of both the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe. Remarkably, all three events began in 1947, in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Like most other significant Scottish events reaching major landmarks – like Celtic Connections, T in the Park and this summer’s St Magnus Festival in Orkney – the EIFF has chosen to celebrate the edition rather than the anniversary. But its friendly rivals are keeping their powder dry for the official 70th anniversary in 2017, when extra funding has been pledged by the city council and the Scottish Government.

Of course, a gung-ho, go-it-alone approach from the film festival is not entirely new.

It is almost a decade since it sprang a major surprise and decided to detach itself from the other festivals in favour of a slot two months earlier. At the time it was seen as a bold, but divisive move. There appeared plenty of solid reasoning behind the decision, but there was also the inescapable feeling that Edinburgh in August would be a poorer place without it.

The film festival did not have an easy time of it in the aftermath of the dates shift – a decision taken by new artistic director Hannah McGill, long-time managing director Ginnie Atkinson and her board shortly after the event’s hugely successful 60th edition.

McGill, Atkinson and Iain Smith, the chair of the board, were all gone by 2010 – just two years after the festival moved in the calendar. Sir Sean, showing obvious signs of his age during his appearances at the festival, also bid farewell that year when he stood down as patron.

I will not dwell on what followed. Suffice to say its international reputation suffered badly as senior staff and board members came and went, it lost crucial funding, audience numbers dwindled and it missed out on a number of high-profile Scottish films. It also had to watch Glasgow Film Festival win plaudits from critics and increase its audiences. But under the stewardship of new artistic director Mark Adams, in his post for just over a year, there have been notable signs of not only recovery, but of renewal.

After the EIFF previously lost out on premieres of Filth, Under The Skin, We Need To Talk About Kevin, The Railway Man and Sunshine on Leith, it was significant how many Scottish films made it into last year’s line-up. With Tommy’s Honour opening his second festival and the world premiere of another big new Scottish film, Whisky Galore, bringing the event to an end, Mr Adams has made his intentions clear. Full houses for those events and a gala screening of the Steven Spielberg sci-fi classic ET accompanied by the RSNO, have sparked that crucial early EIFF buzz.

If the rest of the 70th programme, due out later this month, lives up to the early billing, the EIFF will have good reason to get the bubbly 
on ice.

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