Assembly Rooms shake-up heralds new festival era

The Assembly Rooms at the height of the Festival today. Picture: Ian Rutherford

The Assembly Rooms at the height of the Festival today. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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IT HAS been one of the most popular fixtures at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe since the first performers took to the stage there three-and-a-half decades ago.

Lenny Henry, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rik Mayall, Ben Elton, Jack Dee, Julian Clary and Lee Evans were among those to make their names at the Assembly Rooms.

A couple do the twist in the ballroom in 1963

A couple do the twist in the ballroom in 1963

But a comprehensive shake-up is on the cards for the George Street site under plans by Edinburgh City Council to take over the running of the venue during the summer festivals period. Rather than allow a single operator to block-book the building for the Fringe, it will be made available to a host of different festival organisers, promoters and producers.

The local authority is issuing an open call for proposals after deciding to make the building a “blank canvas” for the next five years, admitting that its previous approach was too restrictive.

Scotland on Sunday has learned that it would consider proposals for it to be used by the Edinburgh International Festival, the book festival, and the jazz and blues festival.

Senior councillors say they want to “maximise the opportunities” from the building, even though it is already used each summer for comedy, music, theatre and cabaret events.

Thompson presenting Fringe First awards in 1990. Picture: Alan MacDonald

Thompson presenting Fringe First awards in 1990. Picture: Alan MacDonald

Management at the venue say they will make it available to event organisers who do not want to take on the whole building or embark on a full run, but have “new ideas and cutting-edge thinking”.

They have set a deadline of early September for proposals covering the entire “summer festival period” rather than just the three-week Fringe run.

The surprise move follows a one-year extension to a controversial tender agreed with the operators of The Stand comedy club, which saw Assembly Festival, the long-time promoter of Fringe shows, ousted from the venue in 2012 after it underwent a major revamp.

The shake-up coincides with the founder of The Stand, Tommy Sheppard, taking a step back from programming and promotion since he was elected as an MP in May. However, the council says it has not discouraged his company Salt ’n’ Sauce Promotions – which also stages shows at nearby St Andrew Square – from bringing forward new ideas.

Lenny Henry in Edinburgh in 1985. Picture: TSPL

Lenny Henry in Edinburgh in 1985. Picture: TSPL

Built at a cost of £6,300, which was funded by a public subscription, the Assembly Rooms dates back to 1787, when it hosted the Caledonian Hunt Ball. It has since played host to writers like Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Seamus Heaney and JK Rowling.

In 1981, promoter William Burdett-Coutts tried to hire a room for a Fringe act and was offered the whole building. His programme eventually became responsible for a fifth of all Fringe ticket sales and expanded into the home of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on The Mound.

However, he fell out badly with the council over its £9.3 million revamp, warning that plans for a year-round fine-dining restaurant would damage the Fringe operation because of the loss of a lucrative “club bar”. Sheppard won permission to operate a large open-air bar outside to help bankroll his Fringe programme, but faced opposition from local businesses.

Shona Clelland, general manager of the Assembly Rooms, said: “We’re really ­saying to the market: ‘These are the spaces, this is the building, you come to us with ideas.’

“I do think there will be a lot of interest from all sorts of quarters. What we need to ensure is there are events that draw people to this side of the city.”

Richard Lewis, the council’s culture leader, said: “We want to maximise the opportunities for this enviously positioned building during the summer festivals.”

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