Jonathan Mills: Our festivals are envy of the world – enjoy them
The credit crunch and some roadworks are not about to put a damper on Edinburgh's annual cultural party.
EDINBURGH hosts an event the size of the Commonwealth Games every year. Let's celebrate that success. I have admired Edinburgh's success as a festival city from afar, for many years – it is the standard for festival directors throughout the world. When I was appointed Festival director two years ago, and had the opportunity to see at close hand what makes this great event successful, my admiration grew even further.
The secret of Edinburgh's abiding success lies in devising and presenting great events that people will travel across the world to see – whether classical music or jazz, theatre or stand-up comedy, literature and ideas in Charlotte Square or the Military Tattoo at the castle. Edinburgh's genius resides in the passionate, optimistic belief that anything is possible – because, over the past 60 years-plus, this city has made the impossible, improbable and downright crazy happen, every year without fail. The people who make it all happen are not just Festival organisers, but the city council, Scottish businesses, the audiences and, yes, even the media.
On Tuesday, this newspaper knitted a disparate set of circumstances into a potential disaster scenario for this year's Festival season. The credit crunch, a few roadworks and a much-needed renovation of the Usher Hall, combined with problems in implementing highly complex new technology into the Fringe box-office system, were translated into dire warnings about the future of this great event. While it is easy to grab a headline by accentuating the negative, it's a scenario none of us involved in the festivals recognise.
So, let's put a few things into perspective. The credit crunch is not something over which we have direct control, but our festivals certainly help to mitigate its effects – people are still flocking to the city, and it is almost impossible to find good-quality accommodation in August. Occupancy figures for hotels are already at a level most cities can only dream of. The Tattoo has sold out. Ticket sales for the Edinburgh International Festival and Book Festival are ahead of last year, and the Mela! is putting on its largest and most ambitious programme. The Film Festival, which moved to June, had a fantastic year at the box office and attracted record numbers of industry delegates. Despite the ticketing problems, performances at the Fringe will go ahead as planned, and customers will get into shows. All other festivals' box offices are at full capacity, with web sales higher than ever.
How does this compare with other festivals and events in other parts of the world? Such is the scale and diversity of what happens in Edinburgh in summer that one must look to large-scale sporting events such as a Rugby World Cup rather than another artistic venture for a proper comparison for anything like the economic impact Edinburgh's festivals make. Between them, they issue some two million tickets, many more than most large sporting fixtures – and for a fraction of the cost.
As for the roadworks and renovation of the Usher Hall, it is impractical to suggest any city could ever close down solely for a festival. That would defeat the purpose. We do not live in Disneyland and our festivals are richer for the reality of the daily life that surrounds them. Edinburgh is such a perfect city in which to host a festival because of its scale and natural beauty, as well as its diversity of architectural offerings. It is not a sterile theme park to be closed for renovations or the installation of another ride or side-show, and should never be. Indeed, we should be far more critical of a city that does not invest in its future. Singapore is covered in construction sites and roadworks – and signs that state proudly "temporary inconvenience for long-term benefit". We all know Edinburgh must invest in its infrastructure – the oft-quoted "Thundering Hooves" report on maintaining the competitive advantage of Edinburgh's festivals made that abundantly clear.
The council's approach to the renovation of the Usher Hall demonstrates flexibility in delivering difficult projects that emphasise its commitment to Edinburgh as a true festival city. The auditorium – which is, after all, the most important thing of all – is in pristine condition for three weeks of exceptional music-making from the world's greatest orchestras and soloists.
As for roadworks, the advice is the same as any year: if you can, leave your car behind, give yourselves plenty of time, and enjoy walking around and discovering the riches of this great city – it is by far the best way to experience the Festival.
There is so much to enjoy. The Book Festival involves more than 800 authors from 45 different countries. The International Festival is bringing 2,360 artists from cultures as diverse as Lebanon, Bosnia, Russia and Israel, while the Fringe statistics are as amazing as ever. The Jazz Festival is in full swing, the Mela! has expanded from three to seven days in its new location at Ocean Terminal and the Art Festival has established itself as a firm favourite.
We know we cannot be complacent about this success, and everyone involved in the festivals is working ever more closely to ensure we continue to prosper. Investment is critical, but so is a pride in what we have achieved and continue to develop.
As a newcomer to this city, I assure you of how lucky the rest of the world thinks you are to have your summer festivals. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is also proof of an enviable civic asset. Let's rejoice in the fact that Edinburgh is the world's leading festival city, revel in the extraordinary offerings about to resonate among us – and enjoy our festivals to the full.
• Jonathan Mills is the director of the Edinburgh International Festival.
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