Brian Ferguson: Regime change vital if Mela is to survive

Edinburgh Mela. Picture: Toby Williams
Edinburgh Mela. Picture: Toby Williams
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Picking out a highlight from the six-week Edinburgh festivals season is never an easy task, such is the quality on offer across the multitude of events. But the combination of joy, colour, excitement and visual spectacle created by the Bollywood sequence at the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo was hard to beat last August.

I was lucky enough to be present at Edinburgh Castle esplanade for the curtain-raising performance of Bollywood Love Story, a project that took more than year to bring to fruition and saw a team of dance processionals from India work with 35 local dancers. And on the last day of the festival I was in the standing-room only crowd when an extended version of the show was staged under a big top at the city’s Mela.

Not only was this the first ever collaboration between the Tattoo and the Mela but it also struck me as the most impressive project developed in partnership by any two of the city’s signature events.

The undoubted success of Bollywood Love Story and the crowds thronging Leith Links over the final weekend of August were distant memories last week when it emerged the Mela had been plunged into a full-blown crisis by the sudden resignation of its director.

Chris Purnell did not pull any punches with his searing criticisms of the Mela’s board, his revelations about a “total breakdown of trust” behind the scenes and stark warnings that the event is on “the brink of catastrophe”.

Reading between the lines in his resignation letter, what seems to have provoked him to quit in such a public way was, as he described it, a “preposterous” suggestion that he is responsible for a funding crisis engulfing the event.

It was obvious last week that both Edinburgh City Council and Creative Scotland, who have put funding offers on hold, have serious concerns over how the Mela is being governed.

Mr Purnell has questioned the highly unusual length of time some of those board members had served – two for 20 years, another two for 17, four others for seven years or more. And he could not have been clearer as to where he believes the blame lies. He wrote: “Everything we have achieved is being put at risk and potentially destroyed by the behaviour of a few.”

Mr Purnell is not the first senior Edinburgh festivals figure to fall out with their board and he is unlikely to be the last. In the last decade alone, the Fringe saw the departure of one director after a disastrous box office failure, while the Film Festival has almost had a revolving door over the same period.

Both events reached pretty close to the edge of the abyss, where the Mela seems to be swiftly heading in the wake of Mr Purnell’s departure.

It was obvious from various conversations I had last week that shifting the current Mela board will be no easy task, despite the criticisms fired in their direction.

Finding a successor for Mr Purnell will be an uphill task – particularly when there is no guarantee the 21-year-old event will have any kind of budget. Creative Scotland and Edinburgh City Council now have the unenviable job of deciding whether to pull the plug unless there is a significant major shake-up of the Mela board.

The unseemly state of affairs is certainly not the kind of challenge Julia Amour, the new director of Festivals Edinburgh, was looking for in her in-tray in her first few months.

No-one in the city would wish to see the Mela be drastically reduced or axed this summer. But unless there is genuine regime change those appear to be the prospects facing the event.