Under the eye of Major General Euan Loudon, the iconic Edinburgh Tattoo reaches 60
Some mishaps warrant a wry smile, others are disasters so monumental that all you can do is laugh in their face.
There's less than a week to go until the diamond jubilee Edinburgh Tattoo gets under way and Major General Euan Loudon is rocking backwards and forwards in his chair in a very unmilitary fashion, chortling at the litany of cock-ups and misunderstandings to have punctuated his tenure as the chief executive and producer of the world's most venerable and successful gathering of massed military bands.
Some, such as the two bemused young Aussie girls who had knocked on the door marked "tattoo" the previous day and found themselves asking the suited and booted officer-type whether he could help remove a troublesome nose-ring, are amusingly incongruous. So, too, is the time Loudon travelled to Tonga and was picked up from the airport by the charming King George Tupou V in a black London cab and treated to a liquid lunch that consisted of a pint of lager. The recent hosting of a Chinese delegation in the primate room at Edinburgh Zoo, which was interrupted when a posse of rowdy chimps bared their behinds at the assembled dignitaries, also deserves a mention in dispatches.
But Loudon's most vivid memory of the trials of running the Tattoo is of last year's visit to Australia, where the event was held outside of Scotland for only the third time. It was the first occasion on which Loudon had staged the event away from Edinburgh, and manoeuvres were all proceeding to plan until he got a knock on his door one morning.
"I'll never forget that day," said Loudon, the former governor of Edinburgh Castle who ensures that the Tattoo continues to be run with military precision. "It was April Fool's Day 2009 and someone walked into my office and said, 'I'm afraid the castle has burnt down'. We had brought people from all over the world to perform in front of a 1m replica of Edinburgh Castle at the Sydney Cricket Ground and we'd sold 100,000 tickets. My face must have been a picture.
"Then I looked at my calendar and twigged because I could see what day it was. I just said: 'Yeah? Okay!' But then they said, 'No, the castle really has burnt down'. It turned out that we'd stored it in the Fox movie studios in Sydney, which had gone up in flames, taking the replica castle with it."
Fortunately, the fire happened sufficiently far in advance of the event for Londoner Viv Taylor, the film-set designer who had created the castle when the Tattoo first travelled to Australia in 2005, to be quickly flown halfway around the world and given six months to recreate his earlier masterpiece. "The show went on, of course, and was a huge success," says Loudon matter of factly. But then the man who describes himself as a "part-time Perthshire hobby farmer and full-time luvvie" radiates the certainty of someone who is clearly not used to failure.
What stopped the Tattoo's high heidyin in his tracks down under was the realisation of just how popular and well-regarded the event is in many far-flung corners of the globe. To many ex-pat Scots and members of the diaspora, it is the quintessential expression of Scottishness, an event so rich in symbolism that it has an almost mystical Caledonian quality.
"My mum comes from Edinburgh and my grandparents lived in Edinburgh, so as a boy, as far back as I can remember, I would come to the Tattoo," says Loudon. "I can remember being here holding my grandpa's hand, getting a skelf in my bottom from turning around too quickly when sitting on the wooden bleachers. Coming to the Tattoo was a normal part of life for me, something I enjoyed but maybe took for granted because it was always there.
"Taking the Tattoo down to Australia really shook my preconceptions and made me think about it in a different way. In Sydney I remember meeting the premier of New South Wales just before the press conference in March last year, and he looked me in the eye and said 'this is going to be like having the grand prix in Sydney'.
I thought 'that's a really kind thing for you to say' because it meant I was going to walk away from that press conference feeling proud. But as he continued to talk to me about the Tattoo, it became apparent that he meant it. And given the event at Sydney Cricket Ground, with sold-out hotels and 100,000 people through the door over four nights, I think he had a point. By the time we left Australia our DVD had gone platinum and was at the top of the Australian charts, outselling Metallica and Madonna."
But most of all, it was a meeting in New Zealand that really encapsulated the degree to which he is the protector of an iconic cultural happening. "One of the most moving moments of my life was when I went on to New Zealand from Australia and met some pipers who are coming over to perform in the Tattoo," says Loudon.
"I asked one of them whether he was looking forward to coming to the Tattoo, and he just welled up. 'I've waited all my life to walk over the drawbridge to that castle' he said, and there were tears rolling down his face. He was in his late seventies and it just meant so much to him. We've become a piping mecca, and I thought then how far we'd come from such modest beginnings 60 years ago."
Loudon is certainly right about the Tattoo's humble beginnings. In 1950, post-war Scotland was on its knees. Rationing was still in full swing and Harold Macmillan's "you've never had it so good" speech was seven long years away. Back then, the age of austerity had an intensity that, even in our relatively straitened circumstances, we could barely begin to comprehend. Despite the inauguration of the Edinburgh Festival in 1947 with a brief to "provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit" the good folk of Edinburgh were not, to put it mildly, all that chipper.
It was into this gloomy background that the Tattoo arrived in 1950. Looking back, says Loudon, the Tattoo was lucky that one of the men enlisted to help plan the inaugural eight-band event was the director of Glyndebourne Opera, Rudolf Bing. Along with the technical expertise of Captain Forbes Taylor, a professional film director who introduced overseas performers and produced the 1952 format on which subsequent Tattoos have been based, Bing brought a flamboyance and expertise to the Tattoo which quickly established it as a major event.
In the early years, in the wake of the Second World War, the Commonwealth connections created through adversity were incredibly strong and helped ensure the event's success. Yet the Tattoo's enduring appeal - all 217,000 tickets were sold out months ago and this year there will once again be long queues from 7am each morning for returns, while the international TV audience continues to increase exponentially in the most surprising areas of the world, such as China and India - is no longer due to bonds forged under fire 65 years ago.
Loudon believes that the Tattoo's appeal (which sees 30 per cent of the tickets go to Scots, 35 per cent go to the rest of the UK and 35 per cent go to overseas visitors) lies in the iconic setting on the Castle Esplanade, the appeal of massed pipes and drums, and the increasingly exotic international acts. Last year saw 130 peasant musicians from Xian in China; Poland are represented for the first time this year alongside musicians from New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, the US, Switzerland, Nepal and Jordan; next year the Brazilian Marines are coming to play, the first musicians from South America to attend.
Most of all, he believes, it's the way in which the performance is structured to act as a rollercoaster of musical sensations that ends with the poignant and emotional finale of the lone piper. "The show is designed to take you on a journey and you'd have to be quite hard-hearted not to be moved by the emotional timbre of that climax with the lone piper," says Loudon, whose love of pipes doesn't extend to playing them (he sheepishly admits to being a guitar player).
If Loudon's job is to laud the Tattoo as a showcase for Scottish culture, particularly as the surplus of up to 500,000 a year goes to hard-pressed services benevolent charities, it comes as a mild surprise to find that most other people in Edinburgh seem to share his views. That even extends to Simon Bolam, the head of the Ramsay Gardens residents association, whose flat is "no more than five or six yards" from the stand.
"The Tattoo is an institution and all the residents knew that it would be on each year when we moved in," he says, "so we can hardly complain. We've been here for 25 years and like all the residents we know the script so well that if the commentator fell under a bus we could easily stand in. You do get used to it and we can even sleep quite happily through most of it, except for the Scotland the Brave firework, which goes off with quite a bang two-thirds of the way through. It's still infinitely better than when Rod Stewart played here though."
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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