David McLean: Why I'm done with the Edinburgh Fringe

As the sun sets on yet another record-breaking Edinburgh Festival Fringe, perhaps it's time to consider a little reduction surgery to save it from itself.

All the recent chatter about expanding the Fringe beyond its current slack boundaries concerns me. If anything, we should be looking to shorten the leash on this ever-famished beast.

I used to adore the Fringe, and still do in many respects. I am also highly aware of all the many benefits it brings.

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But, as the years roll on, the buzz, colour and vibrancy it generates becomes harder and harder to detect through the thick fug of commercialisation and obnoxiously large crowds.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe saw another record-breaking year. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe saw another record-breaking year. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

For the first time in years, I stayed away.

The party atmosphere the organisers strive to achieve every year may exist in the minds of the visitors who knowingly expect chaos before they arrive, but, for many residents, it’s beginning to feel more like an annual occupation.

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We know a different Edinburgh, a majestic city unburdened by the indignity of placing fairground wheels adjacent to its most prized civic monuments.

Latest Fringe figures, meanwhile, reveal that almost a million more people booked shows this August than this time a decade ago. Records are being broken every year.

From one perspective, this is great news, but the reality is this unbridled growth merely diminishes the experience for guest and host alike.

Yet Edinburgh seemingly isn’t concerned by this; profits, after all, are growing too. Opposition voices are drowned out by the persistent slapping of backs and the unwavering faith of those who believe the Fringe can do no wrong.

Fringe organisers are becoming increasingly obsessive about ensuring that this year’s festival be bigger than the last, as if maintaining the long-held ‘world’s biggest arts festival’ title can guarantee quality alone.

A notable elephant, or should that be heifer, in the room here is Underbelly. Since the events firm planted down its hooves in the early 2000s, the Fringe’s character has shifted considerably.

What deserves to be a world-class alternative arts fest is slowly being churned into a homogenised, cog-driven carnival that primarily serves to maximise gate receipts above all else.

If the Fringe cannot be tamed in size, perhaps we should consider reducing its run-time. Three-and-a-bit weeks is an awfully long time to be loaning out your city centre.

But that wouldn’t aid the great paradox, as touched upon by Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy, who pointed out that ever-inflating accommodation costs mean the bread-and-butter Fringe acts, the “life force” behind the 71-year-old stramash, are increasingly being priced out during August. She, quite rightly, considers that a more serious threat to the future of the Fringe than Brexit.

Even those who are supposedly in charge of Edinburgh cannot control the machine, as illustrated perfectly a couple of weeks back when council leader Adam McVey made an embarrassingly unsuccessful attempt to have a wall of black, vista-blocking barriers removed from Princes Street. While the Summer Sessions concerts they were erected for were not part of the Fringe, McVey’s climb-down was of K2 proportions; the coda here being that the tail is well and truly wagging the dog.

The annual commercial takeover of central Edinburgh is wearing thin. The Fringe needs to take a long look in the mirror before it becomes irreconcilable with its own original philosophy.