Tim Cornwell: Edinburgh’s festivals send out right message

EDINBURGH festivals seemed in rude health this month, as the Edinburgh International Film Festival got under way and the Fringe and book festival unveiled their August offering.

EDINBURGH festivals seemed in rude health this month, as the Edinburgh International Film Festival got under way and the Fringe and book festival unveiled their August offering.

We hear constantly of ticket sales or tourist draws, the hundreds of authors or shows or comedians, the amount of public funding, the economic impact on the city or the country it is said to generate.

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Set aside the bean-counting. The Fringe, the film festival, the book festival, all have decades of history behind them. But after two weeks of mid-summer launches amid torrential rains, there’s a strong impression this summer that Edinburgh is reviving and reinvigorating, refreshing its festival offerings.

Comedy boss Nica Burns was on the phone this week, talking up the prospects of this year’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards at the Fringe, which she has run for three decades. She’s singing the praises of Fosters sponsorship, not just for her event this year but for the So You Think You’re Funny contest, rewarding and encouraging new talent.

The message from Burns, London theatre owner and veteran producer, is that the Fringe’s response to the Olympics, under chief executive Kath Mainland, has paid off. A new policy on advance ticket sales, with some festival shows on sale as early as January, encouraged people to plan early for Edinburgh.

More than 500 comedy shows are in contention for her awards, a record. But a driving force behind this boom, she says, is the Free Fringe, championed by the likes of Peter Buckley-Hill, with low charges and venues where people can just turn up and try their hand without bankrupting themselves.

There are 814 free shows at the Fringe this year, up from less than 200 in 2006. It’s that section that has accounted for the continuous, almost unstoppable rise in the number of Fringe shows. They account for close to half those in the running for Burns’s awards, she says. The Free Fringe is a natural bed for comedy, because its low-tech is ideal for single comedians rather than major stage shows.

The major professional venues are vital to the Fringe ecology and are turning out some interesting work this year. But the Free Fringe has reinjected a spirit of anarchy into the event, says Burns, where a person can pack a suitcase and head for Edinburgh without mortgaging their house to do it.

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There are good signs too at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The programme from director Nick Barley packs a good punch; it just feels alive this year, with a children’s section that’s sprightly and funny. Ian McEwan interviewed by Alex Salmond? You can question it for taste but not for entertainment value. Zadie Smith with her first new novel since 2007, Wilbur Smith with his African adventurers. From disco king Nile Rodgers, producer of Le Freak, to Barley’s personal favourite, American author David Van, or historian Anthony Beevor, Charlotte Square’s going to be alive with conversation, taking on politics and literature together.

The red carpet events at the film festival this year have returned with a certain surreal sense of déja vu. On Wednesday night a small and familiar band of sartorially-challenged Scottish entertainment journalists gathered to see the stars come out in a rainy June. American actress Gina Gershon, the scheming stepmother of the film Killer Joe, with a respectable B-list resume stretching back 20 years, was the only screen siren in sight. The Cannes of the North? Not quite.

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Edinburgh banned red carpets last year; a bit draconian, because they do still drum up excitement. But the festival’s director Chris Fujiwara, the most interesting interview of the night, summed up his approach: there’s a weight of history attached to the film festival, which boasts of being the longest-running in the world, and in the 1970s and 80s was a serious player.

There may be hemming and hawing over Fujiwara’s programme this year: a cinefile’s delight, a journey into difference, it will inevitably face a big test in ticket sales after last year’s slump. But as he puts it: in a changed world where Edinburgh’s festivals jostle for room with rivals all over the world, his festival has to distinguish itself, with a commitment to film and to “stand for something, or nobody will care”. That’s going to take a bit of time, but it’s the right message. All of Edinburgh’s festivals are looking to stand for something this year, with the promise of something new in the air.

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