Sir Chris Hoy kick-starts Edinburgh’s Christmas

His heroics brought Scotland’s capital to a standstill when he was honoured with the freedom of Edinburgh a year ago.

Sir Chris Hoy will switch on Edinburgh's Christmas lights. Picture: Neil Hanna
Sir Chris Hoy will switch on Edinburgh's Christmas lights. Picture: Neil Hanna

Now Olympic hero Sir Chris Hoy is take centre stage in his home city again after being asked to kick-start Edinburgh’s festive celebrations.

The record-breaking cyclist has agreed to appear at the climax of a huge new street carnival on George Street, when he will switch on the city’s Christmas lights before almost 20,000 people.

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The event is at the centre of efforts to revive the capital’s festive programme following growing concerns it had turned stale and key attractions were not of good enough quality in recent years.

Up to 1000 performers will appear across 11 stages at the new Sunday afternoon event, which is being staged as part of “seriously re-imagined” programme spearheaded by Edinburgh Festival Fringe promoters Underbelly. Schools, community groups and arts organisations will be urged to stage shows based around the theme of the 12 days of Christmas.

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Sir Chris will appear outside the Assembly Rooms, where he was given the rare honour by the city council last year, to switch on the lights before a fireworks display above the thoroughfare.

The London-based company and Edinburgh firm Unique Events were awarded a long-term contract to organise the capital’s Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations earlier this year, with Underbelly taking the lead on the Christmas element of the programme and Unique masterminding Hogmanay for the 21st year in a row.

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The whole of George Street used to host a “night afore” street theatre fiesta in the run-up to Hogmanay before falling victim to funding problems. The move to close off the street for the opening event on 24 November follows a well-received experiment to divert traffic away from the street to make way for Fringe venues and expanded space for cafes, bars and restaurants during the Fringe.

The new producers are bringing in a spiegeltent venue, a Scottish food and drink market, a 60-metre tall “Star Flyer” ride to St Andrew Square for the duration of the festive season. A new London Eye-style wheel, with enclosed “pods”, will be introduced on Princes Street.

Other new features include an eight-hour St Andrew’s Day concert and ceilidh celebration in the Grassmarket, which Unique Events will be programming.

The programme will also see the return of Underbelly’s Fringe hit of this summer, Hot Dub Time Machine, which will be staged at the Summerhall arts centre and a new international circus-cabaret show, Limbo, which Underbelly brought to London’s South Bank this summer, and was visited by Madonna one night.

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However plans to relocate the city’s iconic ice rink from Princes Street Gardens to George Street this year have been shelved in favour of a scaled-back attraction next to the Scott Monument, with a Christmas tree maze being set up on the rink’s traditional site in the gardens instead.

Underbelly director Charlie Wood said the aim of this year’s rethink was to create a “metropolitan” festival to rival festive celebrations anywhere in the world.

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He told The Scotsman: “I don’t really want to speak about previous years, but from this point on we want to make Edinburgh’s Christmas something that people can really proud of and making the city look really good.

“The Light Night event is really exciting. Along with moving into St Andrew Square and putting on performances in the Spiegeltent, it is right at the heart of what we’re trying to do this Christmas.

“The whole event is being totally re-worked and re-imagined from previous years. It’s still about turning on the lights, but we’re taking it away from being a spectator event to give people the chance to actually create the performance themselves. We already have 20 schools and 40 community groups signed up.

“The last time an event of this scale was staged on George Street was when Unique used to organise the ‘night afore’ carnivals before Hogmanay. They used to have a capacity of around 18,000 and that’s what we’re looking at for our Light Night event.

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“St Andrew Square has only really been used for the odd carol concert or nativity service in previous years, but will be turning it into a full arena, including a 635-seater Spiegeltent - much bigger than the one that was on George Street in the summer.

“Limbo is an absolutely sensational circus extravaganza, perfect for the kind of metropolitan audience we are looking to attract, which has been selling out in London for the last six months. We have got loads of stuff for families in the programme, but there’s a whole other audience who don’t to go and see a show about Christmas or a pantomime.”

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Pete Irvine, director of Unique Events, who lost the contract to run the Christmas events several years ago, said: “I’ve personally felt that over the last few years that they’ve not really been going anywhere forward. It’s been pretty much as we left it. That’s about to change.”

The city council puts £1.3 million into the six-week programme of events, now believed to be worth well over £30 million for the economy.

Steve Cardownie, the city council’s festivals and events champion, said he was looking forward to the city’s Christmas programme “for the first time in a long time” because of the new elements this year.

He added: “One of the purposes for going out to tender was to ensure it would all be refreshed and people would come up with new ideas.”