Edinburgh's August festivals, including the Fringe and the Tattoo, pull the plug

Edinburgh’s main August festivals today confirmed they were cancelling their 2020 programmes due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Edinburgh's summer festivals have attracted a combined audience of more than 4.4 million in recent years. Picture: Ryan Buchanan

A collective decision over the events, which date back to 1947, has been taken following crisis talks in recent days with the city council and the Scottish Government.

The Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe, the Tattoo, and the city’s art and book festivals all pulled the plug after abandoning all hope of being able to go ahead this year.

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Huge uncertainly over when lockdown restrictions would be lifted and concerns over the safety of audiences, performers, festival staff and local residents were all cited in the joint announcement, which was made four months ahead of when the first shows which were due to get underway.

The main festivals have agreed to focus all their efforts on a full-scale revival in 2021 after being assured that £10 million of public funding for the events remains intact.

The collective decision will be a huge blow to Edinburgh’s economy as the events – which have featured around 25,000 performers from more than 70 countries in recent years – are worth more than £300 million to the city.

The annual August events, which attracted a combined audience of 4.4 million last year, are second only in scale to the Olympic Games. This year’s sporting extravaganza, which was due to go ahead in Tokyo this summer, has already been delayed to 2021.

The majority of the 220,000 available tickets for the Tattoo, which has never had to cancel a single performance since the event was launched in 1950, had been snapped up after going on sale in December in advance, while nearly 500 Fringe shows were already on sale.

Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy said: “It’s heart-breaking that the Fringe and our sister August festivals will not take place as planned this summer. However, having taken advice and considered all the options, we

collectively believe this is the only appropriate response.

“Our thoughts today are with the doctors, nurses, health and social care professionals on the front line, as well as all those affected by this dreadful pandemic.

“Our sympathies too are with the thousands of artists and participants directly affected by today’s decision – we will do everything we can to support you over the coming months.”

An email to Fringe venue managers announcing the cancellation of the event said: “The decision was not ours alone nor was it taken lightly, but due to the present circumstances it was unavoidable.

“The safety of venue staff, artists and audiences must be our top priority.

“These are very unprecedented and difficult times for our industry and we are doing everything in our power, including seeking funding from the Scottish Government, the city council, our sponsors, donors and friends to lessen the financial impact across the Fringe.”

The Edinburgh International Festival had previously been forced to scrap its official programme launch in mid-March while the Fringe had extended its programme deadline and put its own launch date back to July while talks were ongoing behind the scenes.

International festival director Fergus Linehan said: “We are hugely disappointed to announce this cancellation but given the current outlook we

believe it is the correct decision.

“We recognise that Edinburgh’s festivals play a very important role in the cultural, social and economic lives of our city and country, and this decision has not been taken lightly.

“Our thoughts are with all the country’s key workers and we hope that we can celebrate your heroic efforts when this awful pandemic has passed.

“The Edinburgh International Festival was born out of adversity – an urgent need to reconnect and rebuild. The current crisis presents all at the festival with a similar sense of urgency.

“Work begins straight away on a 2021 festival season that will boost both our spirits and our economy.”

Brigadier David Allfrey, chief executive and the producer of the Tattoo, said: “Like most people, businesses and institutions, we have been working hard to adapt to the unprecedented conditions occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the first instance, we have sought to comply carefully with Government advice and guidance in looking after our customers, staff, suppliers, stakeholders and all those who rely on our annual success and charity.

“In addition, we’ve been looking at how best to make a wider and constructive contribution to the national, regional, municipal and individual effort.

“The pandemic is impacting across the world, the Tattoo – along with other major events and festivals – will need to carefully understand and adapt to whatever is our new normal.

“We’re keen to do this as a great many people have come to rely on our annual routines for their livelihood and their entertainment, with an associated benefit that stretches internationally and across Scottish and UK tourism.

“Now though, we judge it is impractical and undesirable to stage a Tattoo in anything like its normal form in August.”

Book festival director Nick Barley said: “This is not a decision we have taken lightly, however the safety of not only our authors, our audiences, our staff and our suppliers, but also that of the people who live and work in our wonderful city, is of paramount importance and we believe that planning to bring large numbers of people from all over the world together in Edinburgh in August is not appropriate this year.

“We hope to be able to programme a series of online events to take place in the summer.”

Art festival director Sorcha Carey said: “While it has become impossible to deliver a festival this year, we remain fully committed to doing all we can to continue to support our visual arts community during what is going to be

a hugely challenging time in the weeks and months to come.

“We hope that it will be possible for galleries, museums and production spaces across the city to reopen their doors in the coming months; and in the meantime, we will work creatively to find alternative ways to share the work of artists with audiences.”

The Edinburgh International Film Festival, which like the EIF and Fringe dates back to 1947, had already announced the cancellation of this year’s event in June.

The Edinburgh Festival Carnival and the Edinburgh Mela, the events which traditionally booked the main summer festivals season in Edinburgh, were called off yesterday.

The Fringe Society does not have any direct involvement in the running of venues or staging of shows, meaning that unofficial events could be staged in August if restrictions are lifted, even without an official festival box office or programme, particularly in year-round venues.

Summerhall, the Traverse Theatre, the Queen’s Hall, Gilded Balloon’s Rose Theatre, The Stand, the Edinburgh Playhouse were among the venues forced to go dark last month under new restrictions imposed by the Scottish Government on gatherings and events.

Hundreds of free shows are staged every year in bars and nightclubs which are turned into temporary festival venues for music, comedy and spoken word events.