Plug set to be pulled on 2020 Edinburgh Festival Fringe

The plug is finally set to be pulled on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the face of the coronavirus pandemic - although the door may be left open for shows to be staged at short notice if restrictions are eased in the summer.

Huge crowds traditionally flock to Edinburgh city centre for free street theatre performances in August. Picture: David Monteith Hodge
Huge crowds traditionally flock to Edinburgh city centre for free street theatre performances in August. Picture: David Monteith Hodge

All planning for the staging of what has become the world’s biggest arts festival is expected to be officially suspended tomorrow and refunds offered to people who have bought tickets for the hundreds of shows already on sale.

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It is understood the city’s other signature events that are normally staged in August, including the International Festival, the Tattoo and the book festival are also preparing to call them off after crisis talks in recent weeks.

A record audience of more than three million went to Fringe shows last year. Picture: David Monteith Hodge

The August festivals have attracted a combined audience of more than four million in recent years and are thought to be worth more than £300 million to the economy.

There is thought to be broad agreement that all planning for events in Edinburgh in August should be brought to a halt until the UK’s current lockdown comes to an end and cultural venues are given the go-ahead to reopen.

Sources say it is completely unrealistic for festivals to spend any more on this year’s events without any income coming in for the foreseeable future or hold onto money for tickets indefinitely.

The deadline to secure entry to the official Fringe programme had previously been put back until early May and the launch of the event postponed until the second week in July. But this was before the whole of the UK was put into lockdown and restrictions on all non-essential travel were imposed.

Last week Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy said work was ongoing to try to reach a “collective decision” on this year’s event and admitted “definitive answers are needed.”

She said at the time: “Public safety has been and will remain our top priority, alongside minimising the financial impact on participants at what is already an incredibly difficult time.

“We’ve been in regular dialogue with the Scottish Government, the council, venues, partners and other stakeholders to work through all options and find solutions. This is a complicated process, but one that is moving forward daily.”

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It is understood the various festivals hope to present a united front on the need to call a halt to all planning to help safeguard their future.

However the Fringe Society does not have the power to cancel the festival, which has been an “open access” event since 1947, when a group of theatre companies refused entry to the first Edinburgh International Festival decided to stage their own event.

Several Fringe operators believe they could mount programmes at just a few weeks notice if restrictions have been eased at the start of July and that there would be enough audiences around in Edinburgh to make them viable.

One said: “We are desperate to put on something in August, but only if the authorities say it is safe enough.

“No-one knows when that might be and no-one can plan anything on that basis at the moment.

“The only sensible thing for anyone involved in the Fringe to do at the moment is put things on hold for as long as it takes and see if things change.

“If Edinburgh is back open for business in August a lot of people in the city will be desperate to go out and be entertained.”

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Another insider said: “The important thing to stress is that if anything was to go ahead in Edinburgh in August it would be on a much smaller scale than normal.

“The vast majority of the audience would be local and it’s highly unlikely many of the acts would be coming in from overseas.”

The Edinburgh International Festival was forced to abandon a planned programme launch earlier this month after the Scottish Government called for events to be cancelled to ease pressure on the emergency services.

Building work on the stands which accommodate the 8000-strong audience for the Tattoo, which started selling tickets in December usually gets underway in May.

Work on some pop-up Fringe venues starts as early as June and the creation of the book festival site work begins in July.

The various festivals have not responded to requests for comment.