'Fonteyn danced a fox trot'

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THE EDINBURGH FESTIVAL BEGAN FOR PATRICK Jordan with the "train call" for the cast on King's Cross Station.

The first Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama was a product of its times, a bold display of top-rate classical artistry in a dour postwar landscape. Announced in the pages of The Scotsman in November 1945, only months after the war, it was, former Festival publicist Iain Crawford wrote, "received with cautious acclaim, although it is fair to say that in many quarters it was regarded by level-headed Scots folk as an act of consummate folly and pretentiousness ... overweeningly ambitious and dangerously impractical".

The Old Vic was a company at the height of its reputation, bringing stars such as Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson. The company's productions that year were overshadowed by operas from Glyndebourne, Macbeth and The Marriage of Figaro, but when Howard walked on stage in his deerstalker hat there was a massive cheer. The cast also included several former serving soldiers, Jordan among them.

Strict rationing was still in place, foreign travel almost impossible, and the Americans had yet to arrive in Edinburgh due to the shortage of shipping. "There were all sorts of difficulties to get anything, and everything was sort of grey and sad," Jordan recalls. They had toured to Brussels a few days before. "You could get anything you wanted on the street, bananas, clothes. I bought my wife some beautiful boots in Brussels - you couldn't get anything in this blasted country. The vivid colour of Edinburgh was something. That awful bloody war, one said to oneself, thank God it's finished and I'm alive. A lot of people that went out hadn't seen a really good show for a long time. I remember thinking, this is different and it's changing. For some reason the Festival was a riot, it wasn't played in the streets, but that's the feeling one had. I put it down to the fact that that awful bloody war was finished."

The International Festival, the Fringe, and the Edinburgh International Film Festival all celebrate their 60th anniversary this year. The Book Festival is much younger, at 22, but the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo has its roots going back to 1947. Scottish Command ran ten popular nights of piping and dancing on the Castle Esplanade that first year, though the tattoo assumed its present form in 1950.

Some issues facing the festivals now are remarkably similar to 1947. There is the tortuous relationship with Edinburgh City Council (or the British Council, or the Scottish Executive) as Festival bosses try to raise the cash without losing control. Bernard Levin called it "the annual Rite of the Grudging of the Money". As the Fringe struggles for cash, and the International Festival runs up debts, it constantly raises the question of how supportive of the festivals the city, and the councils, will be. There are ritual complaints that the content is not Scottish enough, that prices are too high, the fare too elitist. From the first, the poet Hugh McDiarmid dismissed it as "luxury entertainment, jamborees of the well-to-do and cosmopolitan extravagance". Councillor Jack Kane asked for music that was not "too classical". The constant cry at the lack of affordable accommodation began early, too. In that first year the Scottish Tourist Board was trying to charter a cruise ship to be berthed in Leith. Another proposal was for a permanently parked sleeper train.

The founders of the Festival were troubled by the question of whether all their ambitions would pay off; on the other hand they faced little competition for the acts they enlisted - in the aftermath of war, there were virtually no other festivals in the UK or outside it. Remarkably, 60 years on, that continues to be the case. While Festival chiefs voice repeated worries about rising competition, the recent Thundering Hooves report showed that Edinburgh is still head and shoulders above any of its rivals - although it could become vulnerable in five to seven years if not enough is done. That includes the City Council increasing its current cultural spend from 2.8 per cent to 4 per cent.

That said, it might not have been Edinburgh in the first place. Rudolph Bing, general manager of Glyndebourne Opera and the chief champion of a festival for post-war Britain, sounded out Oxford and Cambridge first. He was backed in the Edinburgh bid by H Harvey Wood, Scottish representative on the British Council, and Sir John Falconer, the city's Lord Provost. The Countess of Rosebery, another leading supporter, issued the famous call to the citizens of Edinburgh to provide 10,000 beds.

The first Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama had a stellar line-up. Apart from Glyndebourne and the Old Vic, Bruno Walther, the conductor, was reunited with the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time since he'd fled Nazi persecution in 1938. Kathleen Ferrier was singing, six years before she died of cancer, and Margot Fonteyn danced Sleeping Beauty at what was then the Empire Theatre (now the Festival Theatre). The Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra came with Sir Malcolm Sargent.

The Fringe began with six theatre companies, amateur and professional, producing plays - though it did not get its name for a year. They ranged from the Pilgrim Players from the Mercury Theatre in London, to the Glasgow Unity Theatre with The Laird of Tortwatletie. The Film Festival began life as an International Festival of Documentary Films, in what was then the 3,300 seat Playhouse Cinema.

The young Lord Harewood, now 83, drove up to Edinburgh with his mother. He had developed a passion for music as a teenager, and became Festival director in the 1960s, before his divorce led to his stepping down. "It was very interesting because it had a sort of peace-coming atmosphere, the first grand festival after the war celebrating the return of peace and the international outlook," he recalls. "It had wonderful international highlights, things that everybody knew were sort of great, and that was very exciting. I don't remember much about the dramatic side, I don't think there was much. The atmosphere in Edinburgh was great, and the weather was great. Princes Street was very different then, much more Scottish than it is now. To a southerner now, shopping in Princes Street is useless. Shops were Scottish. That's the one disappointment."

You can see the Scottish shops advertised in the 1947 Festival programme: Darling and Company, a "leading independent fashion house" on Princes Street, along with Robert Grant and Son, Scotland's oldest booksellers. "Running the Festival 12 or 13 years later, one knew that the money was a bit short, that the city didn't like coughing it up, but it always did," Lord Harewood recalls. "By 1961 it had that feeling of confidence. I think it's secure. It brings such prosperity to Edinburgh that it would be worth it for that alone, let alone its cultural value."

IAIN CRAWFORD PUBLISHED HIS history of the International Festival, Banquo on Thursdays, in 1997. In 1947 he had just joined the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch and he worked on its first Festival diary. "In the grey aftermath of war with rationing and restrictions on everything in sight seeming the only fruits of a hollow victory, I can still remember the thrill at the splendour and scope of the whole idea," he later wrote. The first Festival had "the feeling you were unexpectedly attending a lively, very classy party", as Margot Fonteyn danced the fox trot at a dinner party.

In the outside world the Nazi leaders were being tried in Nuremberg, and Israeli terrorists had blown up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Haggis was exempt from rations, but there was spaghetti and cake mixtures. Edinburgh's reception for the Festival was decidedly mixed, by all accounts.

Eileen Miller, another historian of the International Festival, agrees. "From all my research I don't think it meant anything to 99 per cent of the citizens of Edinburgh. I don't think they were at all interested, and they found it a bit of a nuisance, all these foreigners coming into the city." Now, she says, "the citizens of Edinburgh might still grumble a bit about the Festival but they wouldn't want to be without it. A lot of citizens of Edinburgh who would never dream of going to (International) Festival events would go along to Fringe performances. The Fringe has probably made a tremendous difference. It has literally drowned out the official Festival. The number of people coming is vastly greater than it was in 1947."

By 1962, a leader in the Edinburgh Evening News could say: "There can be no doubt that Edinburgh has benefited spiritually as well as materially from the Festival. There used to be the feeling, not quite eradicated perhaps, that we were provincial, rather narrow, and that the city was no place for high culture."

Sir James Dunbar-Nasmith went to his first International Festival in 1953 and became its vice chairman. "The Fringe initially, and for a long time, was regarded as a rival, and we disapproved of the Fringe," he says. "It wasn't really until John Drummond's time (1979-83) that we realised the Fringe was an asset. The development of the Fringe is, for me, the absolute marker by which the Festival is recognised. The entire Fringe could move tomorrow to Sydney in Australia, but they come to Edinburgh because of the Edinburgh Festival and Edinburgh being the town it is. If the Fringe showed signs of diminishing, I would be very worried about the International Festival. So long as it continues to come here and grow, then I think all is well."

Political control of the Festival, which came after it went bankrupt and the City Council bailed it out, was a potential catastrophe, he adds. "There used to be political arguments about who would meet Jessye Norman, Labour or Conservative."

If Edinburgh had its doubts about the beginning of the Festival, the story became quite different. "Edinburgh in itself is a city transformed from 1950," says Dunbar-Nasmith. "Scotland was a backwater and, largely thanks to the Edinburgh Festival, it no longer is. Things like Scottish Opera stemmed from the Edinburgh Festival; the Traverse theatre, certainly. The cultural climate has changed out of all recognition, and the Festival was a big part of all that."

A Scotsman column on 13 September 1947 offered some reflections: "Tonight the darkened halls and theatres, the deserted platforms and stages of Edinburgh, will proclaim the end of the city's first International Festival of Music and Drama. It has been a glorious three weeks, surpassing even the highest expectations. Everything seems to have conspired to make the Festival a success."

It cited the support of the council, particularly Sir John Falconer, in the face of "many doubters and faint hearts".

"There has been some criticism of the programmes on the ground that they might have been a little more adventurous. This can be remedied next time. It was perhaps natural, on a first occasion, to err on the side of safety, but in later Festivals one might expect to hear more than one new work."

• This year The Scotsman will once again publish a daily Festival magazine throughout August, with features, reviews and listings from all the festivals. Look out for further previews and exclusive interviews in the newspaper throughout July. The Scotsman also presents an exhibition, The Fringe: 60 Years, 60 Photos at Princes Mall, Edinburgh, 3-28 August. See Archive, page 38.