Brian Ferguson: Fabulous festival experiences

Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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LIKE many a veteran still prepared to enter battle every summer, I can recall roughly when and where I had my first “Edinburgh Festival” experience.

It was 20 years ago this August at the then BBC studios on Queen Street that a group of student friends and I ended up with tickets to a late-night BBC festival showcase to round off our night on the razzle.

The chance to see some of what we were assured were among the best acts of the festival without putting our hands in our pockets seemed too good to be true. But there we were – watching familiar faces from television appearing just a few yards away.

The after-show carousing was the real icing on the cake though. If memory serves me right, it was the last such recording of the festival and we wangled our way into the end-of-term shindig. It was the start of a long-term love affair with that weird and wonderful beast that takes over the city every August.

Edinburgh’s relationship with “The Festival” – as it is erroneously known to so many – has long been a source of fascination to me. Many friends of mine were – and still are – the walking clichés who have never been to a single show at any of the festivals. The very idea fairly boggles my mind.

It’s the thrill of the discovery of the unknown that drags me into the fray. I suspect it’s the same for many others as they plunge headfirst into the pile of programmes covering the full gamut of events.

I can recall how exotic the city felt when I spent a month there for the first time the following year. Living near the bottom of Broughton Street, it felt like the Fringe was on the doorstep. In 1995, a local school playground was the venue for a Fringe show which was surrounded by an incredible amount of “buzz”.

Inspired by the war in the former Yugoslavia, Carmen Funebre was a breathtaking Polish theatre production played out by terrifyingly-costumed characters on stilts. The images from that show fair burned themselves into the mind.

It was the first great Fringe production I can recall and was probably not matched for more than a decade. The odd thing about the very early preview of Black Watch I caught in 2006, in an old drill hall behind Sandy Bell’s pub, was that there had been little pre-Fringe hype.

That was to change dramatically a couple of days later when the press night was held and those five-star reviews sparked a firestorm still burning to this day. I couldn’t help recall that night when I finally caught up with Black Watch again last week. Its raw power still remained intact. Virtually every line in the script was as relevant as it had been seven years ago.

As I shuffled out of the show I pondered the prospect of coming across another Black Watch at this year’s Fringe. By the middle of this week, hundreds of shows will already be selling tickets and the annual process of sifting through pages of listings for a possible gem will be under way.

I have had the pleasure of hearing about a project that will directly address how Edinburgh feels about “The Festival” this summer. I first came across the work of artist Peter Liversidge when I visited the Jupiter Artland sculpture park near Edinburgh Airport. Liversidge’s midsummer snowstorm was just one of the dozens of “possible and impossible” hand-typed proposals he had produced for the venue, which had put them on display in a mesmerising exhibition.

Liversidge has another trick up his sleeve for this summer in Edinburgh, which has already fired my imagination – mainly for the way it will directly address whether the city truly embraces its festivals.

He wants more than 80 institutions, organisations and signature buildings to fly a white flag bearing the simple message “hello” in what the artist hopes will be a “collective welcome” to the visiting festival-goers and performers who will double Edinburgh’s population in August.

The response should certainly be interesting – and I hope entirely positive, even from those business owners who claim the festivals are nothing but trouble. I’m banking on Holyrood Palace and Edinburgh Castle setting an example. The Queen’s own gallery is playing host to dozens of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci in August, while I don’t know anyone more game for a laugh in the city than the Tattoo’s producer, David Allfrey.

If this brilliant idea really does come off it might even lure a few of those festival refuseniks to come out of their shells.