Brian Ferguson: Fringe days hardly numbered

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme launch last week. Picture: Esme Allen
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme launch last week. Picture: Esme Allen
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I’ve never particular liked numbers – despite the memorable wisdom imparted in Gregory’s Girl, that they make the world go around.

It almost certainly dates back to those terrifying and tortuous days of Higher Maths revision and exams.

To this day, trying to work out percentages brings me out in a cold sweat, and all but the simplest sums involve the trusty calculator on my computer.

However, there is still something endlessly fascinating about the numbers involved in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe each year. At times I think I could read about them all day, such is my geekery.

Based on what is inside the increasingly-hefty printed programme, the official figures for the 2013 Fringe will say 2871 shows are on this year, but there is little doubt the final number will top 3000 for the first time.

Many acts performing in free shows gamble that they do not need an entry in the official programme. Promoters of these events are very often nailing down venues and line-ups long after the official April deadline.

Forest Fringe, which will be making a welcome return to the fray this year, at the biggest arts centre in Leith, will not be announcing its line-up until later this month.

I couldn’t resist a trawl through the archives to see how the Fringe shaped up a decade ago. Back then, the total number of shows was roughly half this year’s amount.

That year, like most others I can remember over the last two decades, saw a number of veteran figures express concern about the growth of the event, soaring costs for performers and venues, and high ticket prices.

But it seemed like the Fringe was at a crossroads back then, with director Paul Gudgin warning collective action was needed in the city for the festival to grow and develop any further.

In fact, there has been huge expansion of the event since 2003, when there were shows in 200 venues. Although the number of venues was down marginally this year, 273 will be taking part at the time of writing.

The festival 10 years ago was also the point where the Fringe started to make serious lobbying noises about the lack of public funding for the event – comparing it to the Commonwealth Games in Manchester the previous summer and the MTV Europe Music Awards in Edinburgh
that autumn.

Back then, the official support for the festival was a measly £50,000. It now enjoys backing worth at least ten times that amount from the city council, Creative Scotland and the Scottish Government, which bankrolls an entire showcase of Scottish work on the Fringe.

There has been a huge transformation in the Fringe landscape since the Millennium, with an explosion of venues south of the Royal Mile. It is now hard to imagine the Fringe without the Assembly Hall on The Mound, Underbelly’s upside-down purple cow and the vast arena which takes shape around George Square Gardens in August.

The Fringe has largely shrugged off the impact of the 2008 box office debacle and the ticket sales slump during the dates which clashed with last year’s Olympics in London.

Probably the greatest achievement is the level of growth in the face of the economic downturn. The Fringe is arguably in ruder financial health than ever.

And this year, there is firm evidence that stand-up comedy’s controversial domination of the event is beginning to wane.

Although there were just a handful of shows fewer in this programme, the other major elements, theatre and music, were substantially up.

While there is no doubting the power of comedy acts in attracting audiences, and the finance this generates for venues, it will be no bad thing if the scales are tipped in balance further in favour of other art forms in future.

There are few things I want to do less in August than spend a day watching over-hyped stand-up comedy acts in over-heated venues. A handful over the course of the entire festival is more than enough.

It probably helps explain why my cynicism about the government-funded Made in Scotland strand of the Fringe being a slightly cringeworthy showcase of tartan-tinged events has waned.

In fact, its pocket-size programme of theatre, dance and music events is as good a place to start for anyone who thinks the Fringe is not for them or is intimidated by the size of the official, doorstop-sized tome.