Arts interview: The duo behind Underbelly talk about their plans for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay

Ed Bartlam, left, and Charlie Wood of Underbelly. Picture: Jon Savage
Ed Bartlam, left, and Charlie Wood of Underbelly. Picture: Jon Savage
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Once regarded as a Fringe upstart, Underbelly is now major arts and events promoter. With a three year contract to run Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, the duo behind the company talk about their plans to Susan Mansfield

The website for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay counts down: at time of writing it is 212 days and 13 hours until midnight on 31 December, when fireworks will once again explode over the castle marking the end of another year. This year, however, the moment is being awaited with more than the usual anticipation as the city’s New Year celebrations enter a new chapter in their history.

Shockwaves reverberated through the arts community in March when Edinburgh City Council announced that Unique Events, Pete Irvine’s company which established Edinburgh’s Hogmanay in 1993 and has run it ever since, would not be continuing at the helm. Instead, the three-year contract was awarded to Underbelly, the company set up on the Fringe in 2000 by Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood, which runs a variety of venues and events in Edinburgh and London.

The announcement seemed indicative of the rise and rise of Underbelly, now a major player on the Fringe and a growing force in events management, producing London’s Pride festival and the two-day West End Live event in Trafalgar Square, and which has produced Edinburgh’s Christmas since 2013. Bartlam and Wood started the company as students, and claim never to have had a business plan.

When I meet them in an Edinburgh Hotel to talk about Hogmanay ahead of the announcement of their first programme on 18 July (when the first tickets also go on sale), they strike a carefully professional note. Their characteristic joshing and banter is kept to a minimum. The stakes are high: Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is one of the biggest events they have undertaken, and is, without doubt, the most high profile. In 23 years, it has become a world recognised brand and has been listed by the Discovery Channel as one of the Top 25 World Travel Experiences. It’s attended by 100,000 people and is worth £160m to the city’s economy.

“I think we were quite humbled to be awarded Hogmanay,” says Bartlam, carefully. “We understand that it’s a really important event for Scotland, not just Edinburgh, that it’s an iconic event, and there’s a weight and responsibility on our shoulders because of that. But we’re also really confident in what we’re planning to do. We’ve put together some really exciting plans, plans that will grow the event, that will do things a little bit differently, but still understanding that there are certain parts of Hogmanay that Scotland and Edinburgh loves and wants.”

They are also keen to address some of the criticisms, spoken and implied, which have been levelled since the tender was awarded: that they are not only a London organisation (“Edinburgh runs in our blood, we started out here and have a year-round office here with a staff of seven,” Bartlam says. “Our wives would tell you we spend more time here than in London”); and that they are well-versed in large-scale, city-centre events (“I think that’s something that people in Edinburgh maybe don’t know, we have the right CV to do this, that’s what Underbelly does”).

While core elements of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay will remain – bands, street party, fireworks – Bartlam and Wood plan to “expand and enhance” what is on offer. They have recruited a creative team “of international standing” to deliver “a re-booted street party” and with what Bartlam describes as “more of a carnival, more of a show”. “The ambition is that wherever you are for the street party, there’s going to be something wonderful or surprising going on.”

Another key element of their plan is to extend the Hogmanay festival through January to Burns Night on 25 January, with what Wood describes as “an outdoor project which ties in to the heritage of Scotland” and will tap into the existing expertise in Edinburgh across the art forms. The celebrations on the 31st will include a child-friendly music and fireworks concert in Princes Street Gardens at 5pm, Bairns Afore, with the aim of engaging more family audiences.

Both emphasise the importance of keeping Edinburgh at the forefront of a competitive field when it comes to New Year celebrations. Wood says: “Edinburgh’s Hogmanay has been copied by cities around the world. Sydney, Paris, London, New York, Dubai – everyone’s doing fireworks. We have huge respect for Pete (Irvine) and his team and everything they did to grow this event, but there are great thundering hooves all across the world. The thing that excites us isn’t about maintaining the status quo, it’s about doing something different that once again makes Edinburgh and Scotland the best.”

It’s no secret that Edinburgh City Council’s budget for Hogmanay has been slashed by £450,000 over three years, and that a major factor in the council’s decision over the tender was that Unique Events’ proposal was considered too expensive. How are Bartlam and Wood going to do more with less? Wood says: “It’s important to emphasise that there’s no danger of shrinking the event. We’re growing it, enhancing it. It’s about finding economies, and additional income sources – we have great experience over all our events of doing things with commercial partners that perhaps in previous years haven’t been fully realised [for Hogmanay]. We’re also fortunate that we can spread our overheads across all of our year’s activities.”

For all their careful professionalism (both are old Etonians, and clearly businessmen of considerable aptitude) there is a welcome freshness to Bartlam and Wood. They started on the Fringe, putting on four shows in the vaults under the city’s Central Library in 2000, calling the space the Underbelly, a name borrowed from Grid Iron, who had previously used it for their site-specific show, Gargantua. Bartlam was then a budding actor, still at university, Wood, a few years older, making first steps in directing and producing. Everything about the Fringe resists the corporate: it’s back-breaking work for little profit. You do it because you love it, or you go home.

In the years that followed, they opened up more spaces in the vaults, and in 2006 made a bold statement by setting up Udderbelly – the purple cow tent in the shape of their logo – in Bristo Square. They were the new kids on the block, but they quickly got noticed: the Fringe’s Big Three (Assembly, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon) had to become the Big Four. Bartlam says: “I think we had a bit more youth and frivolity and fun to us in terms of the style of the venue. I think the Underbelly brand – such as it is – grew from this slightly anarchic sense that anything can happen, and that spirit, for whatever reason, captured people’s imaginations.”

The way they tell it, everything evolved organically, almost accidentally: there was no grand design. The logo was a doodle on a fax after they had rejected more than a dozen more corporate ideas. The cow-shaped tent was a last minute brainwave, but once they had it they realised they could use it elsewhere: it is now a regular fixture on London’s South Bank every year pre-Edinburgh. Bartlam says: “The experience in 2000 was of doing four shows in two vaults and having great fun doing it. Everything we’ve done since then has been driven by that same principle of enjoying doing it. We just found ourselves doing more and more newer and larger things.

“It’s not about the commercial return, I wish we could dispel that myth more. This is about doing something that we really passionately believe in. Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is not a big money-maker. There are other events we could have gone for in other places if we were looking purely to make a large commercial return. Our business started in Edinburgh, we have grown because of and in this city. The opportunity to produce such an iconic event, not just for Edinburgh but for Scotland, and bring something new to it, was just too much for us to refuse.”

This year’s Edinburgh’s Hogmanay programme will be announced on 18 July. Street Party Passes will be on sale from that date at www.edinburghshogmanay.com