Interview: Jonathan Mills, EIF director

The Edinburgh International Festival programme was launched today by festival director Jonathan Mills. Picture: TSPL
The Edinburgh International Festival programme was launched today by festival director Jonathan Mills. Picture: TSPL
Share this article
Have your say

JONATHAN Mills has shrugged off criticism that his festival tenure has not been Scottish enough - as city councillors insisted they were unconcerned about the nationality of his successor.

Mr Mills said he had largely enjoyed the “cut and thrust” during his time at the helm of the EIF, which will come to an end during next year’s festival.

But he said it was “potentially dangerous” to suggest - as some commentators and artists, such as Alasdair Gray have done - that Scots should be given priority for prime jobs in the arts in their home country.

Vicky Featherstone, the last director of the National Theatre of Scotland, who was singled out by Gray, complained of feeling bullied by critics who had used her Englishness against her as she departed the scene late last year.

The Australian impresario, appointed to the job in the spring of 2006, has largely impressed critics, but has faced regularly questions about the lack of home-grown content in the event, with the issue rearing its head again at the festival’s launch.

It prompted both deputy council leader Steve Cardownie and Scottish Government minister Humza Yousaf, to stress the importance of the new festival director simply being “the best person for the job.”

Mr Mills said: “I don’t accept that the festival has not been Scottish enough. I think that it has actually been appropriately Scottish in the way we determine what we are.

“It has been international and Scottish. That is the really important thing. This is an international festival. We take very seriously our obligations, and I do believe they are obligations, to the development of Scottish talent.

“I think you can see in every festival that we have managed that support and that desire very carefully.

“What I’ve done over the years is started to suggest that each festival should be very different. There is a way of interepreting being European and being Scottish, and still remaining true to those ideas, and being very international at the same time - reaching out to Asia, the Southern Hemisphere, and other parts of the expanded community of the European Union.”

Mr Mills said it was “fascinating” to find himself pulled into the debate about the nationality of people in senior arts positions in Scotland since he himself has Scottish roots.

“There is a danger potentially in those arguments, but more than that there is an enormous benefit and enormous opportunity in the multicultural pluralist society.

“Beyond that, the greatest parts of Scotland are truly great because they are truly universal and they have a pragmatic no-nonsense dimension to them that does such good in the world.

“Whether you’re talking about Penicillin, the discovery electro-magneticism, the wisdom of Robert Burns - all of these things and the evolving story of Scotland are what makes this such a rich and fascinating country.”

Mr Mills said he had one piece of advice for his successor, who is likely to be appointed in time to allow them to visit this year’s festival.

“There is one word of advice that is absolutely essential for anyone who wishes to make a contribution in Scotland - be authentic. You can be criticised and disagreed with, but if you are authentic, but you will be respected. There are people who have disagreed with me but I don’t think there’s anyone who doubts the sincerity or authenticity and appropriateness of my view.”

Cllr Cardownie said: “Male, female, transgender, American, Chinese, Australian, English - as far as I’m concerned it’s the best person for the job.

“I’m quite sure that the festival council (the EIF’s governing body) and the other people involved in the interviews will determine that and we will get one of the best people for the job, the city and the country.

“I don’t really care about what nationality they are, I care about their ability to put on a programme that is comensurate with the Edinburgh International Festival.

“There is a good track record in the past, the people who have been chosen have put on fantastic festivals.

“I believe the Edinburgh International Festival is just that, international, and that’s why we will attract applications from throughout the global. I’m confident that the best person for the job will be appointed.”

Mr Yousaf added: “I do think it’s a case of giving it to the best person for the job.

“It’s not about your nationality or where you’ve come from or where your blood-line is.

“It shouldn’t be about your gender. It should be about your ability.

“I was born and raised in Scotland, but my parents weren’t, so I’m the son of immigrants, but I would hate it for someone to say to me I can’t represent the city of Glasgow or represent my country because I don’t really know Scotland.

“It’s a dangerous attitude to have. It betrays a parochialism that we’re trying to move away from.

“The whole point about Scotland is we have been a nation of immigrant, we have taken from the best in the world, and we’ve also given our people to the world as well.

“If that’s been our history for hundreds of years we shouldn’t betray that history.

“Whoever Jonathan’s replacement is, frankly as long as they’re up to doing the job and filling some very big shoes, that should be the main criteria.

“It upsets me when you hear that people have been bullied or felt under pressure when doing the job because of their nationality. It saddens my greatly.”