Brian Ferguson: New ideas will boost the EIF

Fergus Linehan. Picture: TSPL
Fergus Linehan. Picture: TSPL
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A BROADER, more relevant range of events will boost the EIF, says Brian Ferguson

There were many surprises from Fergus Linehan at the unveiling of his second Edinburgh International Festival programme in front of more than 500 guests packed into the stalls of the Festival Theatre.

They had been entertained earlier by video clips from Alan Cumming and Barry Humphries and light-hearted out-takes from other special guests heading Edinburgh’s way this summer. It was all a far cry from the rather sober presentation Linehan’s predecessor, Sir Jonathan Mills, used to deliver at the festival’s headquarters at The Hub to a hushed silence.

As Mr Linehan wandered out of the spotlight grinning he would already have been well aware of the overwhelmingly positive reaction to what he described as his equivalent of that “difficult second album”.

Nearly three years after his appointment, the Irishman is no longer the new kid on the festivals block, by any stretch of the imagination.

Mark Adams, director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, was appointed at the end of 2014. This summer will be the first programme he has had a full year to prepare for.

Julia Amour, the figurehead of Festivals Edinburgh, who has developed a crucial leadership role over the last decade, is preparing for her first summer at the helm after taking over from Faith Liddell at the end of last year.

And Shona McCarthy, Kath Mainland’s successor as chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, is only a few weeks into her job, with the flagship event due to launch its own programme in a couple of months’ time.

However, there is no doubt Linehan has created the impression of winds of change sweeping through the EIF during his short time in charge. Alan Cumming’s presence in the programme was a headline-grabber, as was the fact both he and Humphries are appearing at the EIF in cabaret shows, one of the big growth areas of the Fringe in recent years. The most remarkable shift in the EIF’s programming has come from Linehan’s decision to embrace the contemporary Scottish music scene.

He offered a taste of what was to come last year, which featured sold-out shows from King Creosote and Franz Ferdinand, the latter appearing with the American rock band Sparks. Now the EIF is to offer a platform to figures including James Yorkston, Karine Polwart, Martin Green, Young Fathers, Emma Pollock, Mogwai and Aidan Moffat. Suddenly the EIF looks and feels like the natural home for these acts in August, in a city where opportunities for Scottish musical acts have become increasingly limited in recent years.

The long-running gripes which Sir Jonathan was regularly confronted with over a lack of a Scottish content in the EIF programme have all but vanished – with the notable exception of Scottish Opera’s absence from the programme, once again. Yet the presence of Humphries, American actress Cherry Jones, Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova, Italian opera singer Cecilia Bartoli and New York Theatre company The Team counter suggestions that the festival is moving away from the international element of its title.

There were a few launch-day rumblings of discontent that the EIF is trying to attract “a Fringe crowd” or “become more like the Fringe”. But what has shifted is that the festival now has a broader range of events of more relevance to what is happening in Scotland now.

If the Edinburgh International Festival really is the showpiece of Scotland’s cultural calendar then that, surely, is no bad thing.