Brian Ferguson: Festival dates will mean better atmosphere

FAIR play to Fergus Linehan. The new director of the Edinburgh International Festival certainly made an impact at his first encounter with the Scottish media.

The citys cultural landscape is a changed place in August these days. Picture: Toby Williams

It was something of an achievement to overshadow the announcement that an Oscar-winning actress, Juliette Binoche, would be starring in his first programme.

But that is exactly what the Irishman achieved with the revelation that the dates of the event would be falling back into line with the Fringe again.

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Since the “split” 16 years ago, all of Edinburgh’s festivals have seen figureheads come and go. The personality clashes that grabbed the headlines regularly in the mid-late 1990s seem to be from a different era. The city’s cultural landscape is a changed place in August these days, much for the better.

It is odd to recall that one of the main reasons for bringing the dates of the Fringe forward a week was to ensure it finished on an English bank holiday. Nowadays, Fringe ticket sales are hugely influenced by the Scottish school holidays, with the city’s festivals seemingly more warmly embraced by local audiences than ever.

There is no doubt the advent of significant new Fringe venues, the closing to traffic of parts of the High Street and George Street, and the growth of outdoor bars has created a more carnival-esque atmosphere and the huge growth of free events over the last decade has arguably made “The Festival” a much more affordable experience.

Linehan is quite right to suggest that a visitor to the city was not getting the full-on Edinburgh experience if they happened to visit in the first week of the Fringe or the last week of the event he will inherit come October.

He did not give too many hints about what lies in store for the festival but the prospect of a free open-air public celebration to kick-start his first event is a major statement of intent.

It would not only give the EIF a significant profile in that first weekend when the city suddenly bursts into life, but also generate more of a buzz away from those heavily-sponsored outdoor bars – which, for many, are simply about drinking alcohol.

While there may be understandable concerns about EIF and Fringe shows competing for audiences and media coverage in early August, the re-aligning of the two events can only help generate a better atmosphere in the city.

But while the Edinburgh Mela has already declared an intention to move its dates forward to also coincide with the last weekend of the Fringe, it remains to be seen what impact Linehan’s move will have on the city’s jazz and film festivals.

Organisers of both thought long and hard before disentangling themselves from the other events in August, so it is hard to imagine them returning to the throng in a hurry.