Brian Ferguson: Festival’s 70th anniversary demands advance thought

It may be two years away but, for me, the countdown to the 70th anniversary of the “Edinburgh Festival” effectively began on Friday night.

Almost 20,000 people gathered outside the Usher Hall for the Harmonium Project. Picture: Jane Barlow
Almost 20,000 people gathered outside the Usher Hall for the Harmonium Project. Picture: Jane Barlow

Almost 20,000 people gathered outside the Usher Hall for the hugely-successful Harmonium Project, the signature piece commissioned by new Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan for its biggest curtain-raiser.

The attendance, and in fact the entire event, surpassed all my lofty expectations, which had been raised over months of intriguing insights and sneak previews. Despite these, the half-hour performance outside the Usher Hall was full of surprises and “wow” moments. And social media sites were lit up by hundreds of images captured at the free event, which was far removed from a traditional opening gala.

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Of course, by Friday night Fringe venues across the city were doing a roaring trade, two performances of the Tattoo had already been staged, and the Edinburgh Art Festival’s exhibitions had been open for a week. But this was the EIF’s big moment, going head-to-head with the Fringe for the first time in 18 years, during which time the latter event has changed beyond recognition.

A year ago it would have been almost inconceivable that the EIF could drag the spotlight away from the Fringe on its traditionally frantic opening weekend. Yet the Harmonium Project saw crowds fill Festival Square and a large swathe of Lothian Road, and the event dominate media coverage of the entire Edinburgh Festival.

In the end, the event was a huge statement of intent by Linehan, not only for his debut programme, but of where he wants to place his event and the entire August festival season in the minds of the public, particularly those who live in the city. If this is what he can achieve on his opening night, with a “standstill budget,” one wonders what he might have up his sleeve by the time the festival’s 70th birthday arrives.

One astute move, by the EIF and the Fringe, is to stress that the real celebrations will take place in 2017, not the year before, which will actually be the 70th edition of both events. This will allow Linehan, his fellow festival directors and culture secretary crucial breathing space to secure the significant additional funding which seems necessary to truly mark the occasion.

However, the Harmonium Project does raise the question of how the Fringe as a whole marks its big birthday. Should venues and promoters be left alone to do their own thing in 2017, or is there a need for a more all-encompassing and inclusive event, perhaps akin to Fringe Sunday, the free celebration which used to attract tens of thousands of people to the Meadows? With the bar now set by the EIF, are any Fringe folk up for the challenge?