Brian Ferguson: Festivals right to get together at new times

Tim Peake, Ewan McGregor and Jeffrey Archer do not have too much in common, but the three of them have ensured a healthy sprinkling of celebrity stardust over Edinburgh in the space of a month.

Ewan McGregor, director and lead actor of American Pastoral in Edinburgh for the International Film Festival gala screening.
Ewan McGregor, director and lead actor of American Pastoral in Edinburgh for the International Film Festival gala screening.

While the city is certainly no stranger to big-name visitors, their appearances – McGregor and Peake have been and gone, while Archer visits this week – have certainly enlivened one of its quietest times of the year.

And, intriguingly, it is Edinburgh’s science, film and book festivals – staged in April, June and August respectively – that have made them happen, in the latest signs of a growing trend for the city’s main festivals to put on special events well away from their main dates.

The science festival pulled off a visit from 
history-making astronaut Peake after building up a relationship with the UK and European space agencies.

The book festival has staged a number of special events throughout the year in Edinburgh in recently, most notably a sell-out event with Robert Carlyle and Irvine Welsh at the Usher Hall in the spring.

The Usher Hall events with Archer, Welsh and Carlyle, as well as a special celebration of children’s literature back in March, have allowed the book festival to attract audiences several times bigger than they could ever hope to do in Charlotte Square in August.

The film festival moved its dates from that peak period to June a decade ago – to help it cope with increasing competition – but has missed out on major “Scottish” movies, such as Under The Skin, Sunshine on Leith, The Railway Man, Filth and We Need To Talk About Kevin.

But last week it was celebrating a notable coup by bringing McGregor to Edinburgh for a special screening of his latest film, his debut as a director, American Pastoral. The film festival also forged a collaboration with Edinburgh’s Hogmanay on New Year’s Day this year as it kicked off two years of celebrations to mark its 70th birthday with a showcase of short films.

I would be unsurprised if there are not further link-ins with other festivals in the 2017 Scot:Lands programme, when it is announced this week, particularly as the 70th anniversary of both the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe are looming next year.

A new partnership has already been unveiled between Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival, which will see several acts land plum slots the street party.

Could 2017 herald a real shift with the staging of a whole series of Edinburgh Festival events throughout the year? If organisers are serious about broadening their reach and impact then this would be no bad thing. Of course, there are potential downsides. Holding events outwith August could arguably dilute the impact of the peak festival period. Organisers of other events throughout the year and operators of permanent venues may suddenly wonder why they are suddenly competing with much better-funded festivals for audiences.

But the truth of the matter is that Edinburgh in August can be a claustrophobic place for many, even die-hard festival-goers find it increasingly difficult to choose between events, and competition for audiences is fierce.

But the real intrigue for me lies in the possibility of Edinburgh’s festivals joining forces in future outwith August. With some innovative programming and imaginative use of the city’s year-venue infrastructure, the sky really could be the limit.