Brian Ferguson: Fringe should spread out of centre

IT IS a glorious Saturday on what feels like one of the busiest days Edinburgh has ever seen.

The Edinburgh Festival is a terrific event, but could it be better by branching out from its current radius? Picture: Ian Rutherford

On the final weekend of the school holidays, the Fringe and Edinburgh International Festival have been in full swing for more than a week. The weather gods are shining on Charlotte Square for the book festival’s opening day. George Street and St Andrew Square are buzzing like never before with festival activity, pavement cafes and musicians, while the lanes around the Assembly Rooms are thronged with snaking queues.

By early evening, I have around half an hour to make my way from George Street down to Ferry Road for a show. Forsaking the usual cab, I stroll through the New Town to Inverleith. What was striking was how quickly any signs of the Fringe evaporated. Returning home to Leith later than night it was striking how ghostly the streets felt. It was almost as if the Fringe did not exist.

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Now there are many people in Edinburgh who would be horrified at the prospect of a festival venue springing up on their doorstep. But with the Fringe growing beyond all recognition over the past couple of decades, it does seem bizarre that this has been largely confined to two parts of the city centre.

At the turn of the century, promoters Karen Koren and David Bates, encouraged by Edinburgh University, moved their Gilded Balloon and Famous Spiegeltent operations to its main campus area, followed later by Underbelly and Assembly. Less than five years ago, the New Town had become almost forgotten as a Fringe destination, with the Assembly Rooms closed for refurbishment and surrounding streets dogged by tramworks. Its recovery since then is down to comedy promoter Tommy Sheppard, who took over the Assembly Rooms and helped persuade the council that George Street and St Andrew Square could attract the kind of crowds that were flocking elsewhere.

The other recent new addition has been Summerhall, the brainchild of impresario Robert McDowell, who had the vision for something special in the Edinburgh University’s old vet school.

It would undoubtedly be a brave promoter or impresario, or one with deep pockets, who would take a chance on a new out-of-town Fringe venue. In fact it may need a cluster of them to help drive Fringe audiences off the beaten tracks in the city centre.

But it is obvious to anyone trying to get around the Royal Mile, George IV Bridge and North Bridge over the past week or so that the festival needs to spread its wings a bit. Could the city council, which has to try manage the traffic congestion in the heart of the capital each August, help encourage sustainable growth for the Fringe elsewhere? It would certainly seem to be in everyone’s interests.