Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Collective effort needed over demands for change – Brian Ferguson

It’s still four-and-a-half months away but there’s no escaping the sight and sound of Edinburgh’s summer festival juggernaut coming over the horizon.

Three years after it last played host to the world’s biggest cultural celebration, there is intrigue over whether Edinburgh will be able to reclaim that crown this summer.

For many of those either directly involved, it is of far more importance that a better festivals season unfolds, on and off stage.

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From this distance, doubts over the scale of the recovery already seem to have been dispelled.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe will celebrate its 75th anniversary in August (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)The Edinburgh Festival Fringe will celebrate its 75th anniversary in August (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe will celebrate its 75th anniversary in August (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

With tickets already on sale for 285 shows at nearly 50 Fringe venues, anticipation is mounting ahead of the Edinburgh International Festival’s programme launch this month.

With substantially more public funding backing, the onus is very much on the EIF to set the early tone for what is undoubtedly one of the most important seasons in the 75-year history of the festivals.

While last year’s scaled-down efforts across the festivals were a hit with audiences, Edinburgh’s usual festival atmosphere was lacking, with key venues closed and physical distancing restrictions in places for most shows.

But given it’s big birthday and outgoing director Fergus Linehan’s farewell, it is hard to imagine anything less than the EIF pulling out all the stops to come back with a headline-grabbing bang.

The Tattoo has already assembled a brand new creative team ahead of its big comeback, while Edinburgh’s events calendar will be bolstered by Hidden Door’s takeover of the former Royal High School in June.

Two big new bookends are the series of 8,000-capacity concerts at Ingliston in June and the relocation of the Connect festival there in late August, while open-air concerts will return to the castle and Princes Street Gardens, a full-scale book festival will be staged at Edinburgh College of Art, and the film festival will be back on in August for the first time in 13 years.

However it is the Fringe’s return that will command most attention and is already triggering the most debate.

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With 3,841 shows staged across 323 venues in 2019, much of the focus will be on whether those numbers will be matched – and whether that will be a good thing.

Pre-Covid, the Fringe Society, which oversees the festival, had been desperately trying to shift the focus away from its unstoppable year-on-year growth.

But it has also faced increasing scrutiny over its stewardship of the famously “open access” event, amid repeated calls for meaningful action to ensure safe and consistent working conditions at venues, and significant progress to make it more affordable to take part.

The Fringe has never been short of critics or demands to change over its 75 years, and none of its problems are particularly new. Many are deep-rooted and it will take years to address by more than one organisation.

Expecting the Fringe to return in radically different form this August is hopelessly unrealistic and idealistic.

But the brutal reality is that the Fringe will face more scrutiny than ever before this summer. And with its standing and reputation inextricably linked to the other festivals, the city and the country, it is no longer good enough to look away from, or look down noses at, how Scotland’s highest-profile event is staged.

A truly collective effort is in everyone’s best interests.



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