Edinburgh Festival has returned to its roots and it's like a dream come true – Stephen Jardine

The other night, I had a dream. It wasn’t the recurring one where scientists discover cigarettes and sausages are actually good for us.

Edinburgh Festival has returned in a way that really does work, says Stephen Jardine (Picture: Diaspora_Arts_Connection)
Edinburgh Festival has returned in a way that really does work, says Stephen Jardine (Picture: Diaspora_Arts_Connection)

Instead this one involved all the good bits about being in Edinburgh in August but none of the bad bits.

I was at a Fringe show but instead of being barked at for not standing close enough to a wall by a lanyard-wearing drama student, this time I was being led to my seat by someone who seemed to care about my safety and enjoyment. It felt like a dream but that was my actual experience last week and I loved it.

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After their absence last year, the Fringe and Festival are back but not as we know them.

Stripped back to basics, it is has returned to its roots with lower numbers and smaller shows and the good news is, it still works. Perhaps not for the big London-based promoters and the international drinks sponsors but most certainly for the performers and the people who actually live here.

The acts are back. Today over 500 shows will take place at the Fringe, catering to every taste. What we don’t have are the hangers on.

The people handing out flyers for dating apps, the girl doing chalk portraits of Barry Manilow on Rose Street pavements or the blokes driving those energy drink Mini Coopers round and round the New Town to promote their stupid brand.

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And those who predicted collapse and disaster if the Fringe wasn’t allowed to return as before have been proved to be the same people who say a red sky in the morning indicates a major conflagration for everyone choosing to spend their staycation is a shepherd’s hut.

This week Visit Scotland’s director of events warned Edinburgh “risks killing the goose that lays the golden egg”. Paul Bush said it is vital that the festivals remain appealing to international visitors and retain their global “bucket-list” status in future.

That ignores the change that has taken place. Right now, the Book Festival is showing what is possible when you stop and redesign an event for the world we live in now. With hybrid events in person and onscreen, they are showing us what is possible.

Beyond that there is a wider question, how can the country hosting the Cop26 climate summit really justify a return to jugglers flying into Edinburgh from Malaysia to be watched by audiences who have flown into Edinburgh from Malta? It’s just not sustainable.

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Edinburgh’s history and splendour means it will always attract visitors. The festivals are simply the icing on the cake but the pandemic has changed priorities for many people. We have come to appreciate Scotland’s capital not as a stage for money-making events but as a place where we walk, run, cycle and breathe.

Next year the festivals in Edinburgh will be bigger. The commercial interests and international sponsors will see to that. But it doesn’t need to be what it was before. It can be better, more sustainable, fairer for those taking part and more enjoyable for the people who live and work here.

Warning we are all doomed unless the festivals return as before simply won’t wash. We have peered through the looking glass and seen an Edinburgh in August that works better for everyone.

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