How coronavirus gives Edinburgh festivals chance to take stock – Brian Ferguson

This year’s Edinburgh festivals are likely to be heavily affected by the coronavirus outbreak and associated restrictions, writes Brian Ferguson.

A Fringe entertainer performs on the Royal Mile (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

There has been a grim sense of inevitability in the last few weeks about the prospect of August without the Edinburgh Festival – in its usual unruly, sprawling, chaotic and widest sense.

At the time of writing, the vast world-bearing array of events staged under that banner are still due to go ahead. But by the end of last week it seemed clear that if Edinburgh does emerge from the pandemic lockdown by then it will look and feel very different.

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A new statement on Friday from the Fringe Society, which has been under mounting pressure from various quarters to “cancel” an event it has no direct control over, suggested a “collective decision” was coming and that it would provide “definitive answers” within days. When I asked around about what that statement actually meant it was clear that talks between the various festivals were swiftly heading in the direction of their 2020 programmes being put on hold, postponed or reduced to digital incarnations.

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Umbrella-body Festivals Edinburgh and the city council went into a new version of lockdown when I put this to them all.

Getting a clear and consistent message out to the world and, crucially, the people of Edinburgh is clearly no easy task given the hugely different timelines they follow in terms of hiring staff, programming and selling tickets.

Early optimism that the pandemic would be “curbed” by August has turned into deep pessimism over whether any sense of normality will have returned to the the city or the country. Conteningency plans drawn up a few weeks ago are all but redundant now. The one absolute certainty for the thousands of people with a stake in the festivals is that nothing is certain about what will be possible in August. While no-one in a position of authority has publicly ruled out any events happening, no-one can give any guarantees either. Who can plan without knowing whether their efforts could be wasted, given the likely costs involved in doing so? Behind-the-scenes talks may have focused more on stablising the finances of events worth more than £300 million to the city.

I’m told an announcement this week will certainly leave the door firmly open for shows to be staged this summer. A much-smaller scale festival season is seen as far better than nothing at all, if the former is deemed safe enough.

One scenario, that still requires an enormous leap of faith given the current state of lockdown across Europe, is that some kind of event emerges that recaptures the original spirit of the festivals, which were instigated after the Second World War. Numerous promoters and year-round venues insist they can programme shows at a few weeks’ notice and would be prepared to take a risk on what kind of audiences they would get. It is also still possible to imagine shows in the back-rooms of bars and restaurants, and even street performers re-emerging on the Royal Mile. But an alternative reality is that the entire Edinburgh Festival will have to be played out, almost entirely, in the online world, which the entertainment industry has swiftly adapted to.

Whatever happens, this year seems certain to be an unexpected and timely opportunity for Edinburgh to take stock over its festivals, the positive and negative impacts they had had on the city, its businesses and its people in modern times, and where they go from here. A huge collective effort may be required to breathe them back into life – but it may be the thing that they needed to take them back to their roots of revival and reunion.