Edinburgh Festival: Demand to get involved will only increase after return of audiences – Brian Ferguson
It is less than a week into the return of a full-scale Edinburgh festivals season for the first time in three years, yet it somehow feels as if they have never been away.
Months of uncertainty about the return of audiences in the city have been – based on overwhelming evidence and increasingly optimistic reports across the festival landscape – dispelled by the sight of packed streets and full houses in venues.
I predicted in this slot a week ago that the city was in for an extremely busy few weeks. But even I was taken aback at the volume of people out and about on Monday when I walked across the city centre.
Edinburgh has, of course, struck it lucky with the weather in recent days, adding hugely to the enjoyment of big outdoor spectacles like the International Festival’s curtain-raiser at Murrayfield, the Tattoo and the first Summer Sessions concerts in Princes Street Gardens.
The unusually warm weather has helped create a feelgood factor desperately needed after a fractious run-up overshadowed by behind-the-scenes squabbling around the Fringe and fears over slow ticket sales.
Watching a terrific street act perform before a vast crowd at St Giles’ Cathedral on Saturday evening was a reminder that, particularly for many families, Edinburgh in August is about the chance to simply enjoy a carnival atmosphere and some free outdoor entertainment, an element of the festival that has notably spread this year with the advent of the new St James Quarter.
The Grassmarket was literally going like a fair on Monday afternoon, with businesses spilling out more than I’d ever seen before. The contrast with those eerily quiet August days two years ago, when a handful of tourists could be found there, was stark.
At the Traverse, Summerhall, the King’s and the Reid Concert Hall, there wasn’t a spare seat to be had at the shows I attended. Even a show inspired by the antics of Boris Johnson was pretty close to capacity.
Of course, Edinburgh this August is far from perfect.
Despite a lot of hype about making the city centre easier to walk around, its historic streets are still pretty dominated by cars, coaches and open-top tour buses.
Public transport to get around – and in and out of the city – is poorer and less reliable than in 2019, with the prospect of rail strikes to come.
And tramworks are still ongoing 15 years after the first work got underway – although the prospect of a line linking Edinburgh Airport with Leith in time for next August is tantalising, particularly for those that crave a more extended festival footprint.
There is also no escaping the huge financial hurdles that many of those involved in the festivals have faced this year, particularly over the cost of accommodation. Reversing this trend for next year already seems a forlorn hope given the clear demand to take part in this summer’s reboot.
But the early response to this year's festival has me convinced that Edinburgh is only going to see more demand to be part of the action in the years ahead. How to accommodate that demand in the face of the obvious pressures on the city should be a pressing matter for decision-makers at every level of the festival landscape.
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