Edinburgh Fringe hit by row over '˜pointless' digital attraction

One of Edinburgh's most historic festival venues is at the centre of a bitter row over claims that a futuristic makeover is killing trade for venues in the New Town.

The Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival, which critics have condemned as 'somewhere between pointless and insulting'. Photograph: Lloyd Smith
The Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival, which critics have condemned as 'somewhere between pointless and insulting'. Photograph: Lloyd Smith

Former operators of the Assembly Rooms have branded a new digital festival “somewhere between pointless and insulting”.

They say an attempt to run the venue without any live performances has undone five years of work to build up audiences and lure festival-goers away from Edinburgh University’s main campus.

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The company, which runs Fringe shows in The Stand Comedy Club and St Andrew Square has also criticised the “awful, cheap, incoherent and ineffective” arena that has been created outside the Georgian building.

William Burdett-Coutts, the impresario who started using the Assembly Rooms for Fringe shows 35 years ago, has admitted the new-look building has not attracted as many festivalgoers as he hoped.

But he dismissed criticism of the digital technology being showcased as “naive” and claimed promoters Salt’n’ Sauce Promotions “obviously have an axe to grind”.

The firm won a three-year contact to stage shows in the Assembly Rooms after a controversial £9.3 million makeover was completed in 2012, ousting Burdett-Coutts, who had warned it would make the building less viable during the Fringe.

Edinburgh City Council, which owns the Assembly Rooms, put a new contract out to tender last summer after a final year with Salt’n’Sauce, which persuaded the council to shut part of George Street during the Fringe for the first time.

Burdett-Coutts won a two-year contract to stage the Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival in the building, with an option for an extension until 2018. The council pledged the building would host “a Fringe feast fit for the digital age”.

The festival screens theatre, opera and dance productions filmed around the world and a chance to try new virtual reality experiences.

However Salt’n’ Sauce director Kenny O’Brien said: “The current offering in Assembly Rooms doesn’t seem to be working. George Street and the New Town are suffering. What’s transpired is somewhere between pointless and insulting. The whole concept seems out of kilter with the Fringe.

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“George Street is now dead a lot of the time, it looks a mess and all the work we’ve done trying to drag people away from the Old Town has gone backwards by five years.”

Burdett-Coutts said: “They obviously have an axe to grind. What we’re doing is extremely valid and the reaction we’ve had has been extraordinary.

“To belittle what we’ve done in terms of digital development is just naive. It will be something everybody engages with in future.

“I’d be the first to admit it has not had the enormous numbers I’d love to have through, but lots of people are very impressed with what we’re doing.”