Fringe chief secures vote of confidence as 1.5 million ticket sales are revealed

The under-fire figurehead of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society has secured the “full” backing of its board – as it emerged that more than 1.5 million tickets had been sold ahead of the final week of shows.

Benny Higgins, chair of the Fringe Society board, said Shona McCarthy had done an “absolutely excellent job in the most difficult of circumstances" in overseeing the return of the first first-scale event since the Covid pandemic.

Ms McCarthy admitted the lead-up to the festival’s 75th anniversary year had been “fraught with challenges and understandable anxiety.”

But she hailed the success of the Fringe’s bounceback “in a year like other” due to the number of challenges faced by venues, promoters and performers.

Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The backing for Ms McCarthy emerged at the Fringe Society’s AGM, which heard calls for its board to declare a vote of no confidence in the chief executive and her senior management team in the wake of criticism over the planning for this year’s event.

However some Fringe participants also offered their support for the society’s efforts to revive the event in the face of concerns about the impact of the cost of living crisis, the war in Ukraine, industrial disputes and staffing shortages.

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Ms McCarthy said Edinburgh’s new Lord Provost, Robert Aldridge, had agreed to look at ways to tackle the high cost of accommodation for Fringe participants. She said the issue had been raised “loudly and clearly” this year, but admitted the 1200 low-cost rooms secured by the society only “scratches the surface” of the issue.

This year’s Fringe, which has been hampered by strikes by railway workers and refuse collectors, is on track to be one of the biggest in its 75-year history after 1.5 million ticket sales were recorded by the start of this week.

A street entertainer performs on the Royal Mile during this year's Fringe. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The figure compares to 1.8 million which was recorded at the same point in 2019, when the final tally soared over three million for the first time.

The Fringe only broke through the two million ticket sales barrier for the first time in 2014, when it was staged partly in competition with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

The Fringe Society has registered 3582 shows across 277 venues this year compared to 3841 shows across 323 venues in 2019.

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Mr Higgins said: “We have faced, as everybody knows, huge challenges. It has been a very anxious time in the run-up to this year’s 75th anniversary.

Ethiopian troupe Circus Abyssinia show off their skills beside Underbelly's Circus Hub on the Meadows. (Picture: Ian Georgeson)

"We’re under no illusions about the challenges that have been faced across the Fringe ecosystem this year. Accommodation in particular has been a very big issue.

“This year’s Fringe has been a great success, despite the challenges and the things that have inevitably not been as strong as we would have liked.

"For the purposes of trying to run our own budgets we had to take a cautious approach.

“Not that many months ago we thought there be a Fringe running at about 50 per cent of the scale of 2019. We’re tracking at about 80 per cent now.

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Benny Higgins is chair of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society.

"We had sold 1.5 million tickets up till Monday. The corresponding number for 2019 was 1.8 million, there are 63 countries represented and the number of international visitors is up on 2019.

“There’s a sense that this has been the first year of a journey of recovery, but a very promising start overall.”

She said: “The collective achievement is massive and the entire Fringe community should be congratulated and celebrated for being back and live and doing everything they can to put on the show.

"That’s not to say there is not still a long, long road to recovery, but the effort of 2022 is colossal and should rightly be acknowledged by all. To have 63 countries represented on our stages in the post-pandemic year is no small thing."

Comedian Nigel Lovell, who called for the board to intervene over the way the society is being run, said its handling of the pandemic had been “appalling” and had left it open to possible legal action for damages for lost income over the app’s absence.

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Mr Higgins said: "As far as Shona's position is concerned, I can assure you, that as chair and as a collective board, she has our very full confidence.

“We think she has done an absolutely excellent job in the most difficult of circumstances.

“It doesn't mean that things haven’t gone wrong. That will never be the case. But we have had almost unprecedented times of challenge."

Long-time Fringe producer James Seabright said: “I want to thank the board, Shona and her team for all they have done in a very difficult period.

“Personally I’ve felt very supported and have found the team very responsive. It’s disappointing to hear that other participants haven’t shared that experience, but I do think there is a lot to celebrate this year.”

Ms McCarthy was previously forced to apologise in the wake of criticism that the event did not have an official mobile phone app and a failure to communicate its absence until after shows had been registered.

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An open letter raising concerns about the app, a lack of transparency over how public funding support was allocated, the soaring cost of accommodation and the marketing of the event was signed by more than 1700 participants last month.

Speaking at the AGM, Ms McCarthy insisted there was “no way” the Fringe Society could have predicted either artist or audience patterns for a post-pandemic event, and pointed out it had to plan ahead while operating at a deficit, with no financial resources and a £1 million (Scottish Government) loan to be repaid.

She added: "The app is obviously something that’s caused real and understandable concern.

"But in December last year we did not have the money to pay for it. The only responsible decision I could make was that we wouldn’t do an app for 2022. But I’ll make an absolute commitment that we’ll have an app in 2023.”

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