John McLellan: The lay of the Land

Crowds continue to flock to the Fringe but there is no room for complacency. Picture: Toby Williams
Crowds continue to flock to the Fringe but there is no room for complacency. Picture: Toby Williams
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It’s the August bank ­holiday, it’s the end of the Fringe, so get set for the busiest weekend of the year.

And if you think it’s busy now, wait until next year when the International Festival and Fringe are finally reunited after 15 years or so apart.

Incoming director Fergus Linehan has taken the decision that the re-marriage of the two is long overdue and next year the August bank holiday weekend will not only bring down the curtain on the Fringe but the International Festival too. So the fireworks will be on a holiday Sunday.

The original decision in the late 90s to bring the Fringe forward a week by then Fringe director Hilary Strong was driven largely by the school holidays; her sensible argument was that the attendances in the last week were lower because visitors from the rest of the UK were all back at work.

But International Festival director Brian McMaster refused to budge, citing the global festival calendar as the reason. To move the EIF would need other festivals to move too, he claimed. It never seemed to me to be much of an argument and as a result the last week of the main programme has floated around like the last drunk at a party, still singing when everyone else had gone home and the host is desperate to clear up.

Whether the international cultural world is now a more flexible place or not, Fergus Linehan obviously thinks it can be done.

Number one on any list of ways to keep the Edinburgh Festivals competitive, relevant and thriving would be to have the timing anomaly addressed, so that’s one thing about which the newly commissioned review to follow up last one in 2006, titled Thundering Hooves, need not worry.

Initial reports this year suggest there is little going wrong, with Fringe ticket sales apparently matching last year’s sales with a week still to go and hotel occupancy at max. And if the taxi drivers are happy, you know it’s been good.

No need for complacency but all’s well, isn’t it?

By most measures it is, but tension is never far away in something as big as the Festival season. External competition will in all probability be picked up by the new study as did Thundering Hooves, but how to deal with them and the growing internal stresses might be less easy to identify. It’s remarkable how many of the 2006 recommendations are relevant today.

With many years involvement in the Festivals, council deputy leader Steve Cardownie has a clear idea of what the city needs to do and at the top of his wish list are a major indoor 7000-seat venue close to the city centre, more affordable accommodation for visitors and workers, and the controversial tourism tax to help pay for it all.

The arguments for number one are well rehearsed, but number two is more difficult. The city cannot turn on a tap to provide more fixed accommodation in August, but Cardownie’s answer is a tented village similar to the Jack Kane Centre for G8 in 2005 and the Make Poverty History march and Live 8 gig. Who can forget the panic Bob Geldof caused by urging kids to play truant to be here?

The principle is good, but the practical hurdles are considerable; it is one thing to provide temporary facilities for a long weekend, but over three weeks of use by hundreds, if not thousands of people under the age of 25 would need near-permanent amenities if it was not very quickly to turn into a refugee camp. With regular experience of temporary camping for the Royal Highland Show and the new tram link, Ingliston looks the place to start.

On funding, there is a growing feeling a tourism levy is a proposal whose time has come. Faith Liddell, who leads the umbrella organisation Festivals Edinburgh, this week explained to MSPs the extent to which hotels ramp up their rates in August – a staggering 36 per cent leap from July prices.

Councillor Cardownie is not alone in believing it is time they put some of that back into the events creating the market in the first place, and he has a point. If hotels fear a pound a night will hit their competitiveness they can absorb it, if not they can add it on. There is no reason why the first port of call for the ongoing investment the Festivals need should be the local taxpayers.

So far so good, but some Festivals diehards have different concerns for the future; they fear the Fringe goose is so obese it soon won’t lay golden eggs. Most ideas for future development are to keep feeding the beast which for people such as Fringe veteran Tomek Borkowy will hasten its death.

The artistic director of Universal Arts, which operates from Hill Street and the George Street Masonic Hall, recently wrote an impassioned plea for a change of direction, citing the explosion of free tickets and the growing importance of the drinks industry as the biggest threats to the true spirit of the Fringe. For Mr Borkowy, drink ­culture is the root of evil, where free tickets are the draw to entice people to the big venues where multiple shows and the easy availability of alcohol keeps them there and away from other ­venues struggling to survive.

“I believe that in a few years it will implode if it isn’t already. The number of free or £5 tickets at places like the Pleasance and Underbelly is staggering and they do it because they can and they do it to sell beer,” he says.

Where he agrees with Steve Cardownie is the need for big hoteliers to contribute, but he extends his criticism of what he sees as exploitative pricing to Edinburgh University.

“Prices for using student accommodation have gone up 3-400 per cent,” he says. “Everyone is making money except the artists and this is supposed to be an arts festival, not a trade fair.”

The irony of criticising Edinburgh University will not be lost on its principal, Tim O’Shea, who is not only responsible for hosting the Fringe’s HQ and a huge chunk of the main venues but who is also its chair. Balancing the university’s interests and those of the Fringe is never going to be straightforward.

For most cities, the university hub around Bristo Square would be a massive event in itself and it has become the symbol of both what is right and wrong with the event’s direction.

But to attempt to deter the thousands at the venues, bars and food stalls I doubt would be in anyone’s interest. Maybe the starting point for Thundering Hooves 2 is not how to put the golden egg-laying goose on a diet, but how to hatch more geese.

VIGILANTE ACTION CAN BE ATTRACTIVE

MANY attempts have been made to tackle bad behaviour by cyclists along the canal towpath, but it seems there are still too many two-wheeled morons who regard it as their equivalent of a motorway.

This week my nine-year-old was out for a spin on his bike when a maniac sped up behind him as he was going under the bridge at Ashley Terrace, clipped his tyre and forced him into the wall before overtaking him. Perhaps it was fortunate I wasn’t with him or there would have been a fair chance said maniac would have ended up fishing for pike without a rod.

As with all antisocial behaviour, especially on the road, the perpetrators go on the basis they will never be caught and the only person who matters in the world is them. Wrong though it is, sometimes vigilante action has its attractions.