Festival opener a ‘bloody disgraceful’ takeover

Bloom - the curtain-rasier at the 70th festival - takes place in Edinburgh's St Andrew Square tonight and tomorrow. Picture: Lesley Martin
Bloom - the curtain-rasier at the 70th festival - takes place in Edinburgh's St Andrew Square tonight and tomorrow. Picture: Lesley Martin
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It is the signature event to mark a landmark anniversary of Edinburgh as a festivals city.

But 70 years after the instigation of the Fringe by theatre companies excluded from the first Edinburgh International Festival, a new rift has opened over the official curtain-raiser.

Fringe promoters ousted from St Andrew Square have accused the Edinburgh International Festival and finance giant Standard Life of a “bloody disgraceful” takeover of its garden.

The operators of The Stand Comedy Club, who have staged dozens of Fringe shows in the square in recent years, have suggested the site was chosen because it is home to Standard Life’s new headquarters. 
Standard Life, the main property owner on the square, and the EIF have been compared to Donald Trump for using a business group, Essential Edinburgh, as a “mouthpiece” to explain why Fringe and jazz festival shows were ousted before the free EIF event, Bloom, was approved.

The EIF, which says up to 60,000 people could attend Bloom tonight and tomorrow, has been accused of lacking “civility, humility and courtesy” with their treatment of the Fringe when both were celebrating their 70th birthday.

Kenny O’Brien, director of The Stand, suggested the event was more about showcasing the new HQ of Standard Life - which he compared to a “gilded imitation of a car park.”

He added: “We paid our rent, we played by all the rules and we collaborated with everyone. We took great care of the square and quickly repaired damaged grass. We had no complaints and were gutted to be told we couldn’t return. No reasons were given and still haven’t been given. All we were told was the owners wanted the square to be ‘an oasis of calm’ and that future events there would not involve anything being built and would be small in scale. At the moment it is entirely populated by kit, projectors, speakers, barriers, lights, cables and a massive Portakabin. We’d never have got away with that.

“It has taken them two weeks so far and there has been nothing of benefit to the arts. The look of the garden is bloody disgraceful and cannot be ignored. A celebration of the 70th anniversary could have been achieved without shutting down the Fringe and jazz festivals in the square. We’d gladly have collaborated.

“This event seems to be more about Standard Life than the EIF. If modern buildings as well as old ones were needed as a backdrop they could have created a continuous walkway of light on George Street.

“A cynic might suggest the event could be more to do with Standard Life showing the world their new building.

“The Fringe began as a reaction against the EIF 70 years ago, their attitude being that only high arts were worthwhile culture. The Fringe now dwarfs the EIF in every way other than in public funding. It makes great, spectacular productions. I’ve no complaint about that. But I’d have hoped it would behave with a bit more humility, civility and courtesy to those who are working their **** off, putting their savings on the line and taking real risks because they believe in their art.”

A spokeswoman for Standard Life said: “There is a big difference between this event and staging Fringe shows in the square is that this has very little infrastructure, which is up for a very short period of time and doesn’t have a major impact on the use of the square. It doesn’t prevent anyone accessing or using the square and has very little impact. The grass has had to be re-turfed seven times in around 18 months, which is clearly unsustainable.”

EIF director Fergus Linehan said: “This event is not about the EIF, it is about the festival city. It is about the funding years, but it is about much more than that, it’s about the family of festivals that’s grown up.

“There was never a question of us not being able to do the event if there was anything else happening in the square. But it might have been a slightly different event.”