Interview: Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan on why it's time to rethink the city's cultural celebration

These are difficult times; and so it’s perhaps not surprising that as you drift around the internet, looking for consolation or good cheer, you are currently more likely than usual to come across a certain short clip from that great Irish television institution, Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show. It dates back to 1989, and shows Fergus Linehan’s mother, the legendary Irish actress Rosaleen Linehan, singing, to her own piano accompaniment, a merry song for hard times called Soap Your Arse And Slide Backwards Up a Rainbow. It’s a remarkable broadcasting moment, as the live audience shrieks with glee; and the folk-memory of it, in Ireland, has followed Rosaleen ever since, through her hugely distinguished acting career.

Festival director Fergus Linehan pictured before the launch of last year's event at Tynecastle Park. Picture: Andrew O'Brien

The Edinburgh International Festival’s director, Fergus Linehan, is of course a very different character from either of his remarkable parents; his father, also Fergus, was arts editor of the Irish Times, and a well-known co-writer of witty satirical revues. Yet while Linehan has been a Festival director and administrator for more than 20 years now – he was appointed to run the Dublin International Theatre Festival at the age of 30, back in 1999 – and currently spends his life “surrounded by spreadsheet after spreadsheet,” it’s still possible to detect, within the careful and diplomatic arts manager, something of the sheer creative resilience and wicked wit that is his family inheritance.

In day-to-day terms, Linehan describes himself as still being at the “dealing with practicalities” stage of the cancellation of the Edinburgh International Festival, which was announced on 1 April.

“It’s the phone calls and the spreadsheets, and trying to get the measure of what may and may not be possible,” says Linehan, who is working from his home in Edinburgh, with interruptions from his two young children. “I’m sure the reaction to this will come in waves; there’ll be grief and all sorts of other emotions. But for the moment, there’s just this immense practical to-do list, and I’m working my way through it.”

In terms of what Linehan can say to those who were set to take part in the 2020 Festival, he is very conscious that there is a huge range of different levels of vulnerability to the crisis, across countries and art forms.

The Festival’s 2020 programme launch was originally scheduled for 18 March, and it had already been announced that the programme would include both a first-ever visit from the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and a high-profile co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland of Liz Lochhead’s Medea, to be directed by Sir Michael Boyd.

Discussing possible rescheduling with major orchestras and national theatre companies, though, is not quite the same thing as cancelling the performances of smaller-scale companies, or of bands and musicians of the kind Linehan has been foregrounding in a much-enhanced programme of rock and indie music, since he became EIF director in 2015.

“Let’s put it this way,” says Linehan. “If you’re talking to a German opera company, in a country where the government has just announced a e50 billion rescue package for the arts and small businesses, then they are just not worried in the same way as a small Scottish band that has just seen its entire future income disappear. And I’m also hugely concerned about all the wonderful freelance crew and production people, and other staff, that we usually take on before and during the Festival period. They are a tremendously expert workforce, many of them based here in Edinburgh, and I’m concerned to do everything possible to make sure that that infrastructure of expertise and skill is still there when we emerge from this.

“What we hope, though, is that it will be possible to stage much of what we were planning for this year in 2021. We’re making that offer to every artist and company we had programmed, even though in some cases it may not work out.

“For our own finances – well, we’ve always been very fortunate not only in our audiences and sponsors, but in the absolute commitment of our main public funders, Creative Scotland and the City of Edinburgh Council, despite their own funding constraints. There is a huge love for this festival both across the world and in Scotland itself, and I’m convinced that whatever the difficulties, it will return better than ever.”

Linehan is under no illusions, though, that the festival can simply return to the status quo before the crisis. He’s aware of the tide of criticism and anti-festival feeling – mainly directed at the ever-growing Fringe – that has been rising in Edinburgh during the recent years of hyper-tourism; and he believes that even before the coronavirus crisis, Edinburgh and the world’s other major arts festivals were facing profound questions about their future.

“Over the last 30 years or so, it’s been easy to be drawn into a world in which the arts are framed as part of a wider economic regeneration agenda that’s all about tourism and never-ending growth. But now, I think there is a real change of political mood under way; and we’re recognising that that old approach is no longer sustainable either environmentally, or in terms of the real value of the arts, which are so much more than just a branding exercise. The Edinburgh International Festival has always had an international mission, of course. But it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to make it both a festival for the wider world, and a festival for Edinburgh and all its people; and I think that after a year in which, for once, we don’t have to produce a festival on a tight schedule, none of us are going to have any excuse for not coming up with some brilliant new thinking about what an international festival might look like, in those new times.

“And in the meantime – well, I’m just so ready to go out and see something live, and to be with an audience again. I think millions of people will be feeling the same; and that when we’re finally allowed to get together again, and hear that roar – well, we could be in for the most exciting year yet, in 2021.”

Linehan laughs, when I remind of his mother’s old rainbow song. “But yes,” he says, “I am an optimist. I think that despite everything, we could see some very positive changes as a result of this; and that in the end, everything will be all right.”