Brian Ferguson: State of theatres is Edinburgh's modern disgrace
It was not quite the same bone-shaking experience as the ascent of the Forth Road Bridge '“ but it was not far off it.
I definitely got a bit more than I bargained for when I asked for a look around the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, hiking up through a labyrinth of corridors and stairwells. The idea was to show the potential for hospitality facilities in the venue once a planned revamp worth £25 million is carried out.
It was an eye-opening experience in more ways than one, long before I ventured out and took in the remarkable views of the city’s skyline that could be on offer to members of the public in the next five years.
I was not expecting great things from the backstage facilities, having been told of their drawbacks some 15 years previously when an attempt to bring them up to modern standards was turned down for National Lottery funding.
But it was still a shock to see the antiquated state of what is supposed to be a jewel in the crown of Edinburgh’s cultural infrastructure.
The King’s is at least a fully-operational theatre, where the driving force behind the refurbishment efforts seems to be a fear of a major failure in the building.
Two other historic venues I’ve seen at close hand in recent months have been far less fortunate.
The Ross Bandstand hosts the curtain raiser to the Jazz Festival and the fireworks finale which book-end the city’s summer festivities, but it is otherwise almost unusable.
An enormous stage has to be built around it for the Hogmanay celebrations and the cost of hiring it and installing equipment pretty much rules it out for anything else.
Wandering around the decrepit bandstand and the run-down concrete bowl in front of it, I was struck by how such a stark, soulless place could exist in the middle of a vibrant capital, which hosts the world’s biggest celebration of culture.
The structure may be around 20 years younger than the theatre, but its condition has declined so much that the entire arena will need to be replaced, at the same cost, while a separate building is envisaged for the kind of catering and hospitality facilities that the King’s management envisage for their venue.
The deteriorating state of these historic sites would be alarming enough, but I had had a tour of another of the city’s long-neglected cultural venues at the start of the year. The former Leith Theatre, which has been out of action since the 1980s when it was still part of the Edinburgh Festival’s programming, had fallen into a near-derelict state in the intervening period.
After years of inaction, the city council has finally thrown its weight behind long-term efforts to breathe life into all three venues.
Allowing charitable trusts to take on long-term leases of all three buildings, and pledging £5m for the King’s revamp, has given a serious foundation to secure their futures.
A surprise announcement from the Scottish Government and Historic Environment Scotland of £750,000 for the Queen’s Hall – also badly in need of an upgrade – has helped create a much-needed sense of momentum, along with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s plans for a brand new £45m New Town venue.
But the good news should not mask the scandal of why they have been allowed to slip into such decline when Edinburgh’s cultural events have been more popular than ever and development has transformed swathes of the city.