Edinburgh Festival: Return of audiences will set seal on remarkable comeback – Brian Ferguson

It is 9am on a sunny Royal Mile at the start of a week which will end with the full-blown return of Edinburgh’s festival for the first time in three years and it all seems eerily quiet, except for the parade of delivery vehicles.

Wednesday, 3rd August 2022, 12:30 pm

But the blue skies above the High Street certainly seemed to herald a bright start for the festivals and the thousands of folk whose hopes, dreams, aspirations and ambitions are riding on them over the next few weeks.

And when I ventured onto Princes Street around nine hours later, the famous thoroughfare felt busier than at any time since the summer of 2019.

It is very early days, but it already feels to me that the city is in for an extremely busy few weeks as the festivals – and the festival-season crowds – make a comeback.

Sweet FA, which charts the rise of women's football during the First World War, will be staged at Tynecastle Park during this year's Fringe (Picture: Simon Messer)

There are two key indicators pointing towards a remarkable return for the festivals on a scale which was unimaginable when the plug was suddenly pulled on them after the pandemic began in 2020.

Th first is the enormous range of events on offer. More than 3,430 shows are available on the official Fringe website, with around 250 added since the official programme went to press. When the other summer festivals are added to the mix, the tally tops 4,400.

That this has been achieved in the wake of the undoubted impact of Brexit, Covid, the cost-of-living crisis and the war in Ukraine is nothing short of astonishing. Before shows have even opened, the resilience and relevance of these events is something to behold.

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The “spirit of the Fringe” is often spoken about but can be hard to define.

Yet I found it in spades at the two hugely different venues I visited at either end of the start of what has become known as “Week Zero” in festival circles.

After the best part of 20 years writing about the locked-up and neglected historic former Royal High School on Calton Hill, it seems nothing short of a miracle that is about to become the biggest new addition to the Fringe landscape.

Its use for the Hidden Door festival earlier this year – and the enthusiasm of its largely local audiences – seems to have fired the imagination of two Edinburgh musical institutions, Pianodrome and the Tinderbox Collective, which have programmed more than 50 shows and events, and were still at it when I dropped in.

Across the city, it is hard to imagine there is a more timely Fringe show out there than Sweet FA – the little-known story of the rise of women’s football in the First World War before it was banned by the game’s governing body – which is back at Tynecastle Park.

The vast majority of Edinburgh’s festivals, and every imaginable art form, can be enjoyed in the three miles between these venues. Venues, promoters, producers and performers have pulled out all the stops to get to this stage. All that remains is to get people through the doors – a challenge that seems more daunting than ever this year.

The financial risks involved in putting on shows have been well documented. Now is the time for audiences to venture out, take a chance or two, and help make some dreams come true.