Edinburgh's revived festivals are still facing major challenges for a landmark year in 2022 – Brian Ferguson

After the most frantic and uncertain run-up in their history, there was almost a collective sigh of relief from all those involved with Edinburgh’s festivals as they drew to a close.

By Brian Ferguson
Wednesday, 1st September 2021, 4:55 am
MultiStory was a new Fringe venue created at the Castle Terrace car park.
MultiStory was a new Fringe venue created at the Castle Terrace car park.

All the uncertainties and anxieties of spring and early summer blown away by the return of audiences, sold out shows and venues old and new.

The reinvention of the festivals may have been radical and much-reduced on the last season in 2019, but still attracted an audience in excess of 520,000, a remarkable achievement by any measure.

Many of those involved in the festivals are already turning their thoughts to 2022, their 75th anniversary

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Just about the only thing that seems certain about next year’s season is that it will be very different again. Despite an insistence from many that the scale of the city’s cultural celebration will not be the main driver in future, there will be a real desire to ensure next year is much closer to “normal”.

Balancing that desire with an official new vision for Edinburgh’s festivals, pledging there will be “no returning to the status quo” and a “truly sustainable future”, will not be easy.

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Calls to halt the growth of the festivals are at odds with demands to reach new audiences and disperse to new locations.

Edinburgh's end-of-festival fireworks were missing this year. Picture: Ryan Buchanan

There are clear tensions about who should be setting the agenda for recovery, what that should involve and who should be receiving financial help.

The Fringe Society has been vocal in lobbying for the need for serious and sustained investment in the event. The other main festivals also have big rebuilding jobs on their hands.

There are claims that it may take up to five years for Edinburgh to attract anything like the number of international visitors it had or a similar number of participants in its festivals. I don’t think either possibility is that far off.

The big challenge is to ensure the festivals are a more comfortable fit than they were two years ago. That will need real collaboration.

I would expect the Fringe venues in and around Edinburgh University’s heartland will be back with full-scale offerings. The book festival’s relocation to Edinburgh College of Art is a long-term one, while I would be surprised if the International Festival does not return to the Old College Quad. Hopefully there will be a revival for MultiStory, the open-air venue beneath Edinburgh Castle.

A collective effort involving all the festivals is needed to ensure that the New Town’s venues and public spaces are brought back into play in time.

While the Assembly Rooms and the New Town Theatre are expected to return, new performance spaces at the St James Quarter and the Johnnie Walker experience on Princes Street could help revitalise the Fringe. The film festival’s use of St Andrew Square may focus minds on how Charlotte Square could be brought back into use sensitively.

Long-discussed plans to pedestrianise George Street should be fast-tracked for the festivals if the city is genuinely serious about creating more “people-friendly” spaces. Ensuring more in the Old Town seems essential to avoid a return of overcrowding problems.

But the most intriguing possibilities may lie on Princes Street itself, where the festivals and the wider cultural sector could be key to finding imaginative uses for its vacant buildings.

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