Lesley Riddoch: Bit players in our own Fringe blockbuster

A TV programme on the Festival raises questions about the roles of Scots on the international stage, writes Lesley Riddoch.

Monday, 28th August 2017, 7:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th September 2017, 12:07 pm
Lesley Riddoch feels Scots are bit part players in the Fringe. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

On Saturday night I watched Festival Tales, Edinburgh at 70 – a one-hour documentary presented by Jack Whitehall, celebrating 70 years of the Edinburgh International Festival, “from the idealism of its glorious beginnings in 1947 as a ‘bond of reunion in a disintegrated world’… to the birth of the Fringe the same year and the creative anarchy it unleashed”.
Given the welter of 70th anniversary programmes this past month, I didn’t expect any radically new insights, but the interviews with Sir Ian McKellen, Stephen Fry, Claire Bloom, Michael Palin, Nicola Benedetti, Alan Cumming and Alexei Sayle were interesting enough.

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As the programme concluded, though, I felt something big was missing: Scotland. Or more specifically a narrative from the perspective of folk who live in the city that gave birth to the Festival and have nurtured it ever since.

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Yes, Scots-born stars like Alan Cumming and Nicola Benedetti did say a few words. But most of the guests asked to comment, and the overall perspective, were unassailably metropolitan.

At one point a contributor talking about Beyond the Fringe observed that critic Kenneth Tynan had described the 1960s production starring Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller as “a turning point in English comedy”.

Really? How could a production launched in Edinburgh only affect English comedy? Were Scots immune – or was Scottish comedy non-existent?

Since Mr Tynan is no longer with us, we’ll never know. But the decision to include that line spoke volumes.

For all the tokenistic inclusion of some Black Watch footage and a few memorable seconds of the Big Yin, Festival Tales was a show about Edinburgh as an outpost of English culture.

Edinburghers were largely absent, apart from cutaways of the twin-set-and-pearls ladies of Morningside tut-tutting about the latest Fringe outrage and glimpses of the ground-breaking Traverse Theatre in its former Grassmarket home. Scots were cast as bit players in their own capital city.

Like a surrogate mother, Edinburgh was portrayed as delivering an event it did not help conceive or nurture over 70 long years.

It felt weird – because Scots have done so much more than merely carp from the sidelines.

The original choice of Edinburgh as Festival City involved the city’s Lord Provost, Sir John Falconer; an Austrian impresario, Sir Rudolf Bing; Edinburgh-man Henry Harvey Wood of the British Council; the Scots aristocrat and patron of the arts Lady Rosebery; Scotsman editor Murray Watson; and professor of music at Edinburgh University Sidney Newman.

The Scots were in with the Festival bricks.

Scots also ran six of the eight companies that gave birth to the Fringe in 1947 when they dared to turn up uninvited and stage their own shows. Finally, the majority of tickets for Fringe and Festival productions have been bought by local people.

Yet the impression that emerged from the hour-long succession of “national treasures” recalling formative years “up” in Edinburgh was that philistine, socially conservative Scots had been challenged, enlightened and enlivened by the bright, bubbly, talented, daring young things of Oxbridge.

Now, to be crystal clear, this is not a complaint about the international nature of the Festival – quite the opposite. The Festival is indeed a massive, chaotic celebration of internationalism – a melting pot created and sustained by many people, including prominent Scots.

Not headlined in the Festival Tales blurb but mercifully included in the film was Richard Demarco, the Edinburgh-born artist and patron of the arts whose forays across the Iron Curtain brought avant-garde acts from eastern Europe in the 1950s and helped put the “international” into the Festival’s official title.

But one of the Scottish companies that started the Fringe was not so lucky – excluded from this and every other anniversary film, even though the Edinburgh People’s Theatre (EPT) still performs on the Fringe today. According to spokesperson Anne Mackenzie: “We’ve performed Scottish comedies for 60 years. We play to full houses but are ignored by the media.”

She says the eight Fringe pioneers decided to gatecrash the Festival to gain recognition for Scotland’s thriving grassroots arts culture and to make art affordable for local people at a time of post-war austerity.

Plus ça change.

The cause of austerity may be different but the casual exclusion of local talent has hardly changed at all.

Why has no filmmaker sought out the EPT during this special celebratory year?

They are not a professional company but have alumni like the late Ian Richardson and Bill Tennant, and past patrons such as Sir Compton MacKenzie for whom they premiered the stage play of Whisky Galore in the 1966 Edinburgh Festival. They have won great reviews and Fringe awards. So why the cold shoulder – is it because they are “just” an Edinburgh company?

Anne Mackenzie observes: “The 70th celebrations have perhaps contradicted the ‘Spirit of 47’ which wasn’t about big names from down south – it was about open access for the little names. In my opinion, World Fringe Day should’ve been about celebrating that ‘open access’ policy and acknowledging the contribution of companies like EPT who’ve been around from the beginning.”

Well, it would have been nice.

Now I’ve no doubt these sentiments will be dismissed as parochial niggles, detracting from another successful Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. And it’s possible I missed fleeting references to the contribution of Scots.

But in life and in comedy, timing is 

And the timing of these 70th anniversary celebrations is crushingly ironic.

In 1947, the Edinburgh Festival was created (largely by Scots) to produce a “bond of reunion in a disintegrated world”.

Some 70 years later, Scots are still trying to do that – working to protect our cultural, social and economic bonds with European neighbours through continuing membership of the European Union. Edinburgh is a European city which wants to stay that way. But in Britain, the majority, metropolitan view always dominates – whether in the business of national identity, European integration or documentary narrative.

Whether we like it or not, our days as enthusiastic members of Europe’s most daring cultural project are numbered and I’m sure many attending the last big performances of the Festival shared that sour feeling of impending loss.

However, Festival Tales touched on none of this.

So we can only hope Scots have made some big decisions about national identity before the 80th Festival anniversary comes around.