The festive cheer keeps coming thanks to Underbelly - Steve Cardownie

It was 20 years ago that Underbelly directors, Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood, knocked on my office door in The City Chambers.

Wednesday, 24th November 2021, 9:20 am

They sought to persuade me that The Fringe needed new blood and festival promoters with the vision and energy to breathe new life into the event – and that they were the very people who could deliver.

The only problem was they did not have a venue but had identified the spare storage rooms that formed part of The Central Library in George IV Bridge as a possibility. Despite opposition from some council officials I supported the idea, got Committee approval and Underbelly introduced their first extensive programme in their new home at the 2001 Fringe Festival.

Twenty years on and Underbelly’s identity as one of the major promoters of Summer and Winter Festival programmes is unchallenged and the official opening of this year’s Christmas extravaganza bears testimony to that.

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The new ice rink in the west end of George Street. PIC: Contributed.

The re-introduction of an ice-rink after a three- year absence will surely prove to be one of the main attractions if previous numbers of skaters are anything to go by. Having been encouraged to flit from St Andrew Square to George Street, the rink offers great family entertainment and whether skating or spectating, it will undoubtedly prove to be a great draw, bringing in even more people to the city centre to enjoy the festivities.

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It has been estimated the Christmas event is worth £119 million to the economy which, after the Covid-enforced impact on the entertainment and retail sector, will prove to be a much-needed shot in the arm (forgive the pun!).

With more than 92,000 people attending the opening week, it looks like the Edinburgh public are voting with their feet. Given that Princes Street Gardens used to close to the public around 3.30pm during the winter months, it is impossible to deny the Christmas programme on offer has dramatically increased their use by the public.

Attractions such as Santa Land, Santa’s Grotto, The Christmas Tree Maze and the Ferris Wheel all contribute to make the Gardens a fantastic venue in which to embrace the festive season for both the Edinburgh citizens and visitors alike.

In addition, the 80 or so stalls and bars, open 12 hours a day in the Gardens, George Street and on The Mound precinct, should provide an excuse for spending more time, soaking up the atmosphere and not rushing around making Christmas purchases in the shortest time possible.

Underbelly’s illumination of the city from The Mound, incorporating a display created by local artist Hannah Ayre, is an example of the innovative thinking behind such large scale events such as Edinburgh’s Christmas, which keeps faith with popular favourites but always looks for ways to introduce new features.

Charlie and Ed have come a long way since that meeting 20 years ago and I have no regrets about taking the decision to offer them their very first venue. Little did I know then that the idiom “mighty oaks from little acorns grow” would prove to be the case when it came to Underbelly and I believe that the city is a better place for it.

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