Festivals require Olympic effort

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One of the most extraordinary things about the Edinburgh festivals is just how much controversy they cause. The attention which is given to the fortunes of our festivals is a good sign in one way – it shows that people in Edinburgh and elsewhere really do care about the festivals and want them to do well, and not just because they bring visitors to the city and to Scotland.

There is a misconception that the citizens of Edinburgh are ungrateful about the festivals, that we begrudge the public money spent on them, and that we can’t stand festival-goers.

Though I will admit there is a small curmudgeonly minority who hate the whole clamjamfry, I have found little evidence over the years of active dislike for the festivals, apart from resentment against those festival-goers who insist on clogging up the streets with their “Chelsea taxi” SUVs.

It’s because we love the festivals that we have inevitable rows that happen every year, whether they are about the objectionable content of shows, or some perceived waste of public money, or the claims and counter-claims that the festivals have become too bloated or are losing their attractions.

Such stories are always among the most-read tales in the Evening News and other publications. This year, even the election of a member to the Fringe Society board – normally a matter that would gain two lines at the bottom of a middle News page –became a real cause for arguments about the direction the Fringe is taking.

I’m glad my former council colleague Tommy Sheppard won the day, because the owner of The Stand will have no hesitation in speaking his mind on issues which affect the Fringe, and he is politically shrewd enough to be a spokesman for the Fringe as a whole, something which Fringe chief executive Kath Mainland seems reluctant to become. Instead, she has concentrated on getting the Fringe Society’s operations up to scratch, a job which she has done very well.

The Free Fringe has been a major source of controversy, and may indeed be a curse rather than a blessing, though I think the “experiment” has yet to be truly tested. I enjoyed a few of the shows, whole others were rank rotten. It is too early to say whether a burgeoning free element on the Fringe will damage paid-for shows, but one thing I can assure you – those comedians who have done well in free shows will not be long in charging admission once they are a bit more famous.

The International Festival’s director, Jonathan Mills, must be praised for an adventurous programme, and that’s before we see Jonathan Kent’s extraordinary version of Richard Strauss’s opera Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) which opens tomorrow at the Festival Theatre and which I confidently predict will be a memorable hit.

Mills has achieved his programme against a background in which Edinburgh must compete against festivals with much larger budgets. He is probably well aware of this, but Mills must know that this financial equivalent of the First Division against the Premier League will continue for some time – the public purse just cannot afford more money for the arts at present. Good luck to him as he tries to keep the Edinburgh International Festival in the front rank.

Every festival in Edinburgh could do with much more money, but a blue note must be struck. There is not going to be any more cash, certainly from public funds, for at least the next four or five years.

Had the Liberal Democrats, Labour and Conservatives not inflicted the trams upon us, there might have been more council cash to spend, though I suspect it would have been diverted to essential services rather than the arts.

At least the trams will continue to give comedians plenty fodder for jokes in future. With the decision to end the line at Haymarket, the trams will become the longest running farce beyond the West End (there is only one sensible solution – mothball the whole project and complete it when better days return, if they ever return. After all, the tram lines won’t be going anywhere. The Scottish Government must step in and order this course of action).

All the festivals face a massive challenge next year when the Olympics in London will eat into the available audience unless there is a huge campaign to persuade visitors to come north and see the real Cultural Olympics. Forgive me if I’ve missed it, but where was the publicity splurge to persuade everyone who visited this year’s festivals to come back next year when their attendance will be needed? There will also be a lot of Scottish families who will spend their diminishing income on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Olympic Games rather than visit Edinburgh as they might have done.

A serious marketing campaign aimed at Olympic visitors and those planning to attend the 2012 London Festival from June until September should already be under way, for people planning to visit London next summer will already be making their plans.

For once, the council, VisitScotland and all the festivals need to work together with the common aim of combating the Olympic audience drain. No doubt there are such plans, but I fear it will be too little, too late.