Edinburgh International Book Festival reveals line-up for radically revamped event at new 'village green' site

Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio, Booker Prize winners Douglas Stuart, Salman Rushdie and Bernardine Evaristo, and Good Omens writer Neil Gaiman will be among the special guests when the Edinburgh International Book Festival returns in a radically revamped format next month.

Tuesday, 6th July 2021, 10:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 6th July 2021, 3:25 pm
Director Nick Barley launched the book festival's programme at its new home at Edinburgh College of Art. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Organisers have revealed that audience numbers will be capped at just 100 for its biggest events – compared to 750 in previous years – and will be socially distanced, even if restrictions are lifted in the city by the time the event goes ahead.

However screens will be showing festival events line at the event’s new home at Edinburgh College of Art, where it is relocating to after nearly 40 years in Charlotte Square. Organisers say the “village green” site will have its own bookshop, cafe, outdoor seating, children’s play area and a dedicated area for book signings.

The festival – which has described this year's format as “properly hybrid” will make all 250 of its events available online, with tickets available to be booked from today. Tickets for the live events will go on sale on 22 July.

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Leading Scottish writers due to appear in person include Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Alan Warner, Debi Gliori, Alexander McCall Smith, Maggie O’Farrell, AL Kennedy, Kathleen Jamie and Jackie Kay.

Highlights of the festival programme are expected to include First Minister Nicola Sturgeon interview with Douglas Stuart, who won the Booker Prize with his debut novel, Shuggie Bain, last year, Sally Magnusson discussion the handling of the pandemic with Professor Devi Sridhar, one of the Scottish Government’s key Covid-19 advisers, and appearances from former Labour Party leaders Gordon Brown and Ed Milliband.

Mercurio will be joining Line of Duty star Prasanna Puwanarajah to discuss the new graphic novel series they have created, while Gaiman’s appearance will coincide with filming of a new series of Good Omens in Scotland.

Ian Rankin will be discussing his completion of William McIlvanney’s final manuscript, The Dark Remains, ahead of its publication in September, while Jenni Fagan will take fans on a tour of locations around Edinburgh’s Old Town which inspired her acclaimed new novel Luckenbooth.

Edinburgh College of Art will be playing host to the book festival for the first time next month. Picture: Guthrie Aerial Photography

Fagan and former Scots Makar Jackie Kay will be working on stage adaptations honouring the work of Highland writer Jessie Kesson and blues singer Bessie Smith respectively.

Organisers have ruled out flying in any authors from overseas – with only UK-based authors invited to attend in person.

The array of international guests from 30 countries includes Pulitzer-winning American novelists Viet Thanh Tguyen and Marilynne Robinson, and Australian writer Richard Flanagan, and Nobel Prize winners Amartya Sen and Kazuo Ishiguro.

The festival, which brought authors from more than 60 countries to Edinburgh in 2019, has also pledged to scale back how many international authors it brings to the city in future to help reduce its carbon footprint.

Shuggie Bain author Douglas Stuart will be discussing its Booker Prize success with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Martyn Pickersgill

Audiences will be able to attend around half of the planned events in the festival’s programme, in the sculpture court and west court at the art school, which will have capacities of 100 and 60 respectively under plans to run them with one metre social distancing.

A queuing system is being set up to control audience numbers at the festival site, although its capacity will be set depending on the restrictions at the time.

The festival’s relocation from Charlotte Square, where more than 265,000 people flocked to in 2019 festival, was unveiled in January. However director Nick Barley insists the move is permanent from the, which took months to recover from the event in recent years.

Mr Barley said: “Edinburgh College of Art will definitely be our home for the next few years. It’s no longer viable for us to run a festival in Charlotte Square.

Line of Duty's creator, Jed Mercurio, will be part of this year's festival line-up.

"Part of that is down to financial viability. Nobody would seriously try to give an accurate forecast for ticket sales for this year. Who can be certain what the demand is going look like in future years? It wouldn’t be wise for us to go back to the 2019 model anytime soon.

“This year is all about working out how we best can run a festival at the site and learning about what works so we can do it better next year as we move back to bigger audiences and a more traditional festival spirit that we all know and love. The two spaces we are using this year will have capacities of around 400 and 250-300 in future years.”

Under Scotland’s current timetable, indoor events are expected to able to operate with one metre distancing from 19 July. Outdoor events will be able to operate without social distancing, but audience numbers will be capped at 2000 until 9 August, the earliest date for all restrictions to be lifted in Scotland.

Tickets for the live events are being held back until after this month’s decision.

Mr Barley said the festival would be able to adapt to whatever rules are in place at the time, but insisted that audiences at the live events would be kept socially distanced try to ensure the safety of festivalgoers, staff and special guests.

Mr added: “One of the reasons for going to the new site is the flexibility it offers. In the worst case scenario of another lockdown we could run a purely online festival there.

Edinburgh-based author Jenni Fagan will be taking fans on tours of locations around the city's Old Town that inspired her latest novel Luckenbooth. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

"We also have options for more socially-distanced audiences at our live events – we could run them at two metre distancing.

“Our plan is to run our theatres at one metre distancing. Under Scotland’s current timetable, all restrictions will be lifted by the time of the festival.

"We've talked about at length with the team in terms of the safety of our staff, audiences and our participants we have decided to retain social distancing and limited capacities even if all restrictions are lifted on 9 August.

"Obviously that will be at great financial cost to the festival, but we think the reputation of the festival and the safety of participants is what really counts.”

Devi Sridhar, professor and chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, is part of the festival's line-up. Picture: Sophie Gerrard
Audiences of only 100 will be able to attend live events with guest authors in the festival's biggest space in the sculpture court at the art school.