Window to the world: Edinburgh Festival at 70

It's the flags John Cameron remembers most from the first Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) in 1947. He was 16, and his dad told him it reminded him of being in Antwerp shortly after its liberation at the end of the First World War. 'He said this was the first time he had felt an atmosphere like that in Edinburgh; it was really something,' says Cameron.

Sunday, 30th July 2017, 12:30 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th September 2017, 11:50 am
Margot Fonteyn performs at The Empire

Although the most recently defeated forces were Hitler’s not the Kaiser’s, the post-war euphoria Cameron’s father picked up on was real enough. Rudolph Bing, the impresario and general manager of the Glyndebourne Opera who came up with idea, was an Austrian Jew who had fled the Nazis and sought to provide a new “platform for the flowering of the human spirit”; but getting the venture off the ground, at a time when hotels were still requisitioned for the military and food and fuel was still rationed, required a Blitz-like solidarity.

Though Edinburgh was not Bing’s first choice (Oxford and Cambridge knocked him back) the city – spurred to action by its Lord Provost, John Falconer – rose to the challenge; local residents opened their homes to guests and sacrificed their coal rations so the castle could be lit up as a testament to human resilience.

That first festival was a triumph, boasting the best European culture had to offer: Margot Fonteyn danced in Sleeping Beauty with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet; Ralph Richardson directed Alec Guinness in an Old Vic production of Richard II; Trevor Howard and Harry Andrews starred in The Taming Of The Shrew; and Walter Midgley sang the part of Macduff in Verdi’s opera Macbeth.

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The national anthem plays at the Usher Hall at the opening show of the 1947 festival

But its capacity for healing was most powerfully realised in its closing concert, which reunited the Vienna Philharmonic Opera with its former conductor Bruno Walter, a German Jew who had fled Berlin for Austria and then the US in the 1930s. “Here, human relations have been renewed,” he said.

When, years later, theatre critic Joyce McMillan was taking up the kitchen floor of her new flat, she found a copy of the Evening News for 29 August, 1952. It featured Fonteyn dancing at the Empire (now the Festival Theatre) and the Hamburg State Opera playing at the Usher Hall.

“Imagine that: just seven years after the end of the war, the gesture involved in having a huge German orchestra in the city and running the Festival Club so they could get their dinner after the concert because there were no restaurants,” she says. “It was wonderful and uplifting.”

Seventy years on from its inception, the EIF (and the Fringe that has evolved alongside it) has grown beyond its founder’s wildest dreams. For over three weeks every year, the city is transformed into a creative free-for-all. Two-bit student improvs are performed just feet away from productions by world-renowned opera, dance and theatre companies, artistic boundaries are pushed and the limits of public tolerance tested. Outside, the streets are transformed into a theatre of the bizarre. Knife-juggling, sword- swallowing unicyclists vie with levitating Yodas, and it is impossible to walk up the Royal Mile without being coerced into being the foil to some aspiring stunt performer.

The national anthem plays at the Usher Hall at the opening show of the 1947 festival

But as the carnival has grown, so too have the number of detractors; artists carp that commercialism is killing the DIY spirit, the people who live there that they cannot get to and from work. And yet, the EIF and Fringe are now an integral part of the city’s identity.

“At the beginning of the 50s, Edinburgh was a provincial town where you couldn’t get dinner after 9pm,” says McMillan. “It was the first city to transform its image through the arts, and, because it was the first, it got the biggest bang for its buck.

“So you can moan about the festival – it’s a mess, it blocks the traffic, it’s full of ‘Yahs’ whose mums and dads have written them a large cheque – but it has been transformational and it is impossible to imagine the city without it.”

From its very earliest days, the EIF put the city on the map, pulling the world’s biggest stars into its orbit. In the 41 years Scotsman photographer Denis Straughan spent covering it, he snapped hundreds of them. “For over three weeks every year, I would be working non-stop,” he says. “I got to know Billy Connolly, Larry Adler, Peter Ustinov and many more.”

His most memorable moment came in 1984 when he spotted Elizabeth Taylor at a city centre hotel two weeks after the death of Richard Burton. “I put all my gear away apart from a small camera. I put a flash on it and walked up to Frank Dunlop [the then EIF director]. I said, ‘I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight if I didn’t ask if I could take a photograph of you with Elizabeth Taylor’. I was playing on his ego and it worked.” Straughan took two shots and ran back to the office with his scoop.

“It was the only time I ever shouted, ‘Hold the front page,’” he says.

Straughan also photographed Jude Law in Joseph And His Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat long before he became a famous heart-throb. But then, many stars got their first break at the Edinburgh Festival. Winning the first ever Perrier award while performing with Cambridge Footlights in 1981 helped propel Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson to the big-time. One glowing review of Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead was enough to see him acclaimed and the play performed by the National Theatre.

From 1948, when Tyrone Guthrie produced his ground-breaking version of the pre-Reformation play, A Satire Of The Three Estates, on an apron stage at the Assembly Hall, the Edinburgh Festival has also been a hotbed of innovation, its anything-goes atmosphere encouraging directors to experiment with form and setting.

This is especially true of the Fringe. In the 1980s, Grid Iron theatre company began a trend for immersive performances when it led audience members through the underground passageways of Mary King’s Close during a production of The Bloody Chamber (an adaptation of Angela Carter’s short story).

On another occasion, it staged a show in Debenhams after-hours. This year, a show called Brodsky is being staged in the Novotel swimming pool, while a former Leith church is being flooded every night for a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull.

Theatre critic Mark Fisher says the Fringe’s unpredictability is a key part of its appeal. “I keep on having flashbacks to seeing the Doug Anthony All Stars in the late 80s in the building that is now the Gilded Balloon,” he says. “After the show, they led the audience into the girls’ toilets and continued to perform their musical triple act, singing Kumbaya, or whatever, around the cubicles.

“Another time, we all ended up round a bonfire at the back of the Pleasance. Just that feeling of chaos and letting the imagination loose – it’s one of the things the Fringe does well.”

With chaos, however, comes controversy. The Edinburgh Festival has thrived on scandal since at least 1963, when a drama conference, featuring a nude girl on a trolley, scandalised the great and good.

The faux outrage that followed makes Twitter seem tame. The then Lord Provost, Duncan Weatherstone, wailed that it was “a great pity the glorious festival should have been smeared by a piece of pointless vulgarity”. The model and director were prosecuted for indecency and acquitted, and a great festival tradition was born.

The woman most responsible for perpetuating that tradition, was, of course, Moira Knox, the Mary Whitehouse of the North – a self-appointed moral arbiter. Such was Knox’s cult status – born of her power to boost audiences – that from 1995, an ironic award, the “Moira”, has been given to the most “offensive” show on the Fringe.

Knox died on the eve of last year’s festival, just days after the EIF had offered refunds on Christophe Honoré’s provocative, sexually explicit and arguably racist take on Mozart’s opera Cosi Fan Tutte.

Such controversies give us an insight into changing social mores. But the Edinburgh Festival is also a prism through which the political shifts of the past 70 years can be viewed. And attempts to restrict performers’ freedom of movement (such as the Home Office’s initial refusal of a visa to Iranian illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi) or attempted boycotts (such as one of Jerusalem-based Incubator Theatre company in 2014 – see page 7) are a reminder of the backdrop against which the events are unfolding.

“The Edinburgh Festival really does reflect the times,” says McMillan. “I can remember it through the fall of apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. More recently, we have seen the rise of gender politics and an interest in mental illness, which is still very present today.”

The greatest change the Festival has seen, however, is to its size. This year’s Fringe attracted 3,398 shows. McMillan says deciding which to review is the toughest job of the year. Sixty is all she can cope with. Fisher describes the growth as a bit like the difference between the galaxy and the universe. “It is difficult to get a sense of how much bigger the Fringe is now because it was already mind bogglingly, eye-wateringly enormous,” he says. Cuts to arts budgets appear to be having little impact on numbers, although they may be affecting the mix.

At the same time, the EIF and Fringe have spawned other festivals: the Book Festival, the Film Festival, the Science Festival, the Storytelling Festival, Hogmanay, some of which take place in other months, so that Edinburgh is now a year-round festival city.

This has resulted in a rise in tourism, which is good for local businesses, but 
is also responsible for more short-term lets which reputedly drive out residents and threaten the integrity of the city. 
A recent report suggested that Edinburgh might end up becoming a hollow shell.

Fisher, author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide, sympathises. “One of the attractive things about living in the centre of Edinburgh is that it is not a Disneyland, but a real working, living space,” he says. “Year-round, the streets have got busier with tourists. Presumably we would eventually reach a tipping point where we would have to say, ‘No more’.”

Fisher is also ambivalent about the “professionalisation” that has brought more order, but believes a balance needs to be struck between spontaneity and irritating the paying public.

“If you were seeing shows in the early 90s, it would be quite common to be sitting around at one of Richard Demarco’s venues waiting for two hours for an interesting-sounding group from Yugoslavia to turn up – and there was an excitement to all that.

“On the other hand, it is frustrating if you are an audience and you have your dinner or another show booked, and then you realise that this show is going to overrun, and you’ll miss it.”

There are frequent niggles about the content of the EIF; in 2014, there were complaints about the lack of a production relevant to the Scottish independence debate (until director Sir Jonathan Mills announced Rona Munro’s The James Plays) ; this year, some are lamenting the lack of any international foreign language drama.

At the Fringe the biggest gripes are about the perceived dominance of comedy, and the rise of super venues, such as the Underbelly, the Guilded Balloon and Assembly. In 2013, one theatre director, Pippa Bailey, called for a rethink of the whole Fringe model, claiming it was “a monstrous machine suffocating artists and shows in its absolute excess”.

McMillan is more sanguine about the super venues, claiming they offer an accessible option for those who find the Fringe overwhelming, though she accepts there is a gap between those bankrolled by mum and dad and those with little money who struggle to get a foothold.

“The Fringe administration is well aware of these issues,” she says. “They do try to find ways to help: they encourage initiatives like Made in Scotland, which helps Scottish companies to come. They look at whether there are any other venues that could come on stream and provide a cheaper option, but they are not running the Fringe and it would be terrible if they were.”

Overall, McMillan believes the Edinburgh Festival ought to be celebrated for the many benefits it bestows. “You talk to any artist in Scotland – there will be something they saw there that made them think, ‘I can do this’,” she says.

“They may moan about the cost, but you will find that – without the Edinburgh Festival – elements of their creative life would never have happened. It’s a window to the world for Scottish artists.”

She claims it has also helped Scotland develop a sophisticated audience for international art and particularly contemporary dance.

So, the Edinburgh Festival has changed artists, it has changed audiences, but above all, it has changed the city. “If you try to imagine Edinburgh without these festivals – what would it be?” asks McMillan.

On Friday, the 70th EIF – run by director Fergus Linehan – will be launched with Bloom, an epic outdoor spectacle which involves transforming St Andrew Square into a magical night garden. The sound and light display is meant to symbolise the way Edinburgh “bloomed magnificently” as the world’s festival city.

Other 70th anniversary events include a new production of Verdi’s opera Macbeth, James MacMillan conducting three masterpieces, all of which received their premieres at the festival, and a concert which will bring together old footage, interviews, memories and music.

Earlier this year, EIF digital manager Nicola Kenny trawled through the archives to create the website, on which John Cameron’s interview appears, while the birth of the Fringe was celebrated with a World Fringe Day.

McMillan agrees that – with Europe again in disarray – it is good to reflect on the desire for harmony and reconciliation which brought the Festival into being.

“It was never a case of ‘let’s bring in the tourists’,” she says. “But the thing is, if you do something that’s great for the human spirit, people want to come, and that brings financial consequences.

“Given the times we are in, there is no harm in remembering the Festival was all about rebuilding a broken continent. I think the artists of Europe will survive Brexit, but that spirit of healing and breaking down barriers is still important.”