Seventy years of the Edinburgh Festival
Morag Fleming celebrates 70 years of the internationally famous arts event.
HAPPY birthday! And it’s a big birthday, too. The Edinburgh International Festival and its near neighbour, the Fringe, are 70 years old this year.
They’ve gained their three-score years and ten and, like many of the stars that cut their teeth here back in the day, are now national treasures.
The idea for an arts festival was first conceived during World War II in anticipation of a post-war slump in the arts in the UK.
Rudolf Bing co-founded the Festival with Henry Harvey Wood, Head of the British Council in Scotland, Sidney Newman Reid, Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, and a group of civic leaders from the City of Edinburgh.
Various cities had been discussed, but Bing chose Edinburgh as the castle reminded him of Salzburg, which already had an annual music festival at the time. It fitted the bill in other ways as well, as Henry Wood explained.
“Certain preconditions were obviously required of such a centre. It should, like Salzburg, have considerable scenic and picturesque appeal and it should be set in a country likely to be attractive to tourists and foreign visitors.
“Above all it should be a city likely to embrace the opportunity and willing to make the festival a major preoccupation not only in the City Chambers but in the heart and home of every citizen.”
And so it came to pass. Between August 22 and September 11, 1947, the first Edinburgh International Festival took place and it has grown in size and stature ever since.
That description of Henry Wood’s turned out to be spot on and this year, when I interviewed EIF director Fergus Linehan, he put the success of the festival down to “the steadfast support of the people of Edinburgh”, which echoes Henry Wood’s words of more than 70 years ago.
So what was on in that 1947 inaugural festival? Well, the programme was mainly classical music as per the Salzburg model and famously featured the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Verdi’s opera “Macbeth” also appeared on the programme, as it does seventy years later in 2017.
In terms of theatre, the Old Vic theatre performed in 1947 and they have also been invited back this year to perform an Alan
Ayckbourn play called “The Divide”.
Alongside this was an alternative programme of eight unsanctioned productions, which later became known as the Festival Fringe.
The intervening years of the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe are a bit of a who’s who in terms of international culture. In 1953 Richard Burton appeared in “Hamlet”. Margo Fonteyn danced with Sadler’s Wells in 1954.
You could see Marlene Dietrich in concert at the Lyceum in both 1964 and 1965. In 1971 Robin Williams appeared in a Wild West version of “The Taming Of The Shrew” – now that I would like to have seen!
Rowan Atkinson was just twenty-one when he first took part in the Fringe with the Oxford Revue in 1976. The Cambridge Footlights featured Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in 1981.
Mike Myers – he of “Wayne’s World”, “Shrek” and “Austin Powers” – appeared as part of a comedy duo in 1985.
Graham Norton cut his comedy teeth at the Fringe in 1991, as did a host of now-familiar comedy names including Jo Brand, Jeremy Hardy, Dylan Moran, John Hegley, Jimmy Carr, Adam Hills and Jenny Eclair.
The number of shows, performances and venues has nearly trebled in that short 25 years since the Allstars were last here, and much more than that since the Festival’s inception 70 years ago.
The downside is that competition for ticket sales is fiercer than ever, with a widening gap between the performances that sell out and those that have to decide whether to play to an audience whose numbers are fewer than those onstage!
It can be a tough gig for those fresh-faced performers from all over the world who are up against the International Festival and “folk aff the telly”!
Nick Salamone is a playwright and actor from the USA and has felt both edges of this particular sword. He won a coveted “Fringe First” award in 2000 and the play sold out from the moment the news broke. Another year he acted in a play which was closed in the first week due to lack of audiences. He explains why this has not put him off.
“When we won the Fringe First and had a five-star review in ‘The Scotsman’, it was marvellous. In subsequent years, however, we had the opposite experience. I acted in a very dark comedy and we played to two or three people, when we had an audience at all.
“We’ve been back many times and experienced every kind of reception, from hostility through indifference to rapture, and it is always worth the gamble. To be in one of the most glorious cities in the world among artists and audiences hungry for theatre is so invigorating and inspiring.” n
For More Information
Visit the International Festival’s website at www. eif.co.uk or call the Box Office on 0131 473 2000. Find out about what’s on at the Fringe at www.edfringe.com or via the Box Office on 0131 226 0000.
Acts tout for audiences on the streets.
Cockburn Street is lined with great places to eat.