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It's weird, it's wonderful - it must be Edinburgh
by Andy Lavender,
The Times (London), Monday, August 2, 1999
With August festival fever about to strike, Andy Lavender looks back at some of the triumphs and disasters that bear the stamp of the world's biggest celebration of the arts.
It may be overcrowded, overpriced and overrated, but if it weren't for the Festival, Edinburgh would still be the slumbering provincial city it was in 1947 - and the world's wannabes, stars and has-beens would have to find somewhere else to ply their craft.
As it is, anyone who has visited the city in August will know that it is indeed made for its Festival - compact, with plenty of history and a plethora of bars and cafes. Let's be thankful, then, that when the Festival's founders were looking for a home, the burghers of Oxford turned them down.
Since then - what sensations, what overnight hits, what tears and tantrums! And that's only on the Fringe. Of course you would expect a great festival to collect the starriest players and most startling performances. But can Edinburgh claim to have given anything back to the world? We present, in no particular order and with plenty of omissions, 15 things, events and experiences bearing the "made-in-Edinburgh" stamp: our very own Edinburgh Hall of Fame.
Edinburgh Military Tattoo: Introduced in the very first Festival in 1947 as a celebration of ethnic piping and dancing, organised by the Army's Scottish Command. Became the Military Tattoo in 1950. Adored by tourists, derided by festival-goers. Inspired one of John Hegley's finest poems, The Tattoo, which ends with the immortal lines: "To you it may be taboo/To poo-poo the attoo./But to me the Tattoo/Is something to say ta-ta to."
Fringe: Edinburgh can claim to have invented the "fringe" performance. In 1947 eight companies presented plays in venues which they hired themselves. The Fringe now hosts more than 1,000 companies in 180 spaces. It was criticised in 1991 by Frank Dunlop, the outgoing director of the International Festival, for being "smug and self-satisfied". The Lord Provost declared this attack "outrageous", thereby marking the death of the Fringe as a radical entity.
Fringe First Awards: A stroke of genius. Established in 1972 by the Fringe and The Scotsman to promote new and experimental plays. Winners include the then unknown John Byrne, Caryl Churchill and John Godber. And, in 1979, a certain Rowan Atkinson - a controversial decision, since his was not a play but a one-man sketch show.
The Scottish Play 1: Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaites, by Scotland's first recognised playwright, Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount. This dusty seven-hour epic had lain unperformed since 1554. A truncated version was staged in 1948 by Tyrone Guthrie, who built a Renaissance-style apron stage in the forbidding Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland. The production was a triumph and Guthrie's stage architecture was replicated in new theatres in Europe and North America.
The Nude Happening: In the midst of the International Drama Conference of 1963 a naked model on a trolley was pushed across the organ gallery of the McEwan Hall. This was one of a number of "happenings" organised by the American director Kenneth Dewey. A publicity storm erupted. The conference organiser, John Calder, and the model, Anna Kesselaar, were charged with indecency (Kesselaar was acquitted). It remains a landmark in post-modern performance.
Blockbuster line-ups: The stuff of international festivals. How about 1953 and "Four centuries of the violin", featuring Malcolm Sargent and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia, the Vienna Philharmonic with Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Rome Symphony under Previtali and Gui. Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin and Gioconda de Vito were soloists, and the three came together to play Bach's double and Vivaldi's triple violin concertos - drawing lots to decide who would play what.
Festival Theatre: Less a story of municipal magnificence than of stingy neglect. Shamefully, Edinburgh lacked a theatre decent enough to house the biggest opera and ballet companies for nearly 50 years, largely on account of the prevarications of the local authorities. World class opera companies were usually shoehorned into the King's Theatre, described by one intendant as "the worst in the world". The state-of-the-art Festival Theatre was opened in 1994.
Beyond the Fringe: In search of something with which to beat the Fringe at its own game, Festival director Robert Ponsonby invited Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller to present a revue show. According to Miller the four "instantly disliked each other and decided that it might be a profitable enterprise". It was. Beyond the Fringe, presented in 1960, was a smash. Its vein of offbeat satire established the "Oxbridge Mafia" as the dominant force in British comedy for the next decade.
Edinburgh Festival Chorus: The opening concert of the 1965 Festival, Mahler's Symphony No 8, was to feature a chorus of Scottish singers. Auditions were held all over the country and 240 voices selected. The concert was a sensation, the chorus a fixture ever since. Mere local favouritism? Not a bit of it. When Karajan conducted the worthy amateurs in Bach's Magnificat in 1967, he pronounced that this was "one of the three best choruses in Europe".
Beyond the Fringe: In search of something with which to beat the Fringe at its own game, Festival director Robert Ponsonby invited Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller to present a revue show. According to Miller the four "instantly disliked each other and decided that it might be a profitable enterprise". It was. Beyond the Fringe, presented in 1960, was a smash. Its vein of offbeat satire established the "Oxbridge Mafia" as the dominant force in British comedy for the next decade.
Edinburgh Festival Chorus: The opening concert of the 1965 Festival, Mahler's Symphony No 8, was to feature a chorus of Scottish singers. Auditions were held all over the country and 240 voices selected. The concert was a sensation, the chorus a fixture ever since. Mere local favouritism? Not a bit of it. When Karajan conducted the worthy amateurs in Bach's Magnificat in 1967, he pronounced that this was "one of the three best choruses in Europe".
The Traverse: It started in 1960 in the Paperback Bookshop of Jim Haynes, an expat American, which was turned into a tiny theatre for the duration of the Festival. Three years later Haynes and two colleagues established the Traverse in a former brothel. Now, from the gleaming fastness of its current location, it is Scotland's major new writing venue, the centre of the Fringe's most substantial drama programme, and one of the Festival's buzziest bars.
Impromptus: 1972. The guitarist Julian Bream announces only hours before a morning recital that he is unwell. Desperate behind-the-scenes activity ensues. A scratch team is assembled. The audience arrives at Leith Town Hall. What second-best fare awaits them? Out walk Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zukerman and players from the English Chamber Orchestra. They play Mozart like a dream for nearly two hours.
The Scottish Play 2: Of all the productions of Shakespeare's Macbeth, the most emblematic has to be that of 1989, produced by Richard Demarco and staged in a ruined abbey on the island of Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth. The Sicilian company which was to present the show withdrew ten days before opening, on account of nervous breakdowns by both the director and his wife (who was to play Lady Macbeth). A number of punters were left stranded on the quayside in a mix-up over the ticket allocation. The leading actor nearly lost his car to the incoming tide. The event was pronounced unforgettable.
Perrier Pick of the Fringe Award: Introduced in 1981 for the best up-and coming comedy act on the Fringe, since when the Fringe - and much of the northern hemisphere - has been overrun by comedy and stand-up. The annual donation of the award marks the point where an "alternative" act lifts its snout and inhales the heady aroma of fame. Winners include the Cambridge Footlights of 1981 (Emma Thompson et al), Theatre de Complicite, Frank Skinner, Steve Coogan and the League of Gentlemen.
Tadeusz Kantor: Archetypal Festival figure. First appeared at the Fringe as an unknown Polish avant-garde director/designer/performer, and later staged work for the International Festival as a leading influence in world theatre. His key Festival production was The Dead Class in 1976. Benedict Nightingale, of this parish, described a "hook-nosed chap looking like an undertaker, walking around while his actors mimed being students. It was wonderful, actually." Other critics agreed, as did a host of theatre-makers whose productions bore the marks of Kantor's mesmeric "Theatre of Death".
The Fringe Experience: As defined by Richard Eyre, Fringe wannabe (1964), director of the National Theatre (1988-97), member of the committee to appoint the new Director General of the BBC (1999): "I made friends, lost friends, got drunk, took drugs, had fun, had sex, had a car accident, lived in a cold water flat with 15 or so companions, appeared in a revue with the Cambridge Footlights, a production of The Tempest as Ariel and I thought life couldn't get much better. I was wrong, but not entirely."
Edinburgh International Festival (0131-473 2000) Aug 15-Sept 4; Fringe
(0131-226 5138) Aug 8-30
 
 
©The Times (London) 1999

 

 

1999, The Times (London) : It's weird, it's wonderful - it must be Edinburgh

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