Monday, 30 August 2010

Fringe Benefits


I'm determined to put my reputation as regeneration's Mr Grumpy behind me. Several friends have suggested that the splenetic tone of some recent posts does not accurately reflect my usual sunny disposition, and they're concerned that too much indignation isn't good for me. It's true that I've allowed Donald Trump and Sir Ian Wood's Joint Strategy for the Despoliation of North East Scotland (JSDNES) to upset my equilibrium. It's also true that there is no shortage of fresh targets. Scotland's Housing Expo, for example...but don't get me started.

So in order to cheer myself up, I thought a few reflections on Edinburgh's festival season might be therapeutic. The Fringe Festival closes today; the International Festival has a week to go. The city has been teeming with visitors all summer and I have never seen it as busy as it was in mid-August. Everywhere I went, shows - especially on the Fringe - were sold out. It seems a fair bet that last year's record 1.86 million ticket sales (for the Fringe alone) will be matched or even exceeded.

This year the Fringe offered 40,250 performances of 2,450 shows in 259 different venues. The scale of it is extraordinary and a carefully thought-out Fringe campaign can yield some remarkable experiences. With so much to choose from, a high proportion of dross is inevitable so it makes sense to start by cutting out high risk events. In my case, this means discounting anything involving tap dancing, drumming, burlesque acts and amateurs. Some people like shows that involve the audience in the action, but I'm very cautious about that. It can be OK, but the general principle that you pay, they perform is a sound one. These are defensive measures but on a more positive note, everyone has favourite performers and you can look out for production companies and writers that you've enjoyed in previous years. Some venues are a recommendation in themselves. I know I won't like everything in the Traverse programme, but it's reliably the best bet for contemporary drama as well as a nice place to be. There's always interesting stuff happening at the Forest Fringe.

It's true that doing the Fringe properly means abandoning work, family and friends for 6 weeks, including an intensive planning period. And it will cost a king's ransom. In fact it's best to think of it as a special holiday, pricey but worth it. Anyway, applying these principles produced a rich crop in 2010:

Daniel Kitson's new piece, It's Always Right Now, Until it's Later, was outstanding. So was Enda Walsh's play, Penelope and the Frantic Assembly/NTS production of Beautiful Burnout. David Leddy's dark Sub Rosa was performed late at night in a creepy masonic lodge in Hill Street. Pants on Fire's Ovid's Metamorphoses was very enjoyable and inventive. Tim Vine, Edward Aczel, Paul Foot, Jeremy Lion (the alcoholic children's entertainer) and Ian D Montford, the Sunderland Psychic were excellent comedy acts. The artist Martin Creed was a ubiquitous presence with his show at the Fruitmarket Gallery, performances of his ballet piece at the Traverse and an entertaining appearance at the Book Festival. Also at the Book Festival, David Kynaston spoke brilliantly about his history of the early 1950s, Family Britain.

The International Festival has had a rather mixed reception critically, but the Cleveland Orchestra were fabulous, the Brazilian dance company Grupo Corpo were sensational, and Meredith Monk's Songs of Ascension was simply the most beautiful and moving thing in the whole month.

Apart from the welcome chance to indulge myself does any of this have any connection with the promised themes of this blog, economic development and regeneration? Definitely, yes. A report by SQW calculated that, in 2004, the Fringe and the International Festival generated between them £89.2m of economic output and created 1,750 full time equivalent jobs. Attendances have increased dramatically since then and it seems likely that the new study now under way will show an impact in the order of £125m.

Set against the modest amount of public money spent on the festivals this represents exceptional value. The International Festival, which showcases expensive, high-end productions, does require significant subsidy (a total of £4.7m from the City Council and Creative Scotland in 2010) but these costs are far exceeded by the economic benefits and the EIF also attracts a lot of sponsorship. This year, the Edinburgh Fringe Society received a grant of just under £100,000 from the City of Edinburgh Council: vanishingly small for an event which must be worth close to £100m to the city. And these are not one-off benefits, like those from sports events or the Tall Ships. The festivals happen every year, the effects are cumulative and, despite the annual ritual of gloomy forecasts about their future, the evidence suggests that they are continuing to thrive.

Whisper it quietly, but the Fringe can be seen as an example of the Big Society in action, with minimal public funding and bare bones bureaucracy oiling the wheels of an enormous creative network. Predictably enough, the members of that network bicker quite a lot, but the thing works. And, more important even than the economic benefits, it contributes enormously to the well-being of everyone involved in this amazing, unique event.

As always, I'll miss it when it's over. The week after the festivals is as anti-climactic as the week after Christmas when you were a child.

STOP PRESS: It's just been announced (31st August) that Fringe ticket sales were up 5.2% on last year's record to a total of 1,955,913.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Bon Accord

By accepting Sir Ian Wood's jaw-dropping proposals to destroy Aberdeen's historic Union Terrace Gardens and replace them with a car park topped by a "city square", the politicians of north east Scotland have cemented their already formidable reputation for credulity and deference. Aberdeen City Council's support for this megalomaniac scheme comes hot on the heels of Aberdeenshire Council's pathetic capitulation to the Trump organisation's formidable PR machine. It all adds to the impression of a city-region which is hopelessly in thrall to big money, but lacking the skills and confidence to make the big decisions. The leaders of a city with much-vaunted global aspirations are revealed as naive and provincial.

Aberdeen is a truly remarkable place. Jonathan Meades' recent Off Kilter TV series included a touching essay on the city: its villages (Old Aberdeen and Footdee), the neo-classical city, the extraordinary legacy of Archibald Simpson, and so on. Aberdeen is inevitably associated with sparkling granite, but its dormer windows and wonderful white-on-black street signs are equally characteristic. City-boosters are constantly whittering on about "distinctiveness", but Aberdeen really is different.

Nothing about Aberdeen is more remarkable than the view north from Union Bridge - "the finest panorama of Aberdeen architecture" according to Bill Brogden. The green bowl of Union Terrace Gardens, created during the 19th century in the Denburn Valley, is framed by some of the city's most notable and best-loved buildings. No one could pretend that the gardens are in great shape: they are a bit tired, dowdy and under-used. But the survival of this landscape, with Union Bridge leaping across the valley, is unique to Aberdeen. And if the municipal gardening is a bit uninspired, the presence in the centre of the city of green space and mature trees is priceless.

For the proponents of the City Square the heritage, natural history and all-round quirkiness of Union Terrace Gardens are, of course, an affront. Marching under a banner inscribed with portentous gibberish - "This Time, This Place, This Generation" - they have revived the idea, which has surfaced at intervals over the decades, of filling in this anomalous and inconvenient valley and using it to store cars. They may not have heard that encouraging more people to drive into the centre of the city is a bit passé but, hell, this is Aberdeen. Just as the Trumpsters always talk about the golf course but never the luxury houses, so the City Square propaganda machine talks up the (generally rather elusive) wonders of this new civic space but is silent on the subject of parking.

new building image
Northern Light - a new centre for contemporary art in Union Terrace Gardens

One of the most objectionable features of this wretched project is that is has wrecked plans - carefully developed over a number of years - to create an elegant and sensitively designed Contemporary Arts Centre in the gardens (see above). The centre would provide a new home for Peacock Visual Arts, who have nurtured the scheme, while leaving the historic landscape and the mature trees intact (http://www.peacockvisualarts.com/). Combining this project with the restoration of the gardens and decking over the road and railway would be the ideal solution. But the essential modesty of the Peacock scheme and the affection and understanding of the city that it reflects are of no interest to the people gagging for "a truly radical transformation of our city centre...[and] an accessible, safe, connected and vibrant public space".

The new scheme is uncosted, although its supporters put the price at £120-140 million, including Sir Ian Wood's pledge of £50 million. We can safely assume that the real costs will exceed £200 million, and we know that for a fraction of that amount this wonderful piece of historic townscape could be restored and improved, and the city would gain a much-needed cultural centre. But this would deny Sir Ian and the city fathers their legacy project, and the opportunity to trump the visionaries who designed the heart of Aberdeen in the 19th century. The City Square scheme is a crass, hubristic gesture: there is every likelihood that it will fall apart as the costs mount and the public protests intensify. But that won't save the Peacock project or Aberdeen's reputation.

One final thought. Earlier this year, the scheme's supporters, Scottish Enterprise and Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future, commissioned a consultation on the City Square proposals. Although the terms of the exercise were disgracefully biased in favour of the Wood scheme (the Peacock alternative was not presented as an option) there was "a huge response rate" and the result was a clear 55-45 vote against the City Square proposals. The report can be accessed via http://www.thecitysquareproject.com/, but the result of the consultation is not mentioned on the website. The conclusion, shamefully confirmed by the city council yesterday, is clear: the people have spoken, but they have got it wrong.