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.


Douglas Dalgleish said...

Hello John,

If you don't mind explaining, what is your problem with Scotland's Housing Expo? Many of the houses there address concerns you have raised in your blog. Seeking other views, I read the opinionated comments expressed in the Auchterness blog, but these seem motivated by unfulfilled expectations of international-modernist towers, disturbingly expressed by someone who works in town planning.

Surely buildings which can be readily understood as Scottish, or Highland, are welcome examples of architecture which evokes local identity. While the Keppie building may also be well designed and carefully constructed, it fails to say much about its homeland. Hopefully the tower stone is of local origin. I found the smaller Expo buildings to be more relevant to the problems you have raised in your blog. Balvonie Braes as a designed community cannot be described as 'lousy planning', nor is the place infected with 'the pervasive culture of pessimism and low expectations' found elsewhere in Scotland.

I agree that we should ask why place-making is so often done badly and 'why the quality of most new development is mind-numbingly poor'. My visit to the Expo revealed numerous positive home-grown examples worthy of encouragement. Negativity is destructive and unhelpful in overcoming the low aspirations and lack of confidence which you have correctly identified in Scotland.

If you would like to read more of my thoughts on the Expo, I put together a few pages at

Douglas Dalgleish said...

Here is the EXPO link I should have included.

yellow book said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I really don't want to embark on a rant about the Expo, but my problem was not with the idea - I was quite excited by it - but the execution.

I'm afraid I thought a lot of the designs were very ordinary, to put it politely, and there were far too many unresolved design issues in a project which has been in preparation for years.

The project management was a disaster - it's not acceptable to open a month-long event with a significant proportion of the houses incomplete and some unbuilt, and with the promised landscaping hardly begun. In the houses that were ready the finishes and details were generally poor. And the furnishing of the houses which were presented as show homes was generally appalling.

We should certainly be positive and encourage the best. I thought Rural Design's house was the best thing there, although if it were mine I'd want it to be somewhere else. Malcolm Fraser's house were nice, liveable and scaleable. NORD's terraced houses looked interesting, but weren't accessible when I was there. I liked Joseph Thurrott's house even if it was a bit of a one-off.

But these need to be set against some truly dreadful things: Keppie's 2 contributions - both atrocious, Bracewell Stirling's awful Modular House, and David Blaikie Architects' unspeakable Green Place.

Now look what you've done. Another rant! I really do sympathise with what you say and I wish it had been a success, but I'm afraid it was a missed opportunity.