Edinburgh Festival opens amid rows and controversy

Fringe veteran calls for squabbles to end as playwright is criticised over opening speech

The head of one of the Edinburgh Fringe's largest comedy venues has slammed the "petty bickering" between clubs and taken a swipe at the comedian Stewart Lee.

William Burdett-Coutts, the director of the Assembly, said he "abhored" what he described as media-inspired "petty bickering" which turned the Fringe into "some kind of internecine war, where venue battles venue".

Speaking at the launch of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Mr Burdett-Coutts's barbed comment that "one unnamed comedian can become the saint of division and dissent" was widely understood to refer to Lee's comments last year over the commercialisation of some of the Fringe venues.

Lee wrote an article criticising the so-called "Big Four" venues, which have created the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, saying they were profit-obsessed and their actions were having a negative impact. The piece was headlined "The slow death of the Fringe". The Assembly, the Underbelly, the Pleasance and the Gilded Balloon form the Fringe's key venues.

Mr Burdett-Coutts, who is at the start of his 35th Fringe year, appealed to people to work together to make "more not less of this event" and stated that the wonder of the Fringe was "that anyone can do it".

The Assembly, which is running 14 theatres this year, has a programme of about 150 shows. He added that the ecosystem of the Fringe was fragile and implored the media: "if you can, don't stand on the coral".

The world's biggest arts festival launched on Friday and is set to include 2,871 shows performed by 24,107 artists during the month.

Despite Mr Burdett-Coutts's pleas, the playwright Mark Ravenhill's launch speech provoked a furious response. It is reported that Ravenhill claimed that arts funding cuts could be "a good thing" as artists could be less "safe and well behaved". He added that the performing arts had been compromised by a "cosy" relationship with funders over the past 15 years and that artists "weren't telling the truth" about the world often enough when public funding was more plentiful.

Yesterday, Ravenhill told The Independent on Sunday his speech had been misreported. He said he had simply called on "artists to consider the real possibility that there could be an end to public investment in the arts," and that had been misconstrued as being supportive of the cuts.

"To clarify," he said, "I'm not putting on the gimp suit of austerity. I'm not hopping in to bed for a threesome with George Osborne and Maria Miller."

Additional reporting by Octavia Sheepshanks

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