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There are more than 500 arts festivals in Britain every year, and one of them pulls in about as many spectators as all the others put together. And gets more media coverage than the others put together. However commercial it becomes, however repetitive and predictable, however tainted by links with television, and whatever other festivals do to steal its thunder, there is still something special about Edinburgh. Where else do people sleep in dormitories, in shifts, because they can't afford a room but can't bear to miss out? Where else does a show go on when only one person has turned up to see it? Where does a show go on when no one has turned up to see it? Where else can you find a festival of theatre and comedy that also offers an exhibition of perhaps the best collection of photography in the world? Where else can you find Mark Morris, Robert Wilson, Klaus Tennstedt, Sean Hughes, Hans Holbein, Jane Campion, Wynton Marsalis, Eddie Izzard, Bryn Terfel and Arthur Smith on the same bill? Where else can you find a scrum forming around a Sold Out board - people straining to see what they're not going to be able to see? It's not just an arts festival: it's a lark, an ordeal, a drinkathon, a holiday, a lot of hard work, a talent contest, a love-in, a rite of passage, an endurance test. You tell yourself you won't overdo it, and then you overdo it. It overdoes it: every year it gets bigger, starts earlier, packs more into each day. The juggler in our picture is a symbol for the whole thing: hundreds of thousands of people, trying to keep too many balls in the air. It's the same every time, and yet you never know what you'll find. A definitive guide to Edinburgh is a contradiction in terms. But the next seven pages should be of some use.



Last year's accommodation. My fault entirely, I just assumed it would be above

ground: pounds 500 for three and a half weeks in a basement looking out over a wall. It was a nice enough wall, to be fair. Now and again the neighbour walked past. It was around then that I started drinking. The horses were staring, you see. Loads of them everywhere. Some had the same woman riding them, but all of them stared. So did she. She must have been the one who got my pounds 500. She was smiling a lot. Not for long. I cut up her carpets.

Gilded Balloon, 13 Aug to 4 Sept.



The first time I went was with an experimental theatre group which had advertised in the Stage. The organiser was doing a psychology thesis and had got together 10 people he thought would hate each other's guts and cast them in a terrible play. None of us knew this at the time. The posters were made with potato prints and the set was made up of nine bags of earth which we had had to dig up ourselves in Epping Forest and lug to Edinburgh. Two months later the bloke sent us a copy of his thesis, telling us our personality defects.

Gilded Balloon, 13 to 24 Aug.



This is my 28th consecutive festival. Two of my children were conceived in Edinburgh. My worst experience was in the early Sixties at the Old Traverse. The bar closed at midnight and we asked the manager to have drinks brought up on stage during the interval. Inevitably, as we sat there drinking in front of the audience, a drunken Scotsman stumbled up and took one of our drinks.

McGough reads from 'Defying Gravity', Assembly Rooms, 14 to 21 Aug.


Director, Perrier Award

Last year I was viewing an unknown magic act at midnight in a leisure centre. Once I got there, I saw I was the only member of the audience and, having seen six shows that day, I decided to give this one a miss. Then these two girls came on stage. They were about 19, and very cheerful, determined to do their show, whatever. To top it all, their act involved audience participation, which I absolutely hate. But there was no way out, and I ended up on stage helping them perform tricks for a non-existent audience. Professionally it was a terrible experience, but in human terms it was enjoyable. The girls had a freshness which you don't get with the pros, and that's what Edinburgh is all about.


Cabaret artist

It was on the first night of my first festival at the Assembly Rooms. I was jittery enough as it was, then my fire-eating act set the alarm off and the building had to be evacuated. There were at least 25 other shows going on at the same time, so about a thousand people ended up outside, plus six fire engines.

Playhouse, 21 & 22 Aug.



I gave up my job as a doctor and wrote a play, Dog Murder 1, and took it to the festival. It had a terrible review, ending 'this show is a dud'. My brother came up and didn't enjoy it. Everyone wondered why I'd given up my career for this.

Pleasance, 17 Aug to 1 Sept.



In 1991, I was compering the international press preview of all the shows at the Assembly Rooms. Nobody laughed. Channel 4 filmed it and showed it on the news. My parents saw it and thought it must have been a dress rehearsal.

Appearing with Jo Brand, below.



One year, there was a real psycho living in the flat below who always left his boots outside his door when he went to bed. We had a party one night, and someone nicked the boots. It was a really pathetic thing to do, and nobody owned up. At 6.30am, we were woken up by the

psycho standing outside threatening to kill us, shouting, 'Don't bother to call the police, I'll take the fucking lot of you'. Having been a psychiatric nurse, I knew he meant it. After about 45 minutes he calmed down a bit, although he still said he would smash us up if he didn't get his boots back, or some money. We coughed up. The thing was I agreed with him really.

Assembly Rms, 23 to 28 Aug; Big Top, 29 Aug.



Once, David Steel called me a 'disgusting individual' in one of the newspapers reviewing the Festival. That was quite good. But worst of all was being nominated for the Perrier Award last year. Everything got very competitive, with people questioning why I had been nominated and not them. I hated the way journalists watched my show with this critical look on their faces, obviously wondering why on earth I had been nominated. Edinburgh isn't real. You're spending three weeks getting pissed with the people you work with, waking up with someone you don't recognise and having to face everyone afterwards. I'm 30 now, and I find things like that horrific. I'm only going for two weeks this year.

Assembly Rooms, 13 to 28 Aug.