Underbelly calls for truce as Edinburgh venue row threatens to roll on


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One of the most prominent venue operators at the Edinburgh Festival has spoken out against a rival who is “threatening to destroy” the event with his claims of infighting, and called for a truce.

Charlie Wood, the co-director of Underbelly, took aim at Tommy Sheppard, who runs the Assembly Rooms. Mr Sheppard had criticised the so-called Big Four venues, which includes Underbelly, for “squeezing out the spirit of the fringe” with “over-commercialisation and over sponsorship”.

Mr Wood told The Independent: “I’m really angry. I think he’s doing himself, us and every artist in this festival a huge disservice.”

Referring to the drag of the Olympics on ticket sales at the start of the festival, he added: “This year, of all years, we need to celebrate this festival, not denigrate it. Our blood and water is ticket sales, and Tommy is threatening to destroy the festival by putting up this picture of infighting.”

Yet, he offered an olive branch to his rival. “Let’s call a peace…let’s close our hostilities and celebrate the next two weeks.“

Mr Sheppard, who runs The Stand and took over the Assembly Rooms this year, has been hugely critical of the Big Four: Underbelly, Pleasance, Gilded Balloon and Assembly, which is no longer connected to the Assembly Rooms venue. He responded yesterday: “I really like Charlie and have no wish to trade insults with him,” adding: “It’s nothing personal but we do have an entirely different approach to the festival.”

Mr Wood said: “Most people don’t care about this tribal war that is apparently happening at the festival. I’m sure it looks like, from an outsider’s point of view, a whole bunch of infighting arty twats and actually it’s not. It’s the most amazing festival, with extraordinary art going on that we all produce.”

Mr Wood founded Underbelly with fellow director Ed Bartlam in 2000 to operate one venue at the Edinburgh Festival. It has since grown into one of the largest venue operations at the event.

He said: “Tommy sends out a message that it’s trouble and strife and infighting and yet somehow he’s the great saviour of the festival,” before pointing to Mr Sheppard taking sponsorship from an alcoholic drinks brand.

He also raised the problems at the opening weekend at the Assembly Rooms when unhappy punters bombarded the venue with complaints over a late-running performance, overcrowding and long queues.

Mr Wood said: “You have to have an eye for the bottom line to make it a professional organisation. We employ 365 staff to make sure it runs smoothly so you do not get horrors like this where there’s a mad crush and they can’t run the venue professionally. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t criticise someone for running a commercial professional organisations then not run your own professionally.”

Mr Sheppard admitted: “We had a technical problem with one sold out show. We apologised to the customers who were inconvenienced, we fixed the problem and our operation has been like clockwork.”