Bright lights, big city

Every August the cultural centre of gravity moves north as performers, punters and critics swarm to Edinburgh's many festivals. Ian Irvine explains how it happened
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The Independent Culture

The idea for a festival germinated when country-house opera in post-war Glyndebourne was cash-strapped and its favoured partner, Oxford, had ruled itself out with its stinginess. Edinburgh - remarkably unscathed by bombs, with a colourful history, a proud maritime heritage, and the romance of the Highlands nearby - would be an ideal location. Besides, it looked a bit like Salzburg... For a city that, according to the Scottish playwright James Bridie, "prides itself on not being interested in anything at all" , the founding of a festival in the wake of the Second World War - when food and petrol were still rationed and windows still blacked out - was little short of a miracle. The Scottish capital, still under a Calvinist shadow, could easily have turned dourly in on itself. But the first event in 1947 took flight, spawning an unofficial programme of six theatre companies that gatecrashed the initial party, hired their own halls and launched an alternative "fringe" that has grown longer and bushier than the official festival.

The competition to be the funniest or most outrageous on the Fringe is tougher each year, but that doesn't stop hundreds of hopefuls flocking to Edinburgh. Now, at least six festivals take place, all independently organised but collectively forming one of the biggest cultural celebrations in the world, attracting millions of pounds and millions of people to the city during August.

Edinburgh acts as a hub for the official International Festival (60 separate events this year) and the Fringe (1,800 shows in nearly 300 venues). It also hosts the longest-running film festival in the world. Venice may be the oldest but it hasn't taken place every year, and Cannes started a year earlier but skipped 1948. Scarcely recognisable from its beginnings as a strictly documentary-based festival, Edinburgh's filmfest has long been international, innovative and exciting. The first Book Festival took place in 1983 and had only 30 events. In 1997, a young author, Joanne Rowling, read from her first book in the tepee, the smallest festival venue, in front of just 30 children. Now, under five directors, the Book Festival, boasting 650 events this year, has been a major force in having Edinburgh designated by Unesco as the first World City of Literature. Starbucks Edinburgh Jazz and Blues will present 120 concerts, and this year there's a newly focused Art Festival, in which 30 galleries have joined forces. Television also puts itself under the spotlight in Edinburgh in August, and for many, the word "festival" means the Military Tattoo - attended over the years by 11 million people, and this year celebrating 50 years of music and spectacle, set as always against the famous backdrop of Edinburgh Castle.

THE FESTIVAL

Lynne Walker, writer and critic

I was John Drummond's driver. I've had lots of jobs associated with the festivals in Edinburgh but none so scary as being on the receiving end of this most vocal festival director's outbursts as he sounded off about the performers, audiences and critics alike who hadn't risen to his exacting standards.

As long as I can remember I've been excited by Edinburgh at festival time. As a child I was enthralled by what seemed to be the magical aura that descended on the city every August - or am I recalling the creeping sea haar that can engulf the city like a wet blanket? A summer job was the way to get closer to the action. Working in the festival box office, I encountered one American visitor who, on being told there were no seats left, only boxes, anxiously asked if four of them would all get into one; and an Edinburgh gentleman who insisted on a seat near the front for a mime show because he was deaf.

As a student, speeding on my Honda 70 between rehearsals, I will never forget coming across the Japanese Sankai Juku troupe's street performance in which four naked men were lowered upside down from the top of a 50ft building. I have leafleted by day and flyposted by night. I've taken part in a range of Fringe productions, and promoted and conducted a concert without realising that the start-time would clash with the climax of the float-to-float Fringe procession.

Marketing a visiting theatre company, I made the whole cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream get costumed and made-up for a press photo-shoot. Everyone was tired and it was a hugely unpopular call, but when we'd finished the actor playing the lion gave me a passing hug. Next morning, to my horror, I saw the papers had used just that one shot, captioned "the lion and the publicity girl". I hardly dared venture backstage that night.

Another year, turning pages, my necklace broke at a crucial moment, my beads scattering like tiny pebbles across the keyboard between the harpsichordist's fingers. And, as editor of the International Festival's programmes for seven years, I still look back guiltily at how one misprinted letter turned a movement heading from con fuoco into "con fucco", and gave one newspaper its headline description of how the unfortunate pianist had played.

I began writing reviews of the Fringe for a student newspaper. Much later, presenting Radio 4's Kaleidoscope from Edinburgh, there was nothing quite like engaging with live acts on air. Now, as a critic, I have to decide in what shows Independent readers would be interested out of the 1,800 happenings in almost 300 venues in this year's Fringe and the 60 main events in the International Festival.

Returning home each year stuffed with culture and exhausted from a nomadic but exhilarating existence, I can hardly bear to envisage next year. Yet, when it comes round again, I can't even contemplate not being there.

THE FRINGE

William Burdett-Coutts, Artistic director, Assembly Theatre

How do you describe 25 years on the Fringe and the enthusiasm that keeps you going? So much life, energy, enthusiasm, drama and sheer worry goes into every event that it wrings out your very fibre. Yet year I keep on coming back. I've wandered on to other jobs - director of Glasgow's Mayfest, head of arts at Granada TV, chairing radio stations in Manchester and Leeds, and now my co-current roles of artistic director of Riverside Studios in London, executive producer of Assembly TV, director of the Paramount Brighton Comedy Festival and chair of Riverside TV Studios - but through them all Edinburgh has been a constant. I've even got to the point where the "never again" syndrome seems to have lost its currency.

Why? Because the Edinburgh Festival has to be the greatest event in the world. I've been fortunate enough to travel to a huge number of festivals over the years and none come even close to the extraordinary thing that happens in Scotland every August. Given the regularity of the festival it's easy to forget how special it is. It is an Olympic-scale occurrence every year. what makes it different is that on the Fringe it happens because of the energy and determination of people who want to put on a show; and it is them that, for the most part, drives the engine.

Take the Sing! Zimbabwe show. Last year an old friend, Rory Kilalea, with whom I had grown up with in Zimbabwe, and I went to see Soweto Gospel Choir - one of our best-selling shows in 2003 and 2004. We concluded that there were just as good singers in our country and this spawned an idea that has led to months of rehearsal with 30 singers and dancers putting their all into coming to the festival. Six performers were caught up in Mugabe's latest "clean up the trash" programme and had their houses knocked down, yet still managed to come to rehearsals. Meanwhile, the British Embassy rejected their application for visas to come to the festival and Rory had to jump through hoops to have that decision overturned.

Friendship is just as an important part of festival magnetism. Most of my friends have arisen out of it. People come back year after year and, while they lead the bulk of their lives outside, somehow it acts like the rings of a tree, providing a marker for growth. It's wonderful to see people like Alan Davies progress from the Gilded Balloon to TV stardom and yet come back to the festival to do The Odd Couple.

And each year the treasure trove of found moments is always a surprise. Be it a group of people from around the world meeting for the first time or a piece of brilliance on stage which is entirely unexpected.

None of this says anything about another essential ingredient: Edinburgh itself. The grandeur of the Old Town balanced by the order of the New Town. With a childhood in Africa and England, Edinburgh is the place I feel most settled. I didn't know it when I first came but the ancestor from whom we inherited our grand name, Angela Burdett-Coutts, had a long association with the city. She was noted for her support of the famously loyal watchdog, Greyfriars Bobby, and received freedom of the city in the Assembly Rooms.

Which takes me to this wonderful building on George Street. I happened on it when trying to find a venue to put on a play I was directing when a student. I approached the council about renting a room and was offered the building. I took on the whole place and this year sees our 25th programme. In the first year there were something like 14 staff and five theatres. This year there are almost 300 people working for Assembly Theatre in four venues - the Assembly Rooms, Assembly Hall, Queens Hall and St George's West. And an almost equal number of people will gather to perform from countries all over the world. How can you not get a kick out of that?

William Burdett-Coutts is celebrating his 25th anniversary as artistic director of Assembly Theatre.

THEATRE

Steven Berkoff, actor and director

So many times I have trawled up to Edinburgh for the Fringe, like it's a great maw sucking us all in. It's like a religious ritual where you feel drawn to bring your offerings and lay them on the sacrificial altar. And meet old friends again. Yes, they're still there, still alive, still burdened with that incredible need to express whatever it is that is bursting to leap from their souls.

My first year as a performer at the Festival was 1968, in Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Lyceum, directed by Michael Blakemore and starring the late Leonard Rossiter. That was a hell of a performance and catapulted Blakemore to the National with Olivier. Years later, my production of Salome was on at the same theatre, where it was a sell-out.

My first play at Edinburgh, at the Traverse, was my adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, in which I played Roderick Usher and my wife at the time, Shelley Lee, played my sister Madeline. We were slotted to go on at 10pm - if we were lucky, since all the shows overran. We got good reviews and took the play to the Hampstead Theatre Club. The following year, we did East at the same venue and in an equally unkind slot. Ricky Demarco, the Edinburgh impresario, came and raved and said that he wished Jimmy Boyle could have seen it. Since Boyle was Scotland's most famous criminal, I was flattered. Dan Crawford, who died recently, was there, too, and asked us to do it at his King's Head Theatre in Islington, which we did. Ma came to see it, even though I warned her not to, so that night was the worst night of my life. Poor Ma!

We did Hamlet (1979) in the round - it was intended for the Roundhouse. It got rave reviews, but was thrashed in London. Only when we did it abroad did we get our shattered egos back.

We staged Decadence in a converted left-luggage room of the Caledonian Hotel, and since we couldn't get a white leather sofa, our stage manager bought some white plastic and glued it to an old sofa, adding studs to give it that dimpled effect. It was there that the great Paul Scofield came and afterwards dropped off a card full of good words - I treasure that card to this day. We took the play to the Arts Theatre in London and had, for a change, great critical success.

Next we did Kvetch at the Assembly Rooms, and that has been our home, more or less, ever since. Kvetch seemed to touch a few chords, and we took it to the Garrick, where it won an Evening Standard Award. My first "one-man" show, One Man (1993), went down well, and it, too, went to the Garrick, where I did it for 10 weeks and was really proud to be able to stand alone on a West End stage. I still can't believe I did it.

More recently, I enjoyed doing Requiem for Ground Zero three years ago. Back in one-man mode, which I like. Back at the Lyceum two years ago, I did three different one-man shows on three nights. That was a bugger, I can tell you. No one could have been happier at the end than I was.

So, here we go again. Just can't keep away.

Steven Berkoff appears in 'Shakespeare's Villains - A Masterclass in Evil', Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh (0131-226 2428; www.assemblyrooms.com), 13-21 August

COMEDY

Chris Addison, stand-up comedian

I am an old man. This is how I know: a little over 10 years ago, unable to face the prospect of missing an August at my beloved Edinburgh Fringe, and some time before I had ever sweated out a comedy set, I took a job working at the box office of the Gilded Balloon. It was wonderful - snatched hours spent watching what seemed like impossibly vital one-man shows; every night standing bright-eyed in the vinegar-sweet mugginess of Late and Live, waiting for the glorious moment when the gig would explode into some kind of never-to-be-repeated event. I felt like a wide-eyed cabin boy who'd wandered into a tavern full of pirates.

These days, it is with a heavier heart and more sensible luggage that I haul myself north. Now I'm the old sea captain in the corner, watching the cabin boy come in and smiling to myself before falling asleep. Still, with the eye-patch and scars and grizzled beard comes wisdom - and here, for the very little it's worth is mine:

For a comedian, the Fringe is a little like an episode of Sharpe. It's noisy, confusing and stuffed with chimeric chances of glory and dashed hopes, and it's very difficult to see who's left standing until the smoke wafts away on the breeze at the end. If you want to survive the month without being found rolling about in your underwear in the scrub at the top of Arthur's Seat, you need to adopt a number of strategies.

First, pick your flatmates well. I have been living with Richard Herring in Edinburgh for so long now that I don't think either of us would be surprised to find an old school photo in which we both feature. Richard has seen it all but still retains a weary excitement about the whole thing. Also, he always knows where the corkscrew is.

Rich is very good at coming up with extracurricular distractions. Last year, he introduced poker nights to the flat, anticipating by a matter of minutes the nationwide explosion of the game. I'm no expert, but this is how it seems to work: you make a hefty personal outlay on some chips and a square of baize, invite a number of your favourite people round to the flat and then lay into the Viognier as the likes of Lucy Porter and Ben Moor clean you out in three hands with the steely ruthlessness of Vegas sharks.

Second, accept that you're not going to go and see any other shows right at the beginning. The Edinburgh Fringe has got plenty enough ways of making you feel like a failure without your going into a flat spin of guilt and panic in the last three days about the fact that you haven't managed to make good on any of those red circles you marked in the programme on the first evening.

Third, there is a lot of dead time in Edinburgh, so set yourself a grand project for the month - learning Portuguese to degree level, say. It will help to prevent you from going stir. You'll never achieve it, but at the end of the month you'll be able to look back and realise that you never needed the distraction in the first place.

The Edinburgh Fringe is a remarkable experience for any comedian: by turns frustrating and fulfilling, shiny with promise and with rainy streets, sickening and glorious. Just get yourself a great big tube of Berocca, sit tight and it'll be September before you know it.

Chris Addison's new show 'Atomicity' is at the Assembly Rooms, 5-29 August at 7.45pm (0131-226 2428; www.assemblyrooms.com)

FILM

Annie Griffin, writer and film-maker

In all my years of living here, I've noticed this obsession with American culture, but to me being at the Edinburgh Festival is far more glamorous than, say, being on Broadway. The city is swollen with performers, all competing for audiences, all desperate for their show to be recognised.

In Edinburgh you get the feeling that it works in spite of the city in some ways. It's like this thing with a life of its own that some of the locals put up with. It feels like it comes from performers, not festival directors or councillors. It always has this anarchic shape to it. When I performed in Edinburgh in the Eighties it always struck me that there was more drama in surviving the festival than there was in the actual shows. When I told a few people that I wanted to do a film about the festival, they said they thought it was a bad idea, and that always gets me going.

Paul Gudgeon, the director of the Fringe Office, knew my Channel 4 series The Book Group so I think they had an idea that it would be funny. The Fringe Office controls the Royal Mile during the festival so it was vital to get them on board. Chris Young, the producer, was very strong from the start that we would be small and light on our feet - otherwise the crew will be a circus. And he was right. Actually filming on the Royal Mile during the festival turned out to be fantastic. Nobody looked at us, and effectively you've got thousands of free extras walking by.

When I first started coming, it was all about Polish street theatre; then, all of a sudden in the late Eighties, comedy became so important and theatre suddenly seemed boring. So we resented the comedians. A great comedian is just using the form to talk about stuff, but most comedians you see at the festival... you think: "Please. Say something interesting".

'Festival' is on general release

TOP 20 EVENTS

The Odd Couple

Assembly Hall, 5-29 Aug

With Bill Bailey and Alan Davies.

The Burlesque Hour

Spiegel Tent, 9-27 Aug

Hula-hooping extravaganza.

The Death of Klinghoffer

Festival Theatre, 25, 27, 29 Aug

John Adams's opera receives its first British staging.

La Clemenza di Tito

Usher Hall, 16 Aug

Sir Charles Mackerras applies his magic touch to Mozart.

L'Amour Masqué

Festival Theatre, 1-3 Sep

Musical comedy with Tours Opera.

Complete Plays of JM Synge

King's Theatre, 27 Aug-3 Sep

An eight-hour Synge-a-long.

Franz Ferdinand

Ross Bandstand, Princes St, 30-31 Aug

Alex Kapranos and friends.

Venezuela Viva: A Flamenco Fantasy

Pleasance Grand, 7-28 Aug

With live music, including salsa, jazz, African and Andalusian.

Rain Pryor

Fringe Smirnoff Baby Belly, 9-28 Aug

Daughter of Richard tells her life story in Fried Chicken and Latkes.

Verdi's Requiem

Usher Hall, 14 Aug

Donald Runnicles, BBC Scottish SO

Products

Traverse Theatre, 17-28 Aug

Mark Ravenhill makes his professional acting debut in his own play.

Swan Lake

Festival Theatre, 15-19 Aug

Sassy style from Pennsylvania Ballet.

Prayer Room

Royal Lyceum Theatre, 22-28 Aug

All kneel for the world premiere of Sha Khan's feisty piece.

Christopher Maltman

Queen's Hall, 22 Aug

Baritone Maltman sings, joined by the pianist Malcolm Martineau.

Anna Politkovskaya

Book Festival, 14 Aug

The journalist and mediator speaks on issues with a post-G8 slant.

Best of the Fest

Assembly Rooms Music Hall,11-28 Aug

Gigantic comedy show.

Film Festival

17-28 Aug

Thumbsucker; Tilda Swinton in dysfunctional American family drama: Wah-Wah; Richard E Grant's directing debut about growing up in Africa.

The Seagull

The Hub, 19-22 Aug

Chekhov's tragi-comedy, in Hungarian.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 6 Aug-23 Oct

The largest showing of his work.

Black Rainbow

Above Edinburgh Castle, tonight

Fabulous pyrotechnic display.

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