Edinburgh festivals: The great divide

The international festival gets £2.2m in funding; the vastly more popular Fringe just £57,000. Why such an enormous discrepancy
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Here's a game for festival-lovers; I'm going to list some shows that are on in Edinburgh this August, and you have to say in which of the several distinct festival programmes they are to be found. Ready? OK.

Here's a game for festival-lovers; I'm going to list some shows that are on in Edinburgh this August, and you have to say in which of the several distinct festival programmes they are to be found. Ready? OK.

Wagner's Die Walküre by Scottish Opera; Just a Little Prick from the St George's Medics; Soho Poly in a new play called Office; Antigone in a production by the Marjanishvili company from Georgia.

Everyone knows that all the heavyweight classical music and opera is in the "official" programme, the Edinburgh International Festival; so the first one's easy enough. By the same token, desperate medical student revues are a staple, if not a very healthy one, of the Fringe. Soho Poly? That sounds pretty fringey.

As it happens, however, Office, a new play by hot talent Shan Khan, is in the EIF programme. The magnificent Georgians are on the Fringe. Another year, it could easily be the other way round.

But what does it matter? So long as you find the right box-office, the play's the thing, surely? And people have been mixing up which is what since Beyond the Fringe – the revue that launched the combined talents of Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore Alan Bennett and the late Peter Cook – confusingly appeared in the EIF programme 40 years ago.

There is, however, one big difference. The international festival, which opened last night with a concert performance of part 1 of Berlioz's Les Troyens (part 2 is this weekend) receives close to £2.2m in public subsidy for its programme, from the Scottish Arts Council and the City of Edinburgh. The Fringe Society – its organisational hub – receives a mere £25,000 from the SAC and another £32,000 from the City, of which £12,000 is specifically earmarked for Fringe Sunday, its big free day in the park, also yesterday. And the question that people such as Paul Gudgin, the Fringe's director, and William Burdett-Coutts, the director of Assembly, the Fringe's senior venue, are asking is: if large sections of the art is interchangeable, why the discrepancy?

After all, in other respects, the 600 or so companies on the Fringe are the big event; they sell far more tickets (getting on for 800,000, as opposed to the EIF, which has some 200,000 tickets for sale and sells about 80 per cent of them), generate more revenue in the city's shops and bars; greatly add to the gaiety of the general scene; pay £250,000 in rents alone to the city council for various venues. And so on.

One has to be careful about over-simplifying these arguments. It is incredibly expensive to bring over New York City Ballet, the Vienna Burgteater (on its first ever visit to the UK), or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to name but three of the international festival's participants this year. A huge amount of the work on the Fringe is terrible stuff that shouldn't even be supported by the playwright's mum (though that's probably how it got here at all) never mind the public purse. Public money does find its way, albeit obliquely, into quite a number of Fringe shows, through youth budgets and education budgets. Visiting Arts puts increasing amounts of money into enabling foreign shows to come to Edinburgh.

Even so, there is, as Burdett-Coutts puts it, "an immense contradiction" here. If public funding is about bringing the arts to the widest possible public, why does all the money go to supporting a smaller audience than the Fringe's? He could have added that the lion's share of it goes into the classical music and opera programme, an art form which, rightly or wrongly, is fighting a losing battle with the deadly "elitist" tag.

Burdett-Coutts' beef is not with the EIF. He may yet harbour ambitions to run it one day. His quarrel is more with the mind-set of a whole tier of influential opinion-performers in the city who still flock to the Usher Hall and the Festival theatre, but tend to look down their noses at the Fringe. Some are in the City council; there was a public slanging match on the subject last week that rather spoiled the tone of the Fringe's otherwise record-breaking first few days. But others are in some rather surprising places. The Scottish Arts Council, for example, faced with one of the world's best showcases for its clients, actually forbids them from spending any of their pathetic grants on a run at the Fringe.

Brian McMaster, the EIF director, is at his emollient best when faced with these paradoxes. "Some people in the City council are more passionate than others," he says. "But look, what's important is that the Burgteater is here. It doesn't really matter who runs it. As it happens, we are the ones who are in a position to bring them." He does not add, though he could, that if Austria's international festival in Salzburg wanted to take over the Burgteater's equivalent – the Royal Exchange, say – it would have almost five times the amount of funding with which to do it.

Change is, however, in the air. McMaster's tenure is coming to an end. With the completion of the Ring cycle in two years' time, he is expected to step down after 12 years at the helm, if not before. He argues that things have already changed dramatically within the corridors of power, citing as an example that the local councillors now sit on the board of the Fringe and the official Festival. The City has recently taken delivery of a Festival strategy, the first signs of any joined-up thinking on the subject that it has entertained in the half-century and more since it found itself hosting, almost by accident, what is still the biggest cultural event in the world. It has appointed Steve Cardownie, chairman of the Recreation Committee as a "Festival champion" (the Fringe would have preferred someone in a more powerful department such as planning or economic development). The Fringe Society has doubled its sponsorship income over the past couple of years, suggesting that the commercial world is beginning to feel that there is quality, as well as a bit of fun, to be had through that association.

In the end, McMaster is surely right; what matters is that Edinburgh maintains its unique proposition of being at once a festival of the highest quality and also the most open in the world. Now would be a good time for all good men to come to the aid of that particular party.