You have to be there, really

The Edinburgh Festival begins on Sunday. From Monday the Independent will cover events as they unfold - features, interviews, news, reviews and gossip.

"I've always enjoyed the Festival. From an actor's point of view, Edinburgh is like a convention. You spend a lot of time socialising, meeting people you haven't seen for a long time and drinking too much. The audiences are searching for good things. It's their holiday, there's a lightness in the air. It's not like a West End play where the audience are saying, "We've paid our money. Come on, entertain us." Audiences and actors are caring and sharing about the play. It's uplifting. That atmosphere would be hard to re-create anywhere else.

It's a cosmopolitan city, but if you've ever been in Edinburgh when normal life is resumed at the end of the Festival, it's quite disturbing. You get groups of working-class people, quite drunk, reclaiming the city for themselves. "Away on home with you now," they shout.

This will be the sixth or seventh time I've been. I first went up with the University of Newcastle in 1962 - the year Albert Finney did Luther. I remember dancing in the French Club with the woman who was to become my wife. I had a fag hanging out of my mouth which burnt Albert Finney's girlfriend's arm.

There was a free spirit nature to the Festival in the Sixties which we've lost now. People would hang around in the Traverse bookshop reading poetry. I'd never come across that hippy spirit before. That went with Thatcher. It's now an extremely commercial enterprise. Everyone's trying to make money - that's the legacy of the Eighties.

The success of Beyond the Fringe has turned the comedy side into a bit of a rat race. Comedians think if you can get noticed in Edinburgh, you're off. All the best slots are devoted to comedy. The Pleasance doesn't want to surrender its prime slots to the theatre, so we're on in the afternoon. But it's still the best way to get your play on the map. That's why I'm taking my play up there this year. I'm also acting in it because there aren't many actors of 50 who can play passable jazz piano. With an Edinburgh audience, if you couldn't play, you'd soon get found out."

Jack Shepherd's 'Chasing the Moment' is at the Pleasance from today to 2 Sept (booking: 0131-556 6550)

"Edinburgh is a freak show. We performers are the inmates of an asylum, and the well-heeled come to laugh and throw peanuts at us while we do our dancing-bear number. You tend to get a more mixed bag in the audience at Edinburgh. Mine usually consist of Christians who try to talk me out of it afterwards, trans-sexuals, teenage runaway slags and debauched grandmothers with fag-ash down their cleavage and breathing gin fumes. I bring out the old slapper in everyone.

One year I did a show called The Perry Como Hour - I've no idea why - in a church. I'd get scores of old ladies in their galoshes hoping to get Perry Como covers. When they saw the show, they wanted me to be struck by lightning for being blasphemous in a church, but especially for not doing any Perry Como covers.

Another time, I was on a bill with Mark Steel and Rory Bremner at the Masonic Lodge. We had to walk through the kitchens to get on stage and an alcoholic Glaswegian chef threw punches at us when we passed by. Mark went on stage one night with his lip torn and ear bleeding.

You have to set up a publicity scam. Last year we pretended I'd been stopped at Edinburgh airport with some white powder on me which turned out to be baking-soda. I was quoted as saying, "I felt like Delia Smith in a re-make of Midnight Express." Every year it's just an alcoholic blur. I come back looking like a woman from Tenko and have to go straight into de-tox.

This is my 12th or 13th year, and I'm just hoping to get away without crying in public. My usual trick is crying behind the locked door of the disabled toilet at the Pleasance. I'm also hoping to find a reinforced rubber mini-skirt this year, because at the end-of-Edinburgh party last year my rubber mini-skirt split while I was playing "Twister" - which would have been fine if I'd been wearing pants. This year I hope to walk away with my dignity and reputation intact. I'll never, ever do Edinburgh again. That's what I say every year."

Jenny Eclair is performing 'Prozac and Tantrums' from tonight until 2 Sept at the Pleasance (booking: 0131-556 6550)

"I adore Edinburgh; it's the most wonderful city. Edinburgh audiences are very cosmopolitan, very dedicated, very concentrated and alert to the humour of a situation. Edinburgh has such an extraordinarily cosmopolitan tradition. It was the focal point of the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Think of David Hume and Adam Smith. Glasgow and Edinburgh between them fostered this amazing tradition of intellectual brilliance and it's persisted to this day. I've been twice before. In 1982, I went with the Monteverdi Choir and we did Vivaldi at a late-night concert in a severe Church of Scotland church.

I went again in 1984, when I took the Opera de Lyon and did, among other things, Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande. I was leading a very young and inexperienced French opera company with quite a lot of Eastern European refugees in it; we had Hungarians, Poles, a couple of Bulgars. I remember the look of anxiety on the faces of the French when they heard we were staying in Pollack Halls. They were convinced they were going to the Outer Hebrides and were sure they were going to get haggis for breakfast. They were worried they wouldn't get their cafe and croissants in the morning. They were also worried whether they could survive on Scottish whisky and beer. So, after the first rehearsal, I took them to a hostelry where I stood them all to some traditional Scottish drinks. After that, they only had problems with the breakfast.

It's a controversial thing to say, but the Scots are more alert to the refinements of the French language than a London audience. Although it started out purely as a music festival, I'm glad it's grown so much. The diversity is brilliant. The more interpenetration there is between classical music and theatre, the better. When it comes to opera, we're such an untheatrical nation. London is often marginalised from the mainstream of experimentation in the opera firmament. It's significant that Frank Dunlop invited me to do an avant-garde Pelleas and Melisande at Edinburgh. It wouldn't have happened in London."

John Eliot Gardiner is conducting Dvorak's 'Stabat Mater' at the Usher Hall on 15 August (booking: 0131-225 5756)

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