Fringe jumps the gun on Edinburgh

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THE Edinburgh Festival opens next week - only it doesn't. The biggest arts festival in the world has thrown punters into confusion following a decision by performers on the Fringe to start early because it might be too cold in Scotland by the end of August.

The unprecedented move to start the Fringe early has been ignored by the main international festival and the book and film festivals, all of which are sticking to the usual starting date of Sunday, 16 August.

But the Fringe will begin its round of plays and stand-up comedy this weekend, because, according to Fringe director Hilary Strong, the anarchic, irreverent and challenging performers are worried about the cold.

She said: "The Fringe performers are motivated (in their desire to change the dates) by the fact that the third week of the festival following the bank holiday Monday has traditionally been much quieter and the weather frequently not as pleasant."

But Ms Strong and the Fringe seem as confused as everyone else. Though the Fringe starts this weekend, Fringe Sunday, which traditionally starts the Fringe Festival with open-air performances and children's shows, will as usual not take place until 16 August.

For audiences for whom the joy is the mix of official festival, film, literary readings and Fringe shows, the decision is causing problems. But for the festival's army of agents, wannabe actors and directors and networkers, it is a nightmare. Paul Blackman, director of the Roundhouse in London, former director of the Battersea Arts Centre, and one of the country's leading comedy programmers, said: "No one knows when to go. The networkers are distraught. They don't know when to go and work the rooms. That's the problem the programmers have created."

Mr Blackman also pointed out that in the field of comedy, more than 90 per cent of the acts can also be seen in London, though he added that there was no substitute for "the buzz of Edinburgh and being able to see three or more shows in an evening."

The Fringe's early start has angered international festival director Brian McMaster. A spokeswoman for Mr McMaster said: "We think it's a great shame the people who will lose out are the audiences. What makes Edinburgh great is the critical mass, the choice you get when all the festivals are running together."

Despite the shadow cast by the festivals falling out, this year promises some high-class entertainment. The international festival's music programme ranges from a residency by the Royal Opera to concerts of Scottish harp music. Unreserved seats will for the first time be selling at a bottom price of pounds 5 on the day for most festival events.

The Fringe is its normal eclectic self, with British premieres of plays by Sam Shepard and Dario Fo, three men turning Chekhov's Three Sisters into a gay musical, and comedian Arthur Smith staging a play on a putting green. British premieres of Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer, the glam-rock film Velvet Goldmine, and Primary Colors, none too loosely based on the Clintons, are among the highlights of the film festival. The novelist Fay Weldon gives The Scotsman Millennium Lecture at the book festival. Entitled "Adam And Eve And Tony Blair", the subject is men, women and politics in the 20th century. The book festival also features Women in Crime, with talks from authors such as PD James and Frances Fyfield. And there is already one interesting publication in circulation - a 50th-anniversary commemoration by the Fringe includes a detail from Alistair Moffat, Fringe administrator 1976-81. He recalls the Cambridge Footlights appearing in 1981 and a young comedienne called Emma Thompson saying to him; "Alistair, I know that we're a group and the Fringe is awfully democratic and all that, but how do I get some personal publicity?"