The Big Question: Is the Edinburgh Festival still the most important in the world?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

From Sunday, Edinburgh will once again play host to one of the world's biggest arts extravaganzas, attracting more than two million visitors from across the globe. From the leftfield comedic turns of the Edinburgh Fringe to the higher culture of the "official" Edinburgh International Festival (now in its 70th year), a gathering of artists, directors, musicians and actors will bring song, dance, drama and a great deal else to the Scottish capital.

The Fringe begins on Sunday, the main festival on 10 August. And there are now major festivals within the festivals: literature (11 August), film (15 August) and television (24 August). Plus there's an art festival which began in July and continues until the 2 September, featuring the work of Picasso, Andy Warhol and Richard Serra.

What's made Edinburgh so great?

The Fringe has launched the careers of numerous celebrated comics; in the 1960s various Monty Pythons appeared in student productions there, preceded by Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, members of the Beyond the Fringe revue that played the main festival (not the Fringe) before going on to the West End and Broadway.

In the Eighties, Rowan Atkinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson made their debuts with the Cambridge Footlights, and notable companies who have earned their spurs at Edinburgh include Complicite and the National Theatre of Brent. More recently Steve Coogan, Jenny Eclair, and Al Murray have cut there teeth at the Fringe.

The first Edinburgh International Festival took place in 1947, and was an instant success; it attracted performers such as Kathleen Ferrier, Alec Guinness and Margot Fonteyn.

How does it compare with other leading festivals?

It's vastly bigger. In the UK, the Brighton Festival, a major two-week arts event that takes place every May, attracts 350,000 people, a fraction of the Edinburgh figure. The Venice Biennale - admittedly only a visual art festival - attracts just over 250,000. The Hay Literary Festival attracts 80,000.

Are leading figures still attending?

Yes. Alan Bennett, Margaret Atwood, Richard Dawkins and Ian McEwan are among authors at the book festival; at the Fringe comedy highlights will come in the form of Ricky Gervais, Frank Skinner and Sean Hughes; films by Quentin Tarantino and starring Billy Elliot star Jamie Bell will be at the film festival; elsewhere the artists Richard Wright, Michael Lin and Apolonija Sustersic are tipped for great things.

Does Edinburgh get bigger every year?

Yes. Hundreds of thousands of tickets are sold for the festivals' numerous events throughout August, although the Fringe dominates the statistics. The number of tickets sold for performances at the Fringe in 2006 was 1,531,606, compared with 1,338,550 in 2005 and 1,251,997 in 2004.

The number of delegates for the television festival in 2006 was 1,800, and the year before it was about 1,700. For the book festival, in 2006, 220,000 attended, while in 2005 it was 200,000 (it claims to be the largest public book festival in the world).

The film festival is slightly smaller this time around: in 2006 there were 114 feature films; in 2007 there will be 101 feature films, and the length of the festival has been cut by two days.

Does it still create controversy?

Plenty. While some performers spend years honing the quality of their artistic endeavours, others focus on the headlines - particularly at the Fringe. Opening this week, Jihad: The Musical seeks media attention with its song, "I Want to Be Like Osama", and a carefully thought-out musical number where women wearing burkhas and carrying machine guns sing: "I only see your eyes".

Protesters have created a petition against it on the Prime Minister's website. Tony Blair is a source of inspiration this year, with two musicals based on the former prime minister. There's also Asbo: The Musical. The life of the late DJ John Peel will be dramatised in a play, Teenage Kicks.

Does the event still attract high levels of sponsorship?

That depends. This year is the first that the festival has padded out its coffers with a private sponsor's funds, from Lloyds TSB. Previous to that is was solely reliant on public funding through the Scottish Arts Council and City of Edinburgh Council. On the other hand, the Fringe claims that consistently 25-30 per cent of its income has been generated from sponsorship over the past five years. The most famous comedy prize at the Edinburgh Fringe raised eyebrows last year when, because of a change in the principal sponsor, it swapped its name from the Perrier Awards to the less snappy "if.comeddies".

Is Edinburgh expensive?

It depends what you're interested in. The television festival costs £425 to attend this year; last year it cost £395; in 2005 it was £370. Prices to the Fringe vary by performance, with prices at around £15 for Scottish homegrown talent on a Saturday night.

Ricky Gervais tickets in the run-up to the festival could be picked up for about £40. Tickets for the book festival have been frozen for the past seven years, and vary between £3 and £7.

Ninety-minute book festival workshops cost £10 for people who want to develop their writing careers. Films at the film festival cost up to around £10 per screening. The art exhibitions are free.

What are the organisers saying?

On the Edinburgh Fringe: "We are now approaching the 61st Fringe and it's still young. It lives in the present, shifting and changing from year to year to accommodate all of the people who want to attend." On the Edinburgh International Festival: "The Festival began in 1947, with the aim of providing 'a platform for the flowering of the human spirit'. Right from the start it inspired people to put on shows of their own with the official festival."

Is the Edinburgh Festival still worth visiting?


* There are many more acts, often of a high quality, than previous years

* It offers more choice than any comparable arts festivals in the UK, and competes on an international stage

* High-quality acts can be seen before they are hugely famous at relatively low prices


* As the number of acts has increased, so have prices and crowds. There is much dross as well as quality

* A lot of the controversy generated each year is manufactured, publicity-seekers easily outnumbering serious artists

* The proliferation of arts festivals in recent years gives the consumer plenty of other choices - and often better ones