This article was published by the Edinburgh Evening News on 15th August 2019. You can also read the Evening News version online, here.
The Edinburgh Festival makes August the “most wonderful time of the year” in this city, writes Ian Murray, as he remembers Joan Baez’s praise for Princes Street Gardens as a concert venue.
Back in 1963, Andy Williams released the famous song It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. Of course, the song was about Christmas, but I happen to believe the most wonderful time of the year if you are in Edinburgh is the festival season.
I’m a little biased as I used to run one of the largest events in Princes Street Gardens, which is why it didn’t surprise me that the new Lonely Planet’s new UK guide, that ranks the 500 “most memorable, beautiful, surprising and compelling experiences” had the festival top.
Edinburgh residents should be very proud of what the city has to offer. I know it can be a bit of a pain. You have to completely suspend your ability to get anywhere quickly or a drink at bars, but surely it is worth a bit of inconvenience for those few weeks?
Recent debate about whether the festivals have become too big for Edinburgh or too commercial is legitimate. It’s a healthy debate to have. Comedians are well known to rinse audience members who sit in the front row, but residents shouldn’t feel rinsed as a result of the festivals. It does seem to be increasingly dominated by a few firms and it’s lost a bit of its tradition. There should be more local companies and suppliers to spread the economic benefits. The council needs to recognise that the festivals are a force for good for Edinburgh. It is not just the considerable economic impact, confirmed by the two detailed Thundering Hooves reports, but what it provides to the city both culturally and socially. The council needs to act on how this can be balanced by the needs of residents.
The debate should be an opportunity to seriously explore the widening out of the festivals beyond an ever-decreasing city centre footprint. It is perhaps the combination of increased numbers of visitors with the concentration of venues that have exacerbated many of the problems. There must be ways to resolve this. Communities across Edinburgh would jump at the chance to get a share. Maybe Lothian Buses could provide free bus travel to ticket holders for venues outside the city centre? It can’t be outwith the imagination of promoters and the council to find innovative ways to continue to grow the Festival without compromising the city centre.
And then there is the contentious issue of screening Princes Street Gardens. I remember managing a performance at the Ross Theatre in 2003. It was called the Landmine for a Free World concert. The 6000 ticket holders were treated to a line-up that included international stars Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Chrissie Hynde, and Joan Baez. Joan Baez told me after the show that the Gardens, with the Castle looking down on them, was one of the most wonderful venues they had ever played. It is wonderful for concert-goers, but it is awful for those that don’t have tickets. There must be a solution to the unsightly screening whilst at the same time protecting public safety. I was always told by the experts that the safety issues were worse without screening as so many people would watch from the pavement that pedestrians would have to walk on the road to pass. It is perhaps another argument about the decaying infrastructure that is the Ross Theatre. A solution must be found that protects safety whilst allowing residents and visitors alike full access.
Anyway, if you hate the Festival it’ll be over soon. If you love it, like me, throw yourself in. You never know, you might find something you love (but never sit in the front row of a comedy show). Whatever your view, let’s work together to find the solutions that mean we protect our wonderful city, respect the rights of residents, but encourage more and more to come and share the experience of Edinburgh and its wonderful festival season.