For 11 months of the year, Edinburgh is a relaxed, sedate city, revelling in the benefits of its capital status while enjoying the calm that comes with a smallish population. But come August, it’s all change. The population doubles, the atmosphere becomes almost continental, and the grey stone façades burst into colour. It’s the largest arts celebration in the world, drawing performers from Uppsala to Uluru and all points in between.
Not everyone is enamoured of this dramatic shift in the city’s character. Many locals jump ship and rent their properties to visitors for massive fees, while others simply stay and grumble. However, they’re in the minority: for most, the array of festivals held during August together comprise the highlight of the city’s cultural calendar. Unique is an overused word, but it absolutely applies here. August in Edinburgh is like no place else on earth.
The first thing to note about August in Edinburgh is that the hundreds of events that take place are not part of a single cultural festival. The traditional primacy of the Edinburgh International Festival has meant that August’s events are often referred to as, simply, ‘the festival’. However, there are a huge bundle of administratively separate jamborees taking place at the same time, dedicated to different artistic disciplines. Many of them came together to form Festivals Edinburgh, an umbrella organisation that works with all the various organisers in a bid to improve their lot in the city, but they’re ultimately separate and very distinct enterprises. This feature attempts to make sense of them all.
All dates and prices listed are tbc; contact the festivals directly before making plans.
Edinburgh Art Festival
Venue: various venues.
Information: 07825 336782, www.edinburghartfestival.org.
Tickets: generally follow museum admission fees; most exhibitions are free. Advance booking not required.
Dates: 6wks, late July-early Sept.
In 2004, around 30 galleries in the city established the low-key Edinburgh Art Festival. The festival has since grown in profile, with special events supplementing the exhibitions already staged in the city’s galleries and museums. With the support of the Scottish Government’s Expo Fund, the festival is building a £250,000 pot of money that will be used for commissioning and promoting work for 2010 and beyond.
Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Venue: various venues.
Information: Fringe Office, 180 High Street, Old Town, EH1 1QS (226 0026 information, 226 0000 box office, www.edfringe.com).
Tickets: mostly £6-£12, though some are cheaper (or even free) and others are more expensive (£15-£35). Advance booking online, by phone, by post & in person from mid June.
Dates: 3wks, Aug.
Each year’s Fringe brings a new controversy, and the hot topic in 2008 was the launch of something called the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. Critics pointed out that it wasn’t a festival so much as a marketing exercise by the four biggest venues (any comic who wasn’t performing at the Assembly Rooms, the Gilded Balloon, the Pleasance or the Underbelly was excluded); the venues responded by saying that they were only trying to get more people to enjoy the festival.
The debate will rumble on for as long as the ECF continues to return, which it did in 2009, but the argument wouldn’t even be necessary without the extraordinary volume of comedy on offer during August. A massive array of comics head here from all corners of the globe in the hope of landing an agent, securing a touring contract, signing a TV deal and – almost as an afterthought, it sometimes feels – making the paying punters laugh.
The popularity of the Fringe as a comedic career-maker can be traced to 1960, when Oxbridge revue Beyond the Fringe (starring Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett) made its debut before going on to extended runs in the West End and on Broadway. The show was actually part of the EIF (that’s why it was, yes, ‘beyond the Fringe’). However, its success – playing to 120 per cent houses, thanks to audiences being prepared to stand – set a precedent for comics to head north during August.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Fringe’s reputation as a hotbed of new comedy began to translate into mainstream success. Launched in 1981, the Perrier Award was set up to draw attention to what its judges believed to be the best comedy and/or cabaret show on the Fringe. Many of the acts who won the Perrier in the early and mid 1980s have since faded, but the roll call of then-unknown winners in the late ’80s and early ’90s established the award’s cachet. Jeremy Hardy (1988), Frank Skinner (1991), Steve Coogan (1992) and Lee Evans (1993) all became stars after winning the prize, which now goes under the sponsorless name of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards.
It’s this 1990s golden age, and its seemingly concomitant guarantee of national fame, that arguably still drives the Fringe’s comedy component. After all, what else could possibly persuade hordes of hard-up comics to spend August haemorrhaging most of the cash they’ve earned over the other 11 months of the year on usually futile attempts to crack the big time?
Competition is insanely fierce, but the chance that the show you bring to the Fringe could be Your Big Break is, for most aspiring funnymen, simply too tempting to pass up.
The largest comedy gathering in the world is also, for its performers, the most gruelling. Most comedy festivals last for a week, tops, and generally consist of one-off showcases at which acts have to make crowds laugh for 20 minutes. Edinburgh demands more. Although a few big-name comics fly in for short and often lucrative theatrical engagements, those on the lower rungs commonly take to the stage six days a week for a three-week stretch. Aided by their existing reputations (and a knockout agent), a lucky few land evening slots at prestigious venues. Others are quickly forced to resign themselves to the fact that, if the sun comes out, their daily 3.10pm slot in a scruffy pub cellar may not sell out. Indeed, they may be the only person in the room.
If they’re not too dispirited, exhausted or drunk, a handful of comics each year get the opportunity to play the Late & Live show at the Gilded Balloon, a bearpit of a comedy club that starts at 1am every night. Unlike most laugh-ins, the set-up welcomes boozed-up hecklers and positively encourages audiences to waylay the four performers, who each have a half-hour to fill. A good showing here can make a comic’s career; more often, it breaks them, at least until the next day, when they have to head back to their regular gig and start again.
The primary comedy venues on the Fringe are the Assembly Rooms, the Pleasance, the Gilded Balloon, the Underbelly and the Stand. Still, don’t limit yourself: comics play in a multitude of smaller locations around the city, many for free. It’s all something of a lottery, but every lottery has a winner… doesn’t it?
Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival
Venue: various venues.
Information: 01462 456780, www.edinburghinteractivefestival.com.
Tickets: games screenings, the sole portion of the event open to the public, are free. Advance booking online only.
Dates: 2 days, mid Aug.
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Venue: Charlotte Square Gardens, New Town.
Information & tickets: 5a Charlotte Square, New Town, EH2 4DR (718 5666 information, 0845 373 5888 box office, www.edbookfest.co.uk). Tickets mostly £6-£9 (£4 for children’s events), plus some free events. Advance booking online and by post from mid June, by phone and in person from 1mth before festival.
Dates: 17 days, ending on last Mon in Aug (Aug 14-30 2010; Aug 13-29 2011; Aug 11-27 2012).
Pitching its well-appointed marquees in the gardens of Robert Adam-designed Charlotte Square, the Edinburgh International Book Festival is a cultured haven that carefully sets itself apart from the chaotic throngs in the Old Town. Compared with its competitors, the event moves at a genteel pace, fuelled not by deep-fried pizza and Tennent’s Extra but by dry white and canapés.
The programme comprises a range of talks, readings and discussions, grouped into broad themes that change each year. The organisers are keen to encourage participation: debates are a prominent part of the programme, as are events for children, who can romp safely in the enclosed gardens. Aspiring writers are encouraged to join one of several writers’ workshops and to visit the writers’ retreat hidden among the trees.
Most authors make only a single appearance at the event, but the truly stellar – or the truly tenacious – may show up several times during the two-week programme. Big names in recent years have included Ian Rankin, Zadie Smith, Richard Dawkins, Salman Rushdie, Seamus Heaney and Doris Lessing. The festival isn’t above the odd nod to populism – Sean Connery was a sell-out in 2008 – but, more typically, the event is a hotbed of politically engaged debate. Alongside the expected slew of novelists, poets and critics, John Prescott, Tony Benn, Alex Salmond and Gordon Brown have made appearances, as have a host of philosophers, environmentalists and radical thinkers.
Edinburgh International Festival
Venue: various venues.
Information & tickets: The Hub, Castlehill, Old Town, EH1 2NE (473 2099 administration, 473 2000 box office, www.eif.co.uk). Tickets many events cost around £10-£25 or £10-£40, with some cheaper concerts (around £17), one or two more expensive operas (£10-£65) and some free events mixed into the schedule. Advance booking online, by phone, by post & in person from early Apr.
Dates: 24 days, ending on 1st Sun in Sept (13 Aug-5 Sept 2010; 12 Aug-4 Sept 2011; 10 Aug-2 Sept 2012).
More than theatre and dance, classical music is at the heart of the EIF. The Usher Hall stages concerts nightly, supplemented by an all-day line-up at the Queen’s Hall and half a dozen major operas at the Festival Theatre. Standards are high and top international names make regular appearances. Programming, split roughly 50-50 between orchestral concerts and chamber recitals, draws on the canon; events in 2009 included a Bach series. However, there have been recent signs that the EIF’s music programme may be expanding under director Jonathan Mills; 2009 saw folk brought to the fore in a series called the Caledonian Sessions. The highly popular Fireworks Concert in Princes Street Gardens draws proceedings to a close with a suitable flash and a bang, bringing audiences out to every possible viewing station throughout the city centre.
Edinburgh International Film Festival
Venue: various cinemas & theatres.
Information & tickets: Filmhouse, 88 Lothian Road, Old Town, EH3 9BZ (228 4051 administration, 623 8030 box office, www.edfilmfest.org.uk). Tickets most films are around £6-£9, with the opening and closing galas costing £15. Advance booking online, by phone & in person from early May.
Dates: 12 days in late June.
The Edinburgh International Film Festival started life as a gala celebration of documentaries, but now presents a mix of new features and shorts, animated flicks and factual programming, retrospectives and revivals. Director John Huston described it in 1972 as ‘the only film festival worth a damn’. Although it’s since been overtaken in prominence by Cannes and Sundance, it remains an important date in the cinema calendar. There’s a strong industry presence at the events – official delegates are recognisable by their ever-present half-full wine glasses and all-black outfits – but there are also plenty of tickets available to regular punters.
Since moving from August to June in 2008, the Film Festival has found it easier not only to distinguish itself from the city’s other big festivals, but also to strike a clearer identity on the international circuit. There are many UK premières, often on show months before their release (assuming they get one; many don’t), as well as retrospectives of cinema’s great names. Screenings ranges from the annual Directors’ Showcase, billed as ‘classics of the future’ by established auteurs, to the Rosebud strand, dedicated to first- and second-time directors.
Although the festival made space for Wall-E in 2008, and there’s always at least some red-carpet action, blockbusters are few and far between. Instead, short films, experimental novelties and animations feature prominently. Documentaries have come back into fashion of late; an award for the best documentary was introduced in 2006. Alongside the screenings are a range of talks and discussions featuring cast, crew and critics.
Edinburgh International Television Festival
Venue: Edinburgh International Conference Centre.
Information & tickets: 117 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3BX (0131 519 4131, www.mgeitf.co.uk). Tickets by delegate pass. Advance booking Online, phone & postal bookings from early in the yr.
Dates: 3 days, ending on last Sun in Aug (Aug 27-29 2010; Aug 26-28 2011; Aug 24-26 2012).
The weekend-long Edinburgh International Television Festival is aimed pretty much exclusively at insiders. Media folks are past masters at navel-gazing, and nowhere are their talents more apparent than at the range of lectures, discussions and debates about the past, present and future of the idiot box. It’s an industry-only event, the importance of which is later amplified by the excessive coverage it receives from those who forked out the sizeable delegate fee to attend.
Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival
Venue: various venues.
Information & tickets: Hub, Castlehill, Old Town, EH1 2NE (467
5200 information, 473 2000 box office, www.edinburghjazzfestival.co.uk). Tickets mostly £8-£15, with some shows costing up to £30 and others free. Advance booking online, by phone & by post from early in the year.
Dates: 10 days, late July-mid Aug.
The Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival can get a little lost in all these crazy goings-on, partly because it begins a week before the Fringe. However, while its programme is chiefly populated by local musicians, it does draw the occasional big name: Dionne Warwick, Wynton Marsalis and Jools Holland have all performed here. More or less every strand of jazz is covered at the event, with concerts staged throughout the day and night.
Venue: Pilrig Park, Leith.
Information: North Edinburgh Art Centre, 15A Pennywell Court, EH4 4TZ (332 2888, www.edinburgh-mela.co.uk).
Tickets: £2 day pass covers most events; headline shows are around £10. Advance booking online, by phone and in person (from the Hub) from July.
Dates: 6-8 Aug 2010; 2-4 Sep 2011.
A two-day outdoor event that celebrates Asian culture in the city with performances, food stalls and a bazaar.
Edinburgh Military Tattoo
Venue: Castle Esplanade, Old Town.
Information & tickets: 32-34 Market Street, Old Town, EH1 1QB (0870 755 5118, www.edintattoo.co.uk). Tickets around £15-£50. Advance booking online, by phone, by post & in person from early Dec.
Dates: 23 days in Aug (6-28 Aug 2010; 5-27 Aug 2011).
A soldiers’ parade of music, dance and athleticism. It’s grown into the single most popular event in the city each August, shifting more than 200,000 tickets each year and inspiring what many believe are the world’s longest queues. The Tattoo is held on the Castle Esplanade.
Edinburgh People’s Festival
Venue: various venues.
Information & tickets: Out of the Blue Drill Hall (www.edinburghpeoplesfestival.org.uk).
Tickets most events are free; those with a ticket price usually cost less than £5. Advance booking not required.
Dates: several weeks, Aug.
The politically minded Edinburgh People’s Festival aims to ‘bring the arts to the ignored indigenous communities’ by staging shows in the city’s more deprived areas.
Festival of Politics
Venue, information & tickets: Scottish Parliament, Holyrood, EH99 1SP (348 5000, www.festivalofpolitics.org.uk). Tickets mostly free; a handful of paid-for events are around £6. Advance booking from the Scottish Parliament or the Hub from early July.
Dates: 5 days, late Aug (17-21 Aug 2010; subsequent years tbc).
Those interested in current events should also investigate the five-day Festival of Politics. Launched in 2005 and held at the Scottish Parliament building, the festival includes an array of talks, debates and discussions from prominent figures such as Vanessa Redgrave, Kate Adie and Mark Thomas.
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With so much to see in such a short space of time, planning your August itinerary can be a daunting prospect. The chaotic, spontaneous vibe is all part of the experience, but a little forward planning is crucial if you’re to get the best out of it. (This is particularly vital when it comes to accommodation.)
Try and approach the festivals with some measure of organisation. Military precision isn’t essential, but it helps: unless you’re in an improv troupe, it’s best not to turn up and make it up as you go along. Have a look at the programme(s) before you arrive, and keep your ear to the ground. You can just rock up without any tickets and let nature take its course, but don’t come crying to us when the only show you can get into is the Aberystwyth Amateur Dramatics Society’s production of Carousel. In Welsh.
Media & reviews
In addition to its printed programme, each festival has its own website at which you can find out what’s on and book tickets for future events. Perhaps the most useful online resource, though, is www.edinburghfestivals.co.uk, which contains a searchable database listing what’s on across all the major festivals. The catch-all set-up makes it that much easier to plan your schedule.
So, how do you go about sorting the diamonds from the rough? Well, this is the one time of the year when press coverage really counts. Ignore the publicity stunts and read the reviews instead. The daily festivals supplement published by the Scotsman is hard to beat for comprehensiveness. Arguably the most reliable reviews are found in the Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk), which dedicates at least a page a day to the event, as do the Edinburgh Evening News (http://edinburghnews.scotsman.com) and the Herald. The Scotsman (www.scotsman.com) and the Herald (www.theherald.co.uk) give out, respectively, Fringe Firsts and Angel Awards to new plays, comedies, concerts and films that have impressed their critics; tickets for them immediately start selling like the proverbial hot cakes. And The List (www.list.co.uk) offers comprehensive coverage of the festivals; usually published fortnightly, it comes out every Thursday during August. For more on local media.
Several free festival newspapers, staffed by young writers and aspirant culture vultures, litter bars and cafés during August. Containing news, reviews, interviews, features, listings and scurrilous gossip, they make up in enthusiasm what they lack in professionalism. Three Weeks (http://threeweeks.co.uk) is the longest established of this breed; The Skinny (www.theskinny.co.uk) is an increasingly important year-round venture. And then, of course, there’s good old-fashioned word of mouth. Don’t be shy: pitch in and ask those folks sitting a few seats away if they’ve seen anything good, or if they’ve spent good money on any absolute stinkers.
In theory, booking tickets for the thousands of performances held over the various August festivals should be a nightmare. But glossing over the major box-office meltdown suffered by the Fringe in 2008 (things were a lot smoother the following year), buying tickets for shows at most of the festivals is generally very straightforward, whether you’d rather purchase online, by phone, via mail or in person.
The easiest way to book tickets before arriving in Edinburgh is by going online. All the major festivals take internet bookings; in most cases, you can choose either to have your tickets sent to you or to collect them from the relevant festival’s box office when you arrive. Once you’re in town, it’s best to book either by phone or at one of the walk-up box offices: the Fringe has an office on the High Street; the Edinburgh International Film Festival sells tickets through the Filmhouse; and tickets for the EIF, the Festival of Politics and the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival are all available from the Hub.
Advance booking will almost certainly be necessary. Many events staged as part of the EIF, the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the Edinburgh International Film Festival are one-offs, and those featuring big names do tend to sell out ahead of time. Many comedy and theatre shows on the Fringe run for far longer, in some cases nightly over a three-week period, which means you may have less trouble picking up tickets when you arrive. Others, though, run for limited periods (in some cases, only a single night); booking ahead is advisable.
If you’re heading north purely to take in the Fringe, consider heading up there for the first weekend, when punters can buy two tickets for the price of one for most shows. The caveat? Many of the shows are at ‘preview’ stage and are more than a little ragged around the edges. Alternatively, head for the Fringe’s Half Price Hut, on the corner of Waverley Bridge and Princes Street. Open 11am to 9pm daily throughout the Fringe, the hut offers 50 per
cent discounts on tickets to many of that day’s shows. And it’s also worth hanging around the main comedy and theatre venues in the early evening to catch promoters handing out free tickets for shows that are selling poorly in an attempt to conjure up an audience.
Perhaps your greatest difficulty when planning a visit to Edinburgh in August, and almost certainly your greatest expense, will be your accommodation. Prices for virtually all kinds of lodgings soar during the summer, and get booked up months in advance. In addition to the various types of accommodation detailed in our Hotels section, a number of flats, apartments and houses come on to the market in August for short-term lets, their owners having escaped the madness of the festivals and gone on a holiday of their own. The Fringe website (www.edfringe.com) has a message board on which offers of accommodation are posted.
Agencies that provide accommodation particularly during the Festival include: Edinburgh Holiday Flats (www.edinburghholidayflats.com); Festival Beds (225 1101, www.festivalbeds.co.uk); Festival Flats 3 Linkylea Cottages, Gifford, East Lothian, EH41 4PE (01620 810620/www.festivalflats.net).
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