In a fascinating event chaired by Peter Guttridge, historian Angela Bartie and Edinburgh International Festival director Johnathan Mills discussed the past, present and future impact of the festivals on Edinburgh – and on the world.
Bartie’s recently published The Edinburgh Festivals traces the events from their origins in 1947, when the notion of an international arts festival hosted by the “dour, reticent and wind-bitten Scots” was criticised as a venture doomed to failure. Quoted in the press of the time as a “brave but stingy” affair, accounts then went on to proclaim it a success, heralding the fact that “Edinburgh citizens made the Festival.”
Bartie described how the Fringe was born from a notion that Scottish drama was perceived at the time as being of too low a standard to be included within the Festival’s programme. She then traced the breakaway formation of the Fringe by eight defiant theatre groups through to the “bawdy” productions of the 1960s, championed by the likes of the Traverse Theatre, a place where – according to one press quote – you could “practically observe the sexual revolution taking place.”
By 1971, when Bartie’s history ends, Scottish artist Alexander Moffat is quoted as describing the impact of the festivals as “almost impossible to measure” and events which “put us in touch with the world.”
Mills echoes this, citing factors which have contributed to the Festival’s success as the fact that it is “out of control by its very nature”; an event that “mattered because people were excited about it – and offended by it.”
Answering a question from the audience about whether the Fringe has now overshadowed the Festival, Mills bemoans the “journalistic laziness” which perpetuates that myth, and compares them favourably to an ant colony and an elephant. “There is a wonderful symbiosis,” he says. “The difference is scale.”
Mills also describes Edinburgh’s continued success as a Festival city, praising its “accommodation of what a festival really is” and how the events continue to be defined by their audience’s curiosity, something which shows no signs of diminishing.
And in his final year as director, Mills makes an impassioned call to ensure the festivals’ ongoing growth. “Let us continue,” he says, “to embrace the world.”