2022 marks the 75th anniversary of the first Edinburgh festivals


By Chris Bond

In 1947 a sombre mood enveloped much of Britain. The relief and joy that greeted the end of the Second World War two years earlier had disappeared, replaced by the grim reality of continued rationing and the daunting task of rebuilding our shattered cities.

Yet against this unpromising backdrop the seeds were sown for a cultural celebration that would establish Edinburgh as the world’s leading festival city and which continues to blossom 75 years on.

The first Edinburgh International Festival began on August 24, 1947, to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” by bringing people and artists together from around the world.

At the same time, the Festival Fringe began when eight companies – six Scottish and two English – appeared uninvited in Edinburgh and staged their own shows alongside the new international festival. Other festivals soon followed, covering everything from jazz and science to underground theatre and children’s entertainment.

There is nothing quite like Edinburgh during August and now, after a torrid couple of years that have shaken the arts and culture industry to its core, its festivals are fully back up and running for the first time since 2019.

Over the next few weeks visitors from around 70 different countries will descend on the city with attendances expected to top 4.5 million as the throng of people wend their way through the city’s historic streets and soak up this unique atmosphere.

The season starts with Edinburgh Art Festival (to August 28), the UK’s largest annual visual arts festival, which features more than 35 exhibitions including retrospectives of painter and jazz musician Alan Davie and the acclaimed sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and a solo show by Tracey Emin.

Hot on its heels comes the Edinburgh International Festival (August 5 – 28) and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (August 5 – 29) offering a heady mixture of theatre, music, opera, dance, and comedy. The international festival has an impressive programme ranging from Tony award-winning star Alan Cumming making his dance theatre debut in Burn, inspired by Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns, to a series of concerts by the acclaimed Philadelphia Orchestra.

Another perennial favourite is the Royal Military Tattoo (August 5 – 27) featuring 800 performers from around the world.
Also making a welcome return is the Edinburgh International Film Festival (August 12 – 20) which is screening new films from award-winning actresses Charlotte Rampling, Jane Fonda and Whoopi Goldberg, and includes a special strand dedicated entirely to female filmmakers.

This year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival (August 13 – 28) is no less inspiring. More than 550 authors, including such diverse figures as Noam Chomsky, Michael Morpurgo and Irvine Welsh, are taking part. Among the many highlights are Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, Maggie O’Farrell launching and discussing her much-anticipated novel The Marriage Portrait, and screen legend Brian Cox talking about his life on stage and his role in the hit TV series Succession.

Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, knows how important it is to have live audiences back. “The lifeblood of a festival is in its in-person events so to be able to get back to full scale this year is absolutely vital.” It’s important for the city, too. “Edinburgh is beautiful but the festival adds so much to this city’s sense of itself and it’s vital that we bring it back to the level of influence it had before.”

For many people, the festival season wouldn’t be the same without the Fringe which over the decades has helped launch the careers of such luminaries as Alan Rickman, Steve Coogan and Rachel Weisz and has become a place where famous names rub shoulders with up and coming performers.

Shona McCarthy, Chief Executive at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, says the sense of anticipation is palpable. “The overwhelming feeling is one of absolute excitement – we can’t wait. We’ve got 63 countries represented on the stage this year which is brilliant a reinforces Edinburgh’s position in the global calendar for the performing arts.”
And once again there’s no shortage of stars appearing. “We’ve got Sir Ian McKellen doing Hamlet in St Stephen’s Church and we’ve got a lot of other big names from Reginald D Hunter to Nina Conti… it’s like a line-up of Mock the Week.”

McCarthy believes the fact the Fringe is constantly evolving is part of its enduring popularity. “An open access platform does change and does adapt, it’s a dynamic, moving thing. The Fringe is never the same any two years in a row,” she says.

This year there are more than 3,000 shows selling tickets. “So much has happened in the last couple of years and people have been writing about it, whether it’s loneliness and the whole covid experience, or the war in Ukraine. The Fringe is always ahead of the curve in terms of capturing zeitgeist.”

For more information about the festivals go to https://www.edinburghfestivalcity.com/

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