The Edinburgh festival: a ‘cultural hypermarket’ – from the archive

Editorial: the first Edinburgh festival

23 August 1947

This is a great day for Edinburgh. Today begins the great festival of the arts – music, drama, ballet, opera, with excursions into many other fields of humane culture – to which, it is expected, a hundred and fifty thousand people will come from far and near during the next few weeks. It is a bold and imaginative scheme of a kind hardly attempted in this country before; we have our great music festivals like Cheltenham and Harrogate and the Three Choirs, our seasons at Stratford and Malvern, but there has been no comparable attempt to twine together all the sister arts into so compelling a strand as this. Nor could one have found for the festival a finer setting than Edinburgh, a city whose beauty is not in the flesh only but in the bone and spirit.

Continue reading. See also: Neville Cardus on the first festival and his review of Kathleen Ferrier and Peter Pears.

The Cocktail Party

By Ivor Brown
The Observer, 28 August 1949

TS Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, itself mostly talk, was the festival’s talking point. The Eliotians said it was just too marvellous, and the opposition observed that it was all pretentious mystification and a blether of words. What was it all about? Well, there at a party is Alec Guinness as a mystery guest, who turns out to be a psychotherapist remarkable for taking no fees. He sends a sad young woman to a death worse than fate in a way which struck me as purely sadistic – I have rarely disliked anybody so much.

It may be gathered that I am no Eliotian. My ear is too crude for his rhythms, my mind too blunt for his intellectual refinements. I was told the message is Be Yourself and Choose, which strikes me as neither novel nor striking.

Laughter and ideology

By Philip Hope-Wallace
22 August 1952

Laughter, much needed unofficial laughter, is to be heard on the outer rim of this vortex of international culture; laughter, and the rattle of ideological skeletons. A play called The Travellers, put on here for the festival by Theatre Workshop, drew our attention, less because it is written by Ewan MacColl than because it is produced by Joan Littlewood, valiant for all “avant garde” styles of production, however old these may be.

To reach The Travellers one travels by a street car which is not Desire upwards towards a drill-hall plastered with mottoes about amity and verity. What meets the eye inside might well be the interior of the Realistic Theatre in Moscow during a performance of Pogodin’s Aristocrats. What we heard was also somewhat in the same style: claptrap and sermonising with reflections from the Bloomsbury poets of the period of the Spanish civil war.

At the St Mary’s Hall some famous London figures from the theatre clubs (Watergate and Irving) have turned up with a splendidly ribald little revue called After the Show. Some of these items have been seen before and they may strike some people as rather tasteless on what is, in fact, the stage of a public theatre though they were quite permissible in the privacy of a club, but a very full audience snapped them up eagerly, a welcome change from too much gloomy culture.

Ninth Edinburgh festival opens

By Philip Hope-Wallace
20 August 1955

The dramatic ‘fringe’ of the Edinburgh festival

By Philip Hope-Wallace
1 September 1958

Having for the time being exhausted the official programme I am impelled by critical chivalry no less than plain curiosity to examine the unofficial exhibits of this Edinburgh festival, the so called “fringe.” They are legion. In cellars, at drill halls, drama, juvenile, experimental, three dimensional, or just straight repertory abounds and multiplies. My eye was caught by something called Rashid in a hall just off the Royal Mile. It sounded like an exotic ballet or at least a costume play about a great French actress. The reality was otherwise.
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Beyond the Fringe

By Irving Wardle
The Observer, 28 August 1960

Beyond the Fringe [is] a revue written and played by a company of four – a bespectacled Wunderkind called Alan Bennett; Peter Cook, co-author of Pieces of Eight; Dudley Moore, a performer with the musical and gymnastic equipment of a court jester; and the legendary Jonathan Miller, comedian emeritus of the Cambridge Footlights Club. It doesn’t help much to talk about the economy and ensemble sympathy of this team; so far as those qualities are concerned the only recent comparison one can make is with the Flanders and Swann partnership in At the Drop of a Hat.

Unlike that show, however, Beyond the Fringe did not rely on its script. A good deal of its dialogue could have been (indeed some of it had been) lifted from an average level underground revue. But its ideas, instead of being held precariously aloft by a sweat-drenched gagman, were kept in the air by a cool adjustment of balance on the high wire.

“Cool,” though is not the word for Jonathan Miller. He is a major comic eccentric, and the flattest line is enough to touch him off into a cadenza of mouth mime and whirligig gesture. Anxious to confide a secret he crumples to the ground and, out of sight but for a single mad eye, hisses “It’s a plot” into a floor microphone. At the mere mention of marsh bird, his chin is sucked into his Adam’s apple and he is twice round the stage at a high-stepping gait with arm reared into a majestically elongated neck. Like a master cartoonist he seizes an idea and monstrously distorts it into a shape which, in its own terms, is a model of precise composition.

The rest of the company work to a smaller scale, but in one sketch they were fired with Mr Miller’s own vein of fine excess. This was a mock-Shakespeare history including a clown scene for which the company assembled in the guise of gleefully capering tree stumps. It drew blood.

Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller, authors and performers of Beyond the Fringe, 1964.
Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller, authors and performers of Beyond the Fringe, 1964. Photograph: Terry Disney/Getty Images

On the fringe of an institution

By Christopher Driver
28 August 1961

In an elegant armchair at the Festival Fringe Club a red-bearded, canvas-jeaned progressive is sleeping off last night’s poetry reading, and a man who might be a retired major is perusing the Illustrated London News. They do not communicate, but they are not obviously perturbed by each other’s existence. They may be allowed to symbolise the complaint audible in Edinburgh that the Fringe is becoming too respectable by half.

When one examines the titles of the 30-odd productions listed on the Fringe Society’s brochure, the impression seems a little unjust, and it admittedly owes something to the adventurous turn which the programme of the festival proper has taken this year. Where else but on the Fringe would one hear new translations of Lope de Vega, or the world premiere of a new Scots musical; where else would one get into a show free because the company had forgotten to submit the script to the Lord Chamberlain.

But the brochure itself (it costs £10 for a space in it) shows the Fringe hardening under economic pressures into an institution. “Do not arrange them; let them occur,” telegraphed Oscar Wilde to a friend who had asked his advice about a display of flowers, and ideally the Fringe too would operate like this. But if you are a company which wants to earn enough in Edinburgh to take your Provencal epic on a fortnight’s tour of Yugoslavia, it pays to advertise – especially as the citizens will have charged you 30gns a week for a hall hardly fit to hold a jumble sale in.

Happily, though, there are still rebels who are incapable of making their minds up far enough in advance to book an advertisement. The Howff for instance, a leftish coffee bar in the Royal Mile, was launched just before the Festival opened. Its proprietor persuaded the American singer Martha Schlamme to sing folk songs there late at night just for the fun of it, and the hot breath of the gossip columns quickly made the enterprise almost too successful. Since an impromptu ceilidh goes on there till two or three in the morning, it absorbs those who have nowhere else to go when the late night revues are over.
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Street performer Montague Haltrecht (stripped to waist) rehearses his piece for the Edinburgh festival with Rod Robertson, September 1955.
Street performer Montague Haltrecht (stripped to waist) rehearses his piece for the Edinburgh festival with Rod Robertson, September 1955. Photograph: Malcolm Dunbar/Getty Images

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

By Ronald Bryden
The Observer, 28 August 1966

The best thing at Edinburgh so far is the new play by Tom Stoppard staged in Cranston Street Hall by the Oxford Theatre Group, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Mr Stoppard had taken up the vestigial lives of Hamlet’s two Wittenberg cronies, and made out of them an existentialist fable unabashedly indebted to Waiting for Godot but as witty and vaulting as Beckett’s original is despairing.

The play does not pretend to know more of the pair’s lives than Shakespeare: its point is, neither do they. While the violent drama of Elsinore unrolls off-stage, occasionally sucking them in its fury, they spin coins endlessly in ante-rooms, wondering what is going on, what will happen next, what will become of them? They sense that they should escape, but what to? The tragedy of Denmark offers them the only significance, the only identities life had led out to them – it offers them roles.

Beyond the fantastic comedy, you feel allegoric purposes move: is this our relation to our century, to the idea of death to war? But while the tragedy unfurls in this comic looking-glass, you’re too busy with its stream of ironic invention, metaphysical jokes and linguistic acrobatics to pursue them. Like Love’s Labour’s Lost, this is erudite comedy, punning, far-fetched, leaping from depth to dizziness. It’s the most brilliant debut by a young playwright since John Arden’s.

Richard II and Edward II at the Assembly Hall

By Ronald Bryden
The Observer, 31 August 1969

Notes scrawled in a sleeper joggling south from Edinburgh. Balletomanish ovations for main official drama offering, Ian McKellen’s Richard II and Edward II at Assembly Hall. Both ecstasy and performances slightly premature, forced-ripe. In both parts, feel him straining against limitations of age, technique – he’ll want to play them again in 10 years, find himself embarrassed by precocious legend. Too many moments when thought-out development sacrificed to thrilling vocal effect. But a taste of real meat, young but bloody, amid all the greenery. George Cukor, who should know, says on great ones you can smell danger. It’s here.

Sir Ian McKellen appearing as Richard II in 1969 at the Edinburgh international festival.
Sir Ian McKellen appearing as Richard II in 1969 at the Edinburgh international festival. Photograph: Edinburgh International Festival/PA

Och follies

20 August 1977

Michael Billington browses in the Fringe’s ‘cultural hypermarket’ and Peter Fiddick introduces Britain’s first television festival.

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