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Tuesday 18th
posted by Morning Star in Features

ANN HENDERSON looks ahead to the events forming the Edinburgh International Festival

THE 70th Edinburgh International Festival approaches, starting with a free city centre public event “Bloom,” bringing together illuminations, projections, and music on Friday August 4.

The current director of the International Festival, Fergus Linehan, has been keen to in build in events in the official programme that are accessible to all citizens of Edinburgh, and is also developing more of an outreach programme with schools in the city.

The first Edinburgh International Festival was held in 1947. Planning began earlier as Rudolf Bing, general manager of Glyndebourne Festival Opera, searched for a venue for a postwar festival to celebrate international art, music and culture following the war.

Meetings held with the Lord Provost of Edinburgh Sir John Falconer and the British Council secured commitments from both, and also from the Arts Council.

The early commitment of the Edinburgh Corporation (City Council) was essential in mobilising resources to support the festival.

Alongside a financial commitment, appeals from the Lord Provost to the citizens of Edinburgh saw coal rations handed over to help with lighting Edinburgh Castle, private flats and houses providing over 6,000 beds for visitors to the city and a Festival Club in the Assembly Rooms in George Street in Edinburgh preparing and cooking 2,500 meals a day for festival visitors.

This required donation of food rations and negotiations with the Ministry of Food to ensure adequate provisions.

The debate still rages today about the relative benefits the festivals bring to the city, alongside questions of access to, and definitions of, all forms of culture and the arts.

The 70th anniversary is providing some time and space for reflection, as well as looking to the future, with particular concerns over the impact of austerity, the EU referendum decision and wider global politics.

Post-war, the Edinburgh International Festival was to provide a space for optimism, for hope, and for a vision of a new inclusive society, a welfare state, and wider access to the arts.

Edinburgh Trades Union Council (ETUC) has been represented on the festival council since its formal establishment in November 1946. The council had as its first object “to promote and encourage the arts, especially opera, plays, dramas, ballets and music.”

The membership of the council was drawn from a wide range of Edinburgh’s citizens and organisations, including six town councillors and was chaired by the Lord Provost.

Since 2008, Scottish trade unions, co-ordinated by ETUC, have been supporting international festival events, including, in 2013, 2014 and 2016 events in the main August programme.

In 2014, the distinguished war correspondents Orla Guerin and Lyse Doucet spoke at a sell-out lecture and discussion. And last year James Connolly’s years in Edinburgh as a trade unionist and socialist were the subject of a very popular performance.

The Edinburgh International Festival team and the British Council this year have co-curated a programme called Spirit of ’47, which seeks to reflect the festival’s spirit of international collaboration.

On August 16, as part of the Spirit of ’47 programme of events — the ETUC and unions will be involved in staging a session about the origins of the International Festival and the Fringe, focusing on the role of Glasgow Unity Theatre — a professional company that gave many subsequently famous Scottish actors with workingclass backgrounds their first opportunities — and which some see as the true originators of the Fringe.

Conductor Bruno Walter said that the first Edinburgh International Festival was a “magnificent” experience, which “renewed human relations” after the war. But not everyone felt included. For some years Glasgow Unity Theatre — led by a former factory shop steward — had been discovering working-class talent and presenting popular, professional theatre.

But International Festival director Rudolf Bing thought Scottish work unlikely to meet his standards, and making the International Festival accessible to a wide social range of “local visitors” was not a consideration. Glasgow Unity came anyway but had to perform, self-funded, on what later became the Fringe.

A “culture war” saw the development of the Fringe, of the short-lived People’s Festival, recently revived, and a perceived (and real) distance between the “official” festival, and other festivals. The role of working-class arts and culture, and Scottish nationalism, continues to feature in debates throughout the 70-year history of Edinburgh as a festival city.

The forerunner of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the inaugural International Festival of Documentary Film, also took place in 1947. The Fringe, the Jazz and Blues Festival (1978), the inaugural Edinburgh International Book Festival in 1983, and subsequent other festivals including Storytelling, Science and a Children’s Festival, fill the city’s venues throughout the year.

Trade unions and communities must also reflect on the employment opportunities generated by such festivals, the celebration of talents and skills among our own members, and the demands placed on public services, to ensure adequate investment and funding.

The 2017 STUC Congress unanimously agreed a motion from the Musicians Union highlighting trends for poor wages and worse working conditions in the ever-expanding Fringe Festival, commending Bectu on agreeing a code of conduct with the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe Society to promote the use of the Scottish living wage, as set by the Living Wage Foundation, at the 2016 festivals, urging all unions to work together to challenge bad practice and to promote trade union recognition in 2017 and future years.

  • Ann Henderson is assistant secretary of the STUC. For more information on the Spirit of ’47 visit: