The Magnificent 70: Auld Reekie celebrates seven decades of being the Festival City
Murray Robertson looks at how Edinburgh became the arts capital of the world
2017 marks a very special anniversary for Edinburgh: it's been 70 years since it took its first steps to becoming the world-leading festival city it is today. In 1947, as the nation slowly recovered from the devastation of World War II, the Edinburgh International Festival was inaugurated as a cultural bedrock on which to unite audiences and artists from around the world. It was joined that same year by what have now become the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and this original trio of arts festivals continue to dazzle audiences to this day.
In its founding year, the Edinburgh International Festival – as part of its mission to 'provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit' – reunited the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra with revered conductor Bruno Walter after he had fled Austria following Nazi occupation. From an initial focus on classical music, the festival has grown to include theatre, opera and dance, and over the past seven decades the EIF has nurtured longstanding relationships with some of the biggest names in the arts: Maria Callas, Yehudi Menuhin, Benjamin Britten, Judi Dench, Rudolph Nureyev, Placido Domingo and Alan Rickman are among those who have been drawn to the city.
The EIF's early success gave Edinburgh new cache as a cultural centre, and ignited the city's annual festive season. Several more festivals have thrived in its trail: most notably the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. When eight theatre groups turned up uninvited to perform at the very first EIF, the performers set about staging their own 'Fringe of the Festival', unperturbed by a lack of official performance spaces. This practice continued every year, and in 1958 the Festival Fringe Society was established to corral this rapidly expanding phenomenon.
Today, 'Edinburgh' and 'the Fringe' are practically synonymous. Now the world's largest arts festival, the city is transformed for three weeks every August as comedians, actors, writers and street artists jostle for attention along the world-famous Royal Mile. Just last year, there were over 50,000 performances of 3269 shows across 300 venues.
The Fringe has become particularly well-known as a springboard for burgeoning talent with some of the biggest names in entertainment having made their names at the festival. Famously, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry won the first ever Perrier Award in 1981 with the Cambridge Footlights; later on, Mike Myers (Wayne's World, Shrek) and Harry Hill cut their teeth at the Fringe, while The Daily Show's Trevor Noah had a popular run back in 2013 when he was still relatively unknown.
Completing the trio of festivals that pioneered Edinburgh's reputation is the Edinburgh International Film Festival. It also began its life in 1947, as the International Festival of Documentary Films, and is now the world's oldest continually running film festival.
An enormously influential showcase for UK and international cinema, EIFF history is peppered with premieres of modern cinema classics: among them, Blade Runner, ET: The Extraterrestrial and Withnail and I.
Many of the UK's brightest cinematic talents have been championed here. Bill Forsyth's first feature, That Sinking Feeling, had its world premiere in 1979, a year before the release of Gregory's Girl. In 1985, Stephen Frears' Oscar-nominated My Beautiful Laundrette was shown; originally made for TV, its EIFF success was influential in giving it a cinematic release. And in 1994, Edinburgh held the world premiere of Danny Boyle's debut film, Shallow Grave. It featured a young Ewan McGregor, and the two went to work on Trainspotting soon after.
The EIFF also pioneered the cinematic retrospective, a feature that has become standard practice at film festivals across the world. In 1972, it hosted the Women's Film Festival, exclusively featuring female directors. And in 1973, Lynda Myles became the world's first female film festival director.
As a marker of the festival's distinctive impact on the people of Edinburgh, the EIFF has launched the EdFilmFest Memories Project. This initiative will gather memories and photographs from the public to create a 'people's history of the festival'. Not only will it enhance the film festival's fascinating archives, but it's a truly fitting way to celebrate 70 years of Edinburgh being the world's premier festival city.