The Edinburgh Festival was founded as a response to war. The inaugural event, held in 1947, was the brainchild of Rudolf Bing, the manager of Glyndebourne Opera, and Henry Harvey Wood, a British Council grandee. Both were convinced that a festival of music and theatre was needed to restore the artistic heritage of Europe after six years of devastation. Edinburgh recommended itself as the host city because of its cultural prestige, its picturesque location (to rival Salzburg), and its ample store of theatres and hotels that could accommodate hundreds of performers and thousands of visitors. That the Luftwaffe hadn’t flattened the city was a significant mark in its favour. The festival set out to ‘provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit’. In other words, it was the NHS with a lyre in its hands.
Poachers swooped immediately. Eight opportunistic theatre companies arrived in the Scottish capital intending to lure audiences away from the festival proper and towards their own shows. Nobody minded. The festival’s originators may even have felt flattered that their creation had attracted emulators overnight. And so the tradition was born of two festivals in parallel. Their methods could not be more different. The festival proper (now the Edinburgh International Festival or EIF) embodies the lordly style of spoonful-of-medicine art from the Soviet era. Works are chosen and approved by remote commissars who hand them down to a grateful and quiescent populace. The fringe is just the reverse. It’s a free-market bonanza, a riot of unfettered and unregulated individualism, a giant supra-national bourse where buyers and sellers come from all over the world to exchange artistic goods for money.
There’s no quality control. Anyone can hire a venue, book an advert in the brochure and get started. Show up and show off, as it’s known. And the bamboo-like growth of the fringe seems unstoppable.