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Introductions: Edinburgh Fringe

Busy crowd on Edinburgh Royal Mile
Edinburgh Royal Mile (2022) - Daryl Reader

In order to discuss Fringe theatre as a wider concept, we’ve got to first address not only the biggest one, but the one that kicked it all off.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe (that’s right, not ‘Fringe Festival’) remains the large multi-arts festival in the world. Every August, over three-thousand productions head to the Scottish capital for a month of hard work, in the pursuit of an audience for their art.

Whether you’re doing theatre, musicals, children’s shows, physical theatre, spoken word, or even exhibitions, there is a place for it at this festival. Of course, the most dominant category is comedy, which holds around 30% of the festival’s overall programming.

With the exception of the social-distancing years, the Edinburgh International Festival has been an annual occurrence for over 75 years. It’s where comedians have begun their careers, offbeat musicals have grown to become the next West End smash, and anyone can take the opportunity to expose their work to a mainstream audience.

However, despite all these things now being the most dominant part of it, this isn’t a festival that has always embraced its Fringe. There was a time when it looked to be of a much trimmer and aristocratic cut.

Nevertheless, what has always been at its core is a platform for the world to come together through the arts. You see, in 1947, opera impresario Rudolph Bing was looking to unite a broken international community. World War Two had torn through the world, and Bing’s life was no exception.

An Austrian-born Jewish man, in the wake of Nazi Germany’s rise to power, Bing left the career he had built in Berlin behind. In 1934, him and his wife – Russian ballerina Nina Schelemskaya-Schlesnaya – moved to the United Kingdom in 1934.

Following the hatred and destruction that the Nazis had inflicted on the world and, indeed, his own people, Bing conceived of a festival that would be a platform for unity and healing. This powerful mantra is welded into the DNA of the Edinburgh Festival.

However, as positive as its intentions were, the festival initially rejected the prospect of the ‘common folk’ participating with their own practices of ‘lower art’. This was intended to be a high-art festival of opera, galleries, and theatre.

However, this didn’t stop the people of Edinburgh taking the matter into their own hands. They also had stories to tell, and they weren’t going to stay quiet on the matter. That first year saw seven non-approved shows put on concurrently with the official festival. The city’s main theatres had already been taken, so they took their shows to ‘alternative’ venues. For anyone who’s ever seen or done an Edinburgh show, you know this is still true of today’s festival. Pubs, hotel rooms, university buildings – it’s all fair-game. Pleasance Courtyard, one of the best-known venues, is otherwise a student building, which has been used as a venue from very early on.

Though the official Fringe Society would not be formed until 1959, it may surprise you that this much of the festival and its ideals were in-place from the beginning. In just wanting to be part of this festival, these people unwittingly changed how the arts industry worked. From what they did in those early years, generations of artists were able to get their work seen without the blockade of agents and industry professionals stopping them. These are the heroes of today’s independent artists but, to emphasise the attitude towards them at the time, there aren’t a lot of records about the majority of the fringe’s first ten years. That’s fringe with a small ‘f’, as it wouldn’t have the blessing of a being a proper noun until the society was finally formed in 1959.

The rebellion was fully underway, and it would eventually completely overwhelm the ‘main’ festival. Even when people refer to the ‘Edinburgh Festival’ now, they are more often than not referring to Fringe.

For many years, the International Festival made ill-fated attempts to derail the Fringe’s success. For example, when they commissioned their own ‘professional’ version of the sketch revue, which students from Oxford and Cambridge had begun to take up to the Fringe. Casting the legendary quartet of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett (yes, the playwright), and Jonathan Miller, they called the show ‘Beyond the Fringe’.

This was a direct mission statement that this production was not just as good as the Fringe’s output, it was ‘beyond’ it. However, as this was mega-hit of a production was so impactful that it got its own run at the West End, followed by an international tour, what they failed to note was this ‘Fringe’ was not greatly known by many at this point. However, by addressing it directly, its existence suddenly became impossible to avoid.

‘Wait? You mean that these really funny people started at this Fringe thing?’

The production designed to put itself to above the Fringe, had actually validated and elevated it.

To this day, the sense of rebellion in the Fringe community has never wavered. Even when it’s been with itself. As mentioned, the Oxbridge universities had established themselves and their sketch revues as a Fringe staple which, for some, was a few steps away from its working-class origins.

That all changed when the ‘alternative comedy’ movement reached Edinburgh in the eighties. Generation-defining comics such as Alexei Sayle kicked down the door and brought a whole new flavour and attitude in his wake. Admittedly, the alleged incidents of alternative comics shouting abuse during a Cambridge Footlights performance may have been a little extreme, but it was clear that the festival’s defiant spirit was still there.

When the rates for hiring Fringe venues became untenable for many artists, multiple factions of artists (again) took matters into their own hands and formed various ‘Free Festivals’.

Even today, the Fringe and its artists battle on in a long-term clash with landlords and the city council. For the longest time now, the accessibility of the festival for artists has been somewhat hindered by accommodation costs increasing every year. Whilst there did initially appear to be a concrete solution introduced by the council – an license to enforce more responsible short-term stay rates – I’ve been informed by an agency that I otherwise regularly use that their landlords have converted to long-term letting, with the terms of this new short-term license not being worth their investment.

Whilst there definitely needs to be a resolution to this, this has not deterred performers from the festival. Whether staying further out-of-town like us or even commuting in from Glasgow, the fire is yet to be extinguished and the independent artists will still descend on Edinburgh this summer.

Since 1947, when that first show debuted uninvited, artists from around the world have come to Edinburgh as a haven to get their work out there on their own terms. That is the legacy you will be joining.

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