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Thursday, 3 August, 2000, 14:44 GMT 15:44 UK
The rise of the Fringe
Edinburgh Festival
Festival time sees performers let their hair down
The Edinburgh Festival is a fixture of the Scottish capital's year.

But the idea didn't come from a Scot, and nor did it come from one of the English arts media, which occupies the city each August.

Austrian conductor Rudolf Bing launched the first festival - the main Edinburgh International Festival - in 1947 as a way of bringing harmony through music to a Europe shattered by the war, and to enable a "flowering of the human spirit".

Sir Rudolf Bing
Sir Rudolf Bing after receiving his knighthood in 1971
But Bing's team was caught unawares by the huge interest from a public eager for some entertainment to enliven the austere post-war years.

They also didn't count on the enthusiasm from performers, who turned up to show off their talents without even being booked.

Eight theatre companies turned up to perform - and found there was nowhere to go. They camped out in small buildings near to the official festival venue - and despite their chaotic surroundings, their performances were successful and they returned the following year.

In 1948, journalist Robert Kemp commented that the additional, spontaneous productions were "the fringe of the official festival drama".

The name stuck, and the rise of the Fringe continued alongside the official festival.

Organised chaos

But while the official festival was tightly organised, the Fringe took a decade to get its house in order.

Edinburgh Festival
There is still no artistic vetting of Fringe performances
Programmes for the Fringe events did not appear until the 1950s, and a box office was not established until 1954. Five years later, the Fringe Society was born to offer help and advice to groups wishing to perform.

Students were at the core of the Fringe's organisation - with Edinburgh University hosting many of its facilities and performances, and Durham, Oxford and Birmingham students coming up from England to perform.

One principle of the Fringe - which lasts to this day - is that there is no artistic vetting of performances.

Anyone can turn up and put on a show, in direct contrast to the official festival's desire to have performers of the "highest possible artistic standard".

Strength to strength

The 1960s saw the growth steadily continue. In 1959 there were 19 groups performing, and the Fringe Society was staffed by volunteers. In 1969 the Fringe played host to 57 groups, and the society was launched as a limited company.

A more professional organisation saw spectacular growth - ending in 494 groups performing in 1981, under the stewardship of Fringe administrator Alistair Moffat.

League of Gentlemen: Steve Pemberton as Tubbs and Reece Shearsmith as Edward
The League of Gentlemen were Perrier Comedy Award winners in 1997
This was the year of the first Perrier prize for comedy - which was won by the Cambridge Footlights, featuring then-unknowns Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry.

Other winners since then have included Sean Hughes, Frank Skinner, Lee Evans, Jenny Eclair and the League of Gentlemen.

New venues began to spring up during the decade, such as the Assembly, the Circuit, and the Guilded Balloon.

An industrial dispute at the local authority threatened to kill off the festival in 1989, but the Fringe has now secured its position as the largest arts festival in the world, dwarfing the original festival and playing host to over 500 companies putting on 14,000 performances.

Sight and sound

Running alongside the Fringe and the official festival is the Edinburgh International Film Festival - also back for its 54th year.

From the beginning, it gained a reputation for bold, international programming.

Edinburgh's Royal Mile
Edinburgh's Royal Mile at festival time
In the 1960s, it helped introduce the retrospective, looking again at the great Westerns, melodramas and action films of the time.

Among film-makers honoured by Edinburgh are Martin Scorsese and John Huston, who said it was "the only film festival that's worth a damn".

Steven Spielberg premiered ET there, and Steve Martin, the Coen brothers, Terry Gilliam and Tim Roth have taken part in discussions at the festival.

August in Edinburgh also sees the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the International Jazz and Blues Festival, and the International Television Festival, the UK's top talking-shop for TV producers and broadcasters.

Although the Fringe has outgrown the main festival and grabs more of the headlines, each of Edinburgh's festivals has kept its own distinct identity.

Rudolf Bing went on to run the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and also England's Glyndebourne Festival.

He was knighted in 1971, but Sir Rudolf, now 85, suffers from Alzeimer's disease.

However, the festival has more than fulfilled his aim to "provide a period of flowering of the human spirit".

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