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Edinburgh Festival 99 Wednesday, 18 August, 1999, 14:40 GMT 15:40 UK
Stars in their eyes
By BBC News Online's Festival correspondent Matt Grant

The best things in life may be free, but anything worth seeing at the Edinburgh Festival is guaranteed to cost at least 10. Free shows are more often worthless than priceless and if they are both free and empty take it as a very strong hint indeed.

Edinburgh Festival 1999
Otherwise, you risk spending the next two and a half hours (free shows always last longer) listening to the demented warbling of a Czech poetess or the 15th version of a tune sounding a bit like Simon and Garfunkel by a posse of Peruvian pan pipe players.

Such performances nonetheless help Edinburgh to maintain the sobriquet of the world's largest arts festival. They also help to address an important philosophical question: If nobody watches a show, does it exist? The answer - if you are unfortunate enough to get dragged off the street and into the hall mid-way through - is yes.

Shame at The Scotsman

But many acts see it differently. In their minds, they only start to exist when they are reviewed and given a star rating, which always goes on a scale of one to five whatever the publication. Despite the fact these crucial assessments are made by drunken journalists with scant frame of reference and no overall arbitration, they assume incredible importance.

The Scotsman: No stars for tact
The Scotsman was asking for trouble - abusive phonecalls, e-mails, faxes, death threats - when it decided to group together all its one-star reviews in a Page of Shame. Acts are talking about a boycott, though it is difficult to see who will organise this unless someone forms a breakaway faction from Equity for the talentless.

One upset woman I overheard had a point, though. She worked for a children's drama group who had been dumped into the Page of Shame. "The wee bairns were all greeting (crying)," she said. Surely this was a step too far even for a publication run by the reputedly ruthless Andrew Neil.

Children's shows are, after all, supposed to be rubbish. They would fall into the free category, except the producers know they can count on doting parents to cough up to watch their offspring fluff their lines. Why review them at all? And, if you do, surely they deserve an extra star just for trying.

The art of uselessness

The subject of money and the performing arts was raised at the Edinburgh International Festival's Cultural Reflections series by Scottish playwright David Greig. He had stumbled onto the topic in part because his new play, The Speculator, is about John Law, the Scot who invented paper money (presumably so his friends wouldn't hear coins jingling in his pocket).

Van Gogh's Sunflowers: What are they worth?
Art, Greig argued, is useless. "Its uselessness is its value," he claimed. A Van Gogh may sell for millions of pounds, but it has no intrinsic worth.

From this point, he went on to attack the editors who persist in employing star ratings on the simple premise that their readers actually like them and find them helpful. Greig disagreed, branding the practice an attempt to quantify the unquantifiable.

"If you buy a 'five', it is meaningless," he said. At this point, his intellectual point was rather lost as hundreds of fringe acts and promoters appeared out of nowhere to rush up to him and demand to know exactly how you would go about buying a five.

Little appeal for Assembly begging

Financial troubles continue at the Assembly Rooms, which along with the Pleasance and Guilded Balloon forms part of the holy trinity of comedy venues during the fringe.

The management ran into some serious problems last year when they decided to extend their run. Audiences failed to stick around and in the end it ran up significant and potentially crippling debts.

The solution to this is, in part at least, appears to be getting junior members of staff to stand outside shows holding buckets with Assembly Appeal written across them. Unfortunately, departing audiences - who have always paid at least 10 - seem less than charitable.

A festival-friendly parliament

To jump from money to power, when the Scottish Parliament was opened a few months ago much fuss was made about its decision to adopt family-friendly hours.

The current home of the Scottish Parliament
In a nutshell, this meant scheduling holidays around school timetables. So, when the parliament opened, virtually the first thing it did was wave itself off on holiday.

But should we believe the hype? Schools start the winter term here on Wednesday (and if you could see the weather, you'd know why). The Festival Fringe ends on 30 August, with the grand finale of the Edinburgh International Festival itself a week later.

The Members of the Scottish Parliament do not return to their temporary home at the top of the Mound for their first session until 1 September.

Without executive duties or the responsibility of looking after children 24 hours a day, how will these MSPs entertain themselves for the next fortnight?

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17 Aug 99 | Edinburgh Festival 99
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