Twelve things we learnt at Edinburgh’s festivals

Twelve things we learnt at Edinburgh’s festivals

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By Tim Chester
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If you’re thinking of heading to Edinburgh for the festivals during August, there’s one thing you need to bring: time. Come loaded with lots of it, as much as you can, because it runs out quickly and you’ll head home lamenting the hundreds of treats you missed.

A weekend is the bare minimum, a week would be better, and if I didn’t have to work for a living I’d probably have stayed for a month.  Edinburgh itself has more than enough reasons to linger longer, but August is just mind-boggling.

During our visit there were five festivals taking place simultaneously: the Edinburgh Art Festival, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh Book Festival. The stats alone will give you a headache: 35,000 artists, entertainers and thinkers producing 1,000+ shows daily in over 300 venues.

We had around 48 hours, dove in headfirst as soon as our plane landed, didn’t stop for air and still only scratched the surface. Thankfully, most things are within walking distance and cabs are plentiful (just don’t mention the tram). Here are a couple of things we learnt along the way.

Edinburgh Castle, Scotland

Stand-up is very hit and miss

With hundreds of comedians doing their “but seriously folks” onstage at any one time, you’ll need to choose your shows wisely. One bet-hedging idea is to see a multi-act show. The Best of Edinburgh Showcase saw four comics splitting one hour, and for every hilarious bearded man dancing to Beyoncé there was an impenetrable avant-garde duo leaving us dumbfounded. Joe Lycett and Alfie Brown were two of our favourites, relative newcomers whose gags (on the YouTube playlist below) can speak for themselves.

Locusts and meal worms can be pretty tasty

The Hendricks Carnival of Knowledge, held briefly in a imposing building on the New Town’s Royal Circus, was another bizarre sideshow and their Sunday Lunch in 2063 was pure Edinburgh. A short presentation on the future of food – and the unsustainability of eating meat – was followed by a plateful of locusts and meal worms ground up and served in dim sum parcels with soy sauce and ginger. They ended up challenging our assumptions more than our taste buds.

The venues are attractions in their own right

There can be few more striking cities in the world in which to host a month long shindig, and from Arthur’s Seat to the castle itself Edinburgh is a spectacular spot. The festivals really make the most of its venues too, so Man Ray Portraits was held in the awe-inspiring red sandstone Gothic revival National Portrait Gallery, much of the International Festival was in the equally impressive Hub building dating to 1895, and picturesque pubs and venues across the Old and New Town played host to other events.

Greg Proops is still very funny…

Whose Line Is It Anyway might be long dead (is it really 15 years since it came off air?), but the bespectacled American hasn’t lost any of his edge. His Sunday night show was packed full of gags that had us crying with laughter, and his ejection of a heckler was a master class in mean.

…as is David Baddiel

Another comic whose star has faded somewhat, albeit one who’s making new material from his predicament. Fame: Not The Musical was a brilliant reflection on the ups and downs of celebrity and how it feels to no longer be as famous as you once were. Here are a few of our comedy highlights:

The Witchery is overrated

The city’s gastronomic pride and joy is an alluring spot, but the atmospheric gloom conceals some serious crimes against food. Three Little Piggies was pork done three ways, none of them appealing. A rubbery chop was probably the worst offender and the whole meal was grossly overpriced, although the maitre d’ was entertaining.

Character at Real Mary King's CloseSome of Edinburgh’s most interesting spots are deep underground

The Real Mary King’s Close is a fascinating tour underneath the Royal Mile, taking visitors on a spooky subterranean trip around abandoned streets and humble dwellings, revealing the history of the city and some of its key inhabitants along the way. Characterful guides such as the man on the right add to the atmosphere. Tours cost £12.95 (£7.45 for children) and run throughout the day; check their website for more details.

Friday’s crowds aren’t a patch on Monday’s

Alfie Brown took great pains to point out that weekenders don’t laugh as hard as the midweek crew, and several stand-ups we spoke to seemed to hold weekend visitors in gentle contempt. But what are you going to do?

The Jive Bunny approach to DJ-ing can actually work

Normally I’d run a mile from anyone jumping from track to track in a club without playing the whole record. There’s nothing more annoying than a DJ cutting a tune after the first chorus. The manic man behind Hot Dub Time Machine, however, somehow gets away with it, splicing together snippets of big songs from the ‘50s onwards with mashed up video clips – a hyperactive hit for Generation ADHD.

People are defined by hate, not by what they love

Salman Rushdie’s sold-out talk was a highlight of the Book Festival, and his thoughts on society’s pervasive negativity were particularly illuminating:

“I do think that one of the characteristics of our age is the growth of this culture of offendedness. It has to do with the rise of identity politics, where you're invited to define your identity quite narrowly – you know, Western, Islamic, whatever it might be… Classically, we have defined ourselves by the things we love. By the place which is our home, by our family, by our friends. But in this age we're asked to define ourselves by hate. That what defines you is what pisses you off. And if nothing pisses you off, who are you?"

Leaving Planet Earth at Edinburgh 2013

Promenade performances are hard to get right

One of the International Festival’s flagship productions, the sold-out hot ticket Leaving Planet Earth was billed as a “site-responsive promenade production on an epic scale”, an immersive journey to New Earth that would blow our tiny minds. What we witnessed was a paper thin plot played out in a local climbing centre with the lights turned off, an ambitious but deeply flawed flop which saw audience members falling asleep and playing Scrabble on their phones at various points.

Haggis helps a hangover

Especially when served in a giant floury bap with a mug of tea in the Royal Tattoo grandstand overlooking the spectacular cityscape.

Our path through Edinburgh was a random one, beginning with Leonardo da Vinci and ending up in a Hot Dub Time Machine, via a number of erratic detours and a trip to another planet. Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book it took a unique and unrepeatable course, different to anyone else navigating this great city at the same time. There was a lot, from Hamlet to an interactive version of the cult TV show Knightmare, that we didn’t have time for. Next time, perhaps – especially if we remember to come with more of it.