Edinburgh Festival, billed as the world’s biggest celebration of arts and culture, alongside Glastonbury and the Oscars is a mothership of showbusiness.
The sheer scale and reach of these events means they symbolise and epitomise the cultural identity of generation after generation.
Glastonbury was set to celebrate its 50th year, and Edinburgh its 73rd, having been set up in 1947 in the aftermath of the war to champion the human spirit, reconcile and reunite people.
How prescient and deeply sad that sentiment now seems as, for the first time in their history, the Edinburgh Festivals are cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak.
It’s hugely disappointing for the 4.4 million strong audience the events pull to Edinburgh every summer, and potentially financially crippling for 25,000 artists, writers and performers who travel from 70 countries around the world – the ripple will reach far and wide.
Beyond the performers and venues, the festival generates hundreds of millions of pounds – the taxi drivers, restaurants and hotels will feel the blow of its sudden no show – absent in the city for the first time in more than seven decades. (Nicola Sturgeon has promised financial aid, describing the cancellation as “heartbreaking”.)
It’s another nail in the coffin for many in the creative industries who have seen their income disappear overnight.
The Creative Industries Federation warns of a cultural catastrophe, it’s chief executive Caroline Norbury telling Sky News that “many companies could go under within weeks”.
But money aside, what of the cultural void? Without the Edinburgh Festivals, where will producers find the new talent for their shows? Where will artists go for inspiration? What of the 18-year-old who was looking forward to his first taste of the Long Mile? An experience which would have stayed with him for the rest of his life.
With so many plans crushed, and in the long shadow of the lockdown, what will be of 2020’s cultural record?
Comedian Ed Byrne summed up the adjustment with this tweet: “The planner on our kitchen wall makes me feel like I’m being taunted from another dimension by a happier version of myself.”
We had such excitement for the cultural calendar ahead: Taylor Swift and Macca were set to make Glastonbury’s 50th truly memorable – indeed ticket-holders to any gig in the coming months the world over have felt the taste change from anticipation to disappointment.
We planned to go see the new Bond film, and Peter Rabbit with our kids. We looked forward to staring at pictures from the red carpets of the Cannes and the SXSW Festivals, taking mental notes of the must-see films coming up.
Now, so much is uncertain.
The creative industries are also important for their role in interpreting and documenting what’s going on in society.
Whether a political song by rapper Dave, Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan, Banksy’s comments on Israel, or how Bremner Bird and Fortune elucidated the Iraq War on Channel 4 in the noughties, people look to art and entertainment to make sense of the madness, especially in strange, unsettling and stressful times.
The Edinburgh Fringe would have been packed with jokes and performances inspired by what’s going on in the world.
For Sky News in previous years we covered how Brexit was being told at the Fringe by companies such as the NewsRevue, political singing drag act Kinsey Sicks and comedians like Matt Forde and Marcus Brigstocke.
Irvine Walsh told us how his comic pop opera addressed his frustrations with “poor people” being pushed out of the arts, and last year ’90s tributes suggested an appetite for nostalgia from those who grew up in the decade.
Edinburgh TV Festival plays its part too, with it’s MacTaggart Lectures making global headlines – most recently with actress Michaela Coel and Channel 4’s Dorothy Byrne’s comments on inequality in the TV industry and the need for those in power to be more accountable.
That is what these big entertainment events do. Yes, they are money spinners, but they are also shop windows showcasing the best, most exemplary work, and they call for best practice, demand transparency and strive for excellence.
I am truly moved by the efforts of those in the creative industries to repurpose their talents to help in this crisis – musicians streaming gigs and singing outside care homes is just the start.
Organisations, institutions and individuals such as David Walliams, JK Rowling, The Arts Society and the Saatchi Gallery are providing content for free to help entertain, educate and connect people in isolation.
In the statement cancelling the Edinburgh Festival, the Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy summed it up:
“Culture brings out the best in us. It gives the marginalised a voice. It shapes and reshapes how we think of ourselves, and crucially it unites us.”
It is also encouraging to hear about people getting creative in their homes – drawing, painting, singing.
The parodies of songs going viral, such as a Les Miserables adaptation by the family from Kent, and the dentist singing his coronavirus version of the Vanilla Ice hit, prove that people need the arts – just a pinch of showbusiness – in hard times.