Birth of the Fringe

Aug 1 2017 | By More

In the second of his exclusive features for Æ, Bruce Cannon turns to the birth (and growth) of the fringe – and how it affected his own career.

Memories of one who was there – part two

At the first Festival, in 1947, there were eight theatre groups who turned up to take advantage of potential audiences attracted to the Festival.

They were in effect the first members of “the fringe”, though that description was not adopted for some time. They were regarded as unofficial “adjuncts” to the Festival programme.


There are various stories about how and when the word “fringe” was coined in this context, but the principal credit goes to the Scottish writer Robert Kemp who commented on the productions appearing on the “fringes” of the official Festival.

Of the eight companies who set up their theatrical stalls during the first Festival, six were Scottish and two English. They were: Glasgow Unity Theatre; the Christine Orr (later Unicorn) Players; the Edinburgh District branch of the Scottish Community Drama Association (SCDA); Pilgrim Players from Birmingham Rep; Edinburgh College of Art Theatre Group; Lanchester Marionette Theatre, and a production of the morality play Everyman in Dunfermline Cathedral, sponsored by the Carnegie Trust.

The eighth company is commonly quoted as being Edinburgh People’s Theatre (EPT) – although the company say they have no record of their appearance. If so, does anyone know who the eighth company was? Nevertheless, EPT can proudly claim to be the longest running company on the Fringe including this year. SCDA is another company still going strong, although it no longer produces in its own right.

The venues for the city productions were the YMCA Theatre in South St Andrew Street, the Little Theatre in the Pleasance, the Gateway Theatre in Elm Row and the restaurant of the then New Victoria (now Odeon) Cinema where Lanchester Marionettes presented a series of puppet shows.

This latter venue was a forerunner of the many and varied locations that future Fringe companies found to present their work. In all, there were the eight companies using five venues. Now today, 70 years later, the Fringe has 2000 companies and performers playing in 300 venues.

stirring fanfare

However, back to 1947. I was not taken to any of the official events in that opening year, but I did see an open-air entertainment at the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens. I can’t remember much of the programme but I vividly recall the spectacular appearance on the roof of the Bandstand a group of military trumpeters who played a stirring fanfare.

This simple event, I believe, was to become part one of the Festival’s most popular shows – the Military Tattoo on the esplanade of Edinburgh Castle where Scottish Command presented a display of highland dancing as their contribution to the Festival. It was about two or three years later that the Tattoo took shape with the ever-popular pipes and drums.

Once, when the Festival was well established, a friend told me his landlady regarded the Tattoo as the Festival. If he mentioned he was going out to the Festival, she would look out the window and say “Well, they’ve got a good night for it.”

elaborate decorations

In keeping with the spirit of the Festival, the Council organised elaborate decorations to be erected in Princes Street. The design of these decorations was to become as much a matter for animated debate as the Programme.

Bruce Cannon

To me the best effort in the early years was the erection of flagpoles the length of Princes Street with the flags of the nations clearly emphasising the world-wide nature of the Festival. It looked very impressive until a shop at the West End objected to having the Hammer and Sickle flag of the former Soviet Union outside their premises.

This objection was to be repeated many times until the Red Flag was at the other end of Princes Street. Sadly the poles never reappeared at any future Festival.

During my National Service in Germany, I once managed to prevent a change in my leave dates by claiming to the C.O. that I would be attending some of the performances at the Festival in my home city. I think this apparent commitment to culture saved the day and I was able to make the long journey back to the UK by train and troopship as planned.

My contact with the Festival and the Fringe increased steadily after I began my journalistic career in the Edinburgh Evening News. As part of my training, I was introduced to cinema and theatre reviewing, so when the Fringe shows began to proliferate, I became part of our Festival team.

demanding but entertaining

Some years later after I left the News I became part-time Edinburgh Correspondent for The Stage, the weekly paper for the entertainment profession. Festival time was very demanding but hugely entertaining and enjoyable.

I must have seen scores of shows over the years which sometimes left me impressed by wonderful natural talent or dismayed at ill-prepared and under-rehearsed offerings.

Over these past seven decades, I have watched the Fringe grow to become the biggest festival of its kind in the world while the “official” Festival holds its own as a unique assembly of world-class performers in music and drama.

I don’t have the same engagement with the Festival now, but I do have the pleasure of seeing my youngest son, Andy Cannon, taking part in the Fringe with his one-man show on the story of Macbeth Is this a Dagger? – The Story of Macbeth at the Storytelling Centre in the Royal Mile. The show must go on… And on…

The first part of Bruce Cannon’s account of 70 years of Edinburgh festivals is here: The First Edinburgh Festival.


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  1. The First Edinburgh Festival : All Edinburgh | Jun 1 2018