Today is World Fringe Day where people around the world are celebrating the 70th anniversary of the world famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which took place for the first time in 1947. HistoryPod is proud to be able to celebrate #WorldFringeDay, and the foundation of the Fringe movement, in this special live recording from the Buxton Festival Fringe in the wonderful English spa town of Buxton in Derbyshire. I’m recording today’s episode in front of a group of Buxton Fringe-goers, and we’re very lucky to be situated within a beautiful Victorian building that now serves as Scrivener’s Bookshop on the outskirts of the Peak District National Park in England.
When Sir Rudolf Bing, a controversial Austrian opera impresario, curated the first Edinburgh International Festival in the summer of 1947, he focused the programme on what he called the “highest and purest ideals of art in its many and varied forms”. This high-brow mission statement immediately drew criticism from many artistic groups who felt alienated by the festival’s exclusivity. The fact that approximately £60,000 was being spent on an elite cultural celebration just two years after the devastating effects of the Second World War also seemed to ignore the fragile state of Britain’s economy and social fabric.
Despite these concerns, companies including Glyndebourne Opera, the Halle Orchestra and Sadler’s Wells Ballet converged on Edinburgh for the inaugural festival. However, another eight theatre companies who had not been invited to perform took matters into their own hands. Although it is unlikely that they had conspired in advance to provide an alternative programme, the companies – who soon referred to themselves collectively as the ‘Festival Adjuncts’ – benefitted greatly from the audiences who had travelled to Edinburgh for the official festival. Consisting of six Scottish and two English theatre companies, this loose collection of like-minded groups caught the eye of many festival-goers with what was referred to by Alistair Moffatt in his 1978 book about the Edinburgh Fringe as their ‘missionary zeal’.
Since the major venues in Edinburgh were already in use for the official festival performances, these other companies were forced to find alternative spaces to stage their productions. These ranged from smaller theatres in the city to the innovative use of Dunfermline Abbey to stage a production of the medieval morality play Everyman. The Abbey’s location, about 20 miles outside Edinburgh, led to a critic lamenting its location ‘on the fringe of the Festival’.
This is the first recorded use of the term ‘fringe’ in the context of the Edinburgh Festival, although it’s important to note that it was written with a small letter F. This happened again the following year when the Scottish playwright and journalist, Robert Kemp, commented on the wealth of ‘private enterprise’ that was taking place ‘round the fringe of official Festival drama’. It wasn’t until 1958 that the Festival Fringe Society was created to coordinate what the Scotsman newspaper referred to as an ‘official unofficial festival’. In the wake of this more formal organisation, the Fringe finally acquired its all-important capital F twelve years after the first performers converged on Edinburgh, and the Fringe was recognised as a festival in its own right.
A key value of the Fringe is that it is an unjuried festival – meaning that there is no selection committee, and that anyone who can secure a venue is able to perform. This has led to some innovative uses of the available spaces, and where we’re recording this podcast at the Buxton Festival Fringe is no exception. Scrivener’s Books and Bookbinding shop is situated on the High Street of this ancient market town in a building that was originally a Victorian tobacconist’s shop. Consisting of five floors of rare and not-so-rare books, and even featuring a small Victorian museum in the cellar, I frankly couldn’t imagine a better place for a history fan like me to speak to history fans like you.
And Buxton itself has a fascinating history. The Romans established a settlement here, naming it in honour of the natural spa waters that have been a focal point for the town ever since. The spa water drew the Earl of Shrewsbury to the town in 1573 when he and his wife, Bess of Hardwick, brought the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots to stay at the Old Hall Hotel in the centre of the town. This hotel continues to stand on its original site next to the later 18th century Crescent, which was built by the Dukes of Devonshire when they transformed the town into a Georgian holiday resort similar to Bath in the South West of England. The popularity of the town continued throughout the Victorian era as the arrival of the railway allowed people to travel from all over the country to take advantage of the reputed healing properties of the waters. This period saw the landscaping of the Pavilion Gardens which are overlooked by the imposing cast iron Dome of the University of Derby, which is housed in what were originally the Great Stables of the Duke of Devonshire.