FRANK DUNLOP, the man who has had the unenviable task of keeping the Edinburgh International Festival show on the road for the last eight years, and still under doctor’s orders after a bout of ﬂu, shares afternoon tea with Thom Dibdin.
rank Dunlop has just emeiged from
world’s press over his remarks concerning the Festival Fringe. ‘I was frightened out of my wits,’ he says as he treats me to coffee and apple strudel. Not by the hacks, as it turns out, but the member of Archaos hovering behind him during the whole event, threatening to kidnap him for a publicity stunt.
Dunlop is no stranger to controversy. He has been fighting with the District Council practically since he got the job in 1983. A small, ebullient man, he came to Edinburgh with an impeccable CV. He had created the Young Vic, been artistic and administrative director of the National Theatre under Sir Laurence Olivier and came hot from the States where as writer, actor, singer, dancer, director and producer, he had three shows on Broadway simultaneously.
They have been wild years, and if he has not earned the affection of the Lord Provost, he has at least become loved by your average Festival-goer. While we talk at a pavement table in the Grassmarket, several people brave the tape recorder to express their regret that this is his last Festival. ‘1 do get recognised a lot,’ he admits. ‘At first I thought it would be awful, but it is really nice. I think it is right that people should be able to approach me. I am always amazed how perceptive the audience is.’
Dunlop’s first aim for the Festival was to popularise it. ‘I was thrilled by the chance of getting people to do things they would never ordinarily have done,’ he says. ‘My biggest pleasure comes when some extraordinary old biddy turns out to have gone to something very avant-garde and thought it was the most thrilling thing in the world. Or a kid has been to listen to an orchestra for the first time and did not realise what a wonderful experience it is.’
One of his first moves was to bring the Edinburgh Festival forward a week. ‘There was considerable resistance to that,’ he remembers. ‘but eventually I managed to persuade the Festival Society to make the change.’ The last week of the Festival always used to run on into the cold spell of the first week in September, and all the American, English and French tourists had to go home at the end of their holidays.
The change may have increased ticket sales for the last week, but funding is still
a ritual hauling over the coals by the '
very much a problem. ‘When I came, John Drummond was screaming about how much money he got,’ he says. lfgrants and sponsorship had kept up with inﬂation, then the Festival would be getting about a quarter of a million more from the District Council. ‘It is not just the city, the government has been very crude on the arts and cut down funding so that both our main funding
it is highly dangerous to start talking about being an arbiter of
excellence. ’ ’
bodies have lagged behind inﬂation.
‘I think from the very beginning, the Festival was never looked on as a great continental city or country would look upon a Festival: as if it were an asset and needed to be encouraged. It is something to be suffered. Even in Austin, Texas, they give their festival the sort of whole-hearted support that does not happen here.’
Among the many accusations which have been levelled at Dunlop is one that he has indulged in a kind of cultural supermarket shopping, picking the best from around the world and even, in the case of Archaos, the Fringe itself. ‘That is a real danger,’ he reﬂects, ‘but it is one I have tried to avoid. l have actually been very unpopular with the international touring circuit for festivals because I have refused to be inﬂuenced by the impresarios who take things round. This should be a place where you discover things, not where you see everything that is on tour.’ ‘
What he does admit to as a weakness is his support for companies who at least try to be daring and interesting, but who might not achieve a 100 per cent perfect performance. ‘I am out of kilter with people who have ideas that the Festival is about excellence,’ he concedes. ‘I think it is highly dangerous to start talking about being an arbiter of exceHence?
So if Dunlop does not regret bringing performers, like the Eskimos in 1988, who might be adjudged to have failed, is there anything he does regret having brought to Edinburgh? After a brief pause - the only
one in the'whole interview - he decides: ‘The opera. In the early years I felt there ought to be enough opera, but I did not know the right people to get a company like the Bolshoi to give up their holidays to come to Edinburgh. I should not have filled the spaces just to conform to what everybody had done before.’
Not that Dunlop has always conformed when it came to music. In 1966, when the directorship was just a twinkle in his eye, he brought the Pop Theatre Company to the Fringe with Jane Asher, Cleo Laine and Jim Dale. ‘It was a company that was drawn from everywhere,’ he remembers. ‘At the time we were often attacked for it, but two or three years later it was acceptable to have pop singers in productions. But then — wow. was it vulgar.’
At the time, Asher’s name was being romantically associated with Paul McCartney’s. ‘He was ringing up every night,’ says Dunlop, ‘because we were all sharing digs together and he thought I was having it off with Jane, so he got very nervous about me.’ But before I can ask ‘Well, were you?’ Dunlop, skilled interviewee that he is, quickly moves onto an anecdote about sharing a basement ﬂat with Tom Stoppard and Peter O’Toole. In his 64 years Dunlop has seen and done more than most people could get through in two, maybe three lifetimes. The question is, what will he do next?
While the invitations to put on productions in France and America have apparently come ﬂooding in, Dunlop has other ideas. He hopes to use the Romanian contacts he has made to start a company that works in English, and involves actors from Eastern European countries working with British actors and doing plays in Romania and the UK. ‘It will probably involve me going bankrupt again, but it is something I really fancy doing,’ he says, ‘I just think it would be a good use of what I have learned. I like great acting, working with a great acting company, dramatic literature, audiences and bringing people together. So why not go for it?’
Ifthis grand plan does not succeed, then it will not be the first time Dunlop has failed. ‘On the Fringe, my wildest moment was in the mid-SOs when I brought up a play called Mary Stuart, and I lost £400. I was walking around Edinburgh contemplating throwing myself under a tram and I remember thinking that it would be extremely messy so I better choose the line nearest to the hospital, the one up by the university.’
It is this ability to take risks which has driven Dunlop. In 1986 he directed his first opera, Oberon, which was being staged in Boston and Frankfurt as well as Edinburgh in the space of three weeks. ‘The night before we opened, everybody watching in
the hall thought it would be the biggest disaster in the world of opera,’ he recalls. ‘It was thrilling, because I believed the audience was going to laugh and cheer at certain places and nobody else seemed to believe that was going to happen. On the first night I was hiding my head in the corner l and when the audience did, gosh, you don’t half feel good. I think the neurosis keeps you going. If] did not somehow enjoy the J
horror, I would go mad.’ The List 23— 29 August l99l 17