Edinburgh book festival: Helena Bonham Carter, Tobias Menzies, Hilary Mantel and Nicola Sturgeon to appear

Helena Bonham Carter, Tobias Menzies, Hilary Mantel, Ali Smith, Michel Faber, Nicola Sturgeon and Gordon Brown will appear at a rebooted Edinburgh International Book Festival when it is staged online for the first time in its history next month.

Friday, 31st July 2020, 9:49 am
Updated Friday, 31st July 2020, 6:10 pm
Hilary Mantel, who has just been nominated for the Booker Prize for a third time, is among the authors appear in the first online edition of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Els Zweerink
Hilary Mantel, who has just been nominated for the Booker Prize for a third time, is among the authors appear in the first online edition of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Els Zweerink

Organisers have admitted the event is unlikely to return to its traditional format in Charlotte Square Garden in 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic and have suggested many international guests are likely to appear remotely in future to reduce the event’s environmental impact.

Festival director Nick Barley said this year's reimagined event would “inevitably” influence what shape it took in future.

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The 2020 edition will feature online audience chatrooms, a digital incarnation of the festival’s hugely popular bookshop and virtual signing and meet-the-author sessions after events.

Pop-up television studios will be created in Edinburgh for some of the events, which will be staged without a live audience, while other authors will be filmed at home around the world.

The full programme, which will feature more than 140 events, will be free to watch on the festival’s website during its run from 15-31 August.

Leading Scottish writers due to appear include Ali Smith, who will be launching new novel Summer, Kirstin Innes, who is receiving rave reviews for Scabby Queen, Ian Rankin, who will be lifting the lid on the new John Rebus novel, and Val McDermid, who will discuss her new Karen Pirie book in an event with broadcaster Joan Bakewell.

Mantel has been revealed in the line-up just days after it emerged she was in the running for the Booker Prize for a third time for the third instalment in the author’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

Book festival director Nick Barley says planning this year's event has been 'a leap of faith for everyone involved.' Picture: Robin Mair

Glasgow author Douglas Stuart, who is also in the running for this year’s Booker Prize, will be discussing Shuggie Bain, the debut novel set in the city in the 1980s that took him more than a decade to write.

The First Minister will be interviewing Bernardine Evaristo, last year’s Booker Prize winner, while Mr Brown will be in conversation with Frans Timmermans, executive vice-president of the European Commission and Alexander McCall Smith will interview former Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson.

Helena Bonham Carter, a double Oscar nominee, and Outlander actor Tobias Menzies, are appearing at the festival after starring as Princess Margaret and the Duke of Edinburgh in the hit TV drama The Crown. They will be taking part in a poetry event with Jamael Westman, one of the stars of the hit musical Hamilton, showcasing the work of British writer and actress Allie Esiri.

The festival line-up will include guests from more than 30 countries, including the Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, Palestinian lawyer Raja Shehadeh, and Samantha Power, the former war correspondent and American ambassador to the United Nations.

All of Edinburgh’s August festivals issued a joint statement at the start of April announcing that they were pulling the plug on their planned 2020 programmes as a result of the growing spread of the coronavirus pandemic. However the book festival announced in June that it was planning an online-only incarnation.

Festival director Nick Barley said: “If you go back to the middle of March, all the festivals were in a state of absolute uncertainty. We had no idea how lockdown would last, what this year’s festivals would look like and whether we would be able to go back to any kind of normality.

“We always had in our minds that we would like to try to do something in August – we wanted to try to set to the stage for that so even as we cancelled the festival we were talking to people about whether they would be involved in something.

"Going from an intention and desire to do something to actually delivering it has been quite a big transformation, not just in terms of the attitudes of the authors, but also financially, when we were facing the loss of a million pounds worth of ticket sales and a million pounds worth of book sales. That was half our budget gone.

"The book festival isn’t just a festival. It’s also part of a wider eco-system. It’s about the cultural life of the city, and supporting writers and publishers.

"To do nothing would have been a worst case scenario. If we had done nothing it would have made it more likely that writers and publishers would not have survived and also made it harder to have festivals in the future.”

More than 250,000 book-lovers visited the main festival square in Charlotte Square Garden last year. However organisers have been under growing pressure to reduce the impact of the event on the privately-owned park.

Mr Barley admitted the festival was unlikely to return to its previous format in the near future and suggested events were likely to be made available online in 2021 and beyond.

He added: "As we’ve seen in all sorts of areas, the pandemic has accelerated things which were probably going to happen anyway.

"For a number of years we’ve been looking at the problem of the impact of emissions from flying authors into Edinburgh from around the world.

"We knew we were going to have to reduce that in terms of reducing our carbon footprint. That was coming anyway. We needed to find a way of bringing people to the festival online and this has made it possible for us to do that.

"There’s no limit on the number of people that can watch an event. One of the things we’ve always regretted is that our theatres have had a limited capacity and people have found it difficult to get into the hottest tickets.

“The day when we can have 750 people sitting cheek by jowl in our main theatre, given the footprint it has, is a long-time off.

"One of the reasons for introducing this format this year is to teach ourselves about live broadcasting techniques so that they can be applied when we are able to introduce live audiences again.

"Maybe next year there will be 100 people in the audience, or maybe there will be 50. I just don’t know. But there is a responsibility on festivals to take care of their audiences and participants.”

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