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Underbelly extends Edinburgh dominance with Hogmanay coup

Bird's eye view of Edinburgh's Princes Street. Photo: City of Edinburgh Council Bird's eye view of Edinburgh's Princes Street. Photo: City of Edinburgh Council
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Edinburgh Fringe venue operator Underbelly has won the contract to run Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebration, adding to its control of the city’s Christmas festival.

Hogmanay is one of Edinburgh’s 11 key festivals and will provide Underbelly with access to a place on the board of Festivals Edinburgh, which has strategic oversight of the events.

Underbelly will take over the contract from Unique Events, which created the festival and has been running it for 24 years. It adds to the contact Underbelly already has to run Edinburgh’s Christmas, which it took over in 2013.

Since taking over, Underbelly has increased the theatre element of Edinburgh’s Christmas, creating a West End theatre quarter in 2016. It moved its pop-up theatre from George Square gardens to Lothian Road, with a new production of Five Guys Named Moe, and incorporated the Traverse and Lyceum in its marketing offer.

Hogmanay’s theatre-related events have always been more limited, although Unique has facilitated a strong street theatre element. The event has already attracted a £200,000 grant to promote Scottish companies in 2017/18, “reserved until outcome of City of Edinburgh Council procurement process”.

Underbelly has not released any details of its plans for Hogmanay. However, directors Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood said in a joint statement: “We’re honoured to be building on the extraordinary work and success of Pete Irvine and Unique Events since the start of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay.

“We look forward to announcing our plans for both events in due course. We can, however, confidently say that our plans for both events are exciting and hugely ambitious and will see an expansion and growth of Edinburgh’s Winter Festivals rather than any diminishing of them.”

The takeover from Unique has been acrimonious. The 2016 event was recognised only last week at Visit Scotland’s Scottish Thistle Awards as Scotland’s best cultural event/festival.

In a statement, Unique said it was both “deeply disappointed” in the tender process organised by the council, and “hugely saddened” by the decision not to continue with its services as producer of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay.

The Hogmanay contract is worth £835,000 a year in subsidy from Edinburgh City Council, over a period of three years.

All subsidy has been removed from Edinburgh’s Christmas, following a £500,000 budget cut. It will now be run on a commercial basis.

The Stage understands there were 35 expressions of interest in the two contracts, with five serious contenders.

Wood is also an elected member of the board of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society.