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David Bates – La Clique Noel, The Famous Spiegeltent and Edinburgh's Christmas

Less than a year ago, David Bates thought he might well be done with Edinburgh. The owner and producer of the Famous Spiegeltent, who had transformed a ninety-seven year old construction into a global brand which in part had come to define the spirit of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, had been told that the site the Famous Spiegeltent had operated out of in St Andrew Square since 2014 was no longer available. Essential Edinburgh, who manage the site, said they wanted the Gardens to return to a “relaxation space,” although the short notice of their decision left the Famous Spiegeltent without a home for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.  

All this created a bit of a kerfuffle, exacerbated somewhat by Edinburgh International Festival using St Andrew Square for this year's Standard Life sponsored opening event, the light-based spectacular, Bloom.

Ten months on, Bates is back in Edinburgh even if the Famous Spiegeltent as a physical entity isn't. A different spiegeltent is here, however, and, like last year when it hosted finger-popping musical, Five Guys Named Moe as part of the Underbelly-led Edinburgh's Christmas programme, has already set up shop in Festival Square. This week, under Bates' supervision, the venue will open its doors for a festive run of La Clique Noel, a version of the internationally renowned nouveau grown-up cabaret, which has here been given a festive twist.

This is a double whammy for Bates, who has been operating the Famous Spiegeltent since 1996, and producing La Clique since the show first appeared in Edinburgh in 2004. Since then, La Clique has grown from being an underground novelty for audiences who would go on to be defined as hipsters, to becoming the global phenomenon it remains today.

“Fifteen years ago, La Clique was playing to the real arts cognoscenti,” says Bates. “A lot of the artists originated on the street or in subversive alternative clubs, and we never thought for a second that it would become a part of the mainstream, but now that's exactly where it is. It's mainstream entertainment that plays all over the world.”

This year's edition of La Clique Noel will feature a welter of talent from the international alternative adult burlesque and cabaret scenes. Acts include sword swallower Heather Holliday, who was one of the stars of the similarly styled show, LIMBO, at the 2016 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Also on the bill is the spandex-clad spectacle of Scotty the Blue Bunny, 'versatile bohemian beauty' Vicky Butterfly, German aerialist Tim Kriegler and hula hoop maestro Craig Reid, aka Craig Strongman. Bringing up the rear will be absurd and subversive choreographer Leah Shelton, while Bernie Dieter, one half of musical comedy duo, EastEnd Cabaret, will also appear.

“It's been an irresistable evolution in entertainment,” Bates says of La Clique's development over the last decade and a half. “There are shows that have taken La Clique's style that have gone on to have their own success, and that's great. It's the same with the spiegeltents. There are imitations of them all over the world, doing very similar things.”

In terms of keeping things original, both La Clique and the Famous Spiegeltent have become Edinburgh institutions. The tent's first sighting in the capital was in 1983, when it was used at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Bates' first experience of it was as a touring musician playing piano with a jazz band there. The roots of the spiegeltents date back much further, when they were originally built in Belgium in the nineteenth century, with spiegeltent translating from the Dutch as mirror tent. Today, only a handful of the original spiegeltents remain.

Taken with the Famous Spiegeltent, Bates formed a relationship with its previous owners, Scottish and Newcastle breweries. In 1996, Bates became both owner and producer of the tent. Early years saw Bates' new baby perched aloft Princes Mall on Princes Street. Since then, the Famous Spiegeltent and assorted other tents has gone on to transform Fringe activity in George Square before eventually alighting in St Andrew Square.

The parallel rise of the spiegeltent and La Clique has in part come to define a form of retro-styled entertainment beloved by a new generation of thrill-seekers. These are audiences who prefer to hang out in pop-up spaces that suggests something edgier and more illicit to what might be served up on similar sounding nights in more regular venues. In this respect, the Spiegeltent arguably pioneered the idea of the pop-up venue before the term was coined, with various derivatives following in its wake.
La Clique, meanwhile is part of a revival of grassroots-based carnival born out of street entertainment and reinvented for the twenty-first century in a way that has gone global. All of which has had a direct affect on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

“The Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme now has a cabaret section where it didn't have one before,” says Bates. “It's a reinvention and a regeneration of a genre. There's no doubt that both La Clique and the various spiegeltents have changed things. These are temporary venues that are such beautiful mobile spaces which have transformed the festival landscape.”

Regarding the Famous Spiegeltent's eviction from the site, Bates describes the move as “a real blow. We had a great programme in place, and we thought we'd done a beautiful job. We still don't know what the story was, but after twenty-one years producing shows here, the Fringe is an essential part of our calendar. Edinburgh feels like home.”

Despite this year's setback, Bates sounds  reinvigorated enough to suggest there's plenty of life left in both La Clique and the Famous Spiegeltent in Edinburgh Festival Fringes to come.

“I hope we'll be back,” says Bates. “It's a matter of finding a site, and that's what I'll be looking into while we're here for Edinburgh's Christmas. Where the Festival Square Spiegeltent is for La Clique Noel is perfect for this time of year, but it's not really a summer site. I don't think it would work in August as an eight show a day venue, but we're hoping to come back and continue our legacy, with both La Clique and the Famous Spiegeltent.”

As an illustration of the reach of the spiegeltent brand, Bates points to a university in West Australia which has purchased its own Speigeltent for students on its performing arts course.

“The university recognises that the students can learn something about what goes on in spiegeltents, and what a unique performance space they are. They recognise as well that their students can learn about this whole new genre of work that's going on, and that a whole new generation of performers can be part of it. The spiegeltents aren't going away anywhere soon. I think they've got a few years left in them yet.”

La Clique Noel, Edinburgh's Christmas at Festival Square, Edinburgh, November 17-January 6.
www.edinburghschristmas.com

ends

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