— Special Occasions

Most Famous Acts At The Edinburgh Festival In The Last 60 Years

With August upon us again, the population of Edinburgh is about to double as over half a million visitors flock to the capital for the annual summer Festivals. Many would argue that August is the best time to visit Edinburgh as the city becomes the centre of the entertainment world. For the next month visitors and locals are treated to huge selection of performances in the arts, music, theatre, dance, comedy, literature, film and television.

It is often well documented how some household names first got their break at the Edinburgh Festival particularly at the Fringe. But lets not forget that many established acts are also drawn to Edinburgh, it is a great platform for many to expand their audiences. In this article we have identified some of the most famous stars of the stage and screen who have performed at Edinburgh over the last 60 years. Some of these may surprise you, from famous icons to world-class performers in their field.
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1. Maria Callas

Maria Callas is without doubt an iconic figure in opera and world music. In 1957 Callas performed to a standing ovation at the Kings Theatre in Edinburgh after a performance of Sonnambula. Her attendance at the Edinburgh International Festival that year caused some controversy however. The Festival announced 5 performances of Sonnambula, all with Callas as agreed with the Scala management. However, Callas had only consented to sing 4 times, and in 2 of those she was unwell and below her best.

2. Placido Domingo

Known as "the King of Opera," Plácido Domingo is one of the most famous tenors of all time, and one of the Three Tenors. In 1977 he took the stage at the Kings Theatre during the Edinburgh Festival in a landmark production of Carmen.

3. José Carreras

Spanish tenor José Carreras gained international acclaim as an opera singer, and helped popularize opera by performing with Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo as one of the Three Tenors. In 1982 he sang at the Edinburgh Festival in a now famous performance of Verdi’s Requiem with Claudio Abbado conducting the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and the London Symphony Orchestra.

4. Rudolf Nureyev

In 1984, the great Rudolf Nureyev, perhaps the most celebrated male ballerina of the 20th century, took to the boards of the Playhouse Theatre in a production of Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake'. Nureyef danced at the Edinburgh Festival a further 4 times including in 1990 at the Edinburgh Playhouse in Cleveland Ballet's The Overcoat.

5. Marlene Dietrich

The German-born film star and singer was one of the great names of 20th-century entertainment and still considered a glamour icon. Dietrich appeared in 50 films between 1923 and 1964 including The Blue Angel and Destry Rides Again. In 1965 Marlene Dietrich performed at the Edinburgh Festival, singing a collection of late night cabaret songs at the Lyceum theatre, assisted by an orchestra conducted by Burt Bacharach.

6. Richard Burton

Richard Burton was regarded as one of the greatest actors of his time of stage and screen. He earned seven Oscar nominations and was married twice to actress Elizabeth Taylor. In 1953 Burton played Hamlet in a critically acclaimed Old Vic production in the Assembly Hall at the Edinburgh Festival that later made the journey down to London, setting the trend for successful Edinburgh shows in the future.

7. Peter Cook

Peter Cook is widely credited as one of the leading figures of the British satire boom of the 1960s. In 1960 he took to the stage of the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum Theatre in “Beyond the Fringe”, alongside Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller. This satirical sketch show tore into postwar Britain and became a huge hit.

He later collaborated with Dudley Moore on the irreverent TV series “Not Only... But Also” and formed a much loved comedy duo routine as “Derek & Clive”. Cook also made regular film appearances and was long associated with satirical magazine Private Eye.

8. Emma Thompson

Her career was launched after performing with Footlights (alongside Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie and Tony Slattery) at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1981 where they won the first Perrier award.

Thompson has gone on to star in a number of very successful films including Howards End (where she picked up an Oscar for best actress), The Remains of The Day, Sense and Sensibility (where she won the Oscar for best screen adaptation). More recently she appeared in two Harry Potter movies and also wrote and starred in the Nanny McPhee children’s movies. To date, she remains the only person in history to win an Oscar for both acting and writing.

9. Robin Williams

The much missed genius who went from stand up comedy to TV fame (Mork and Mindy) and Holywood movies (such as Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, and Good Will Hunting) first appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1971 in a production of “The Taming of the Shrew”. There were a lot fewer stand-up comics in the Fringe programme during the early 1970s.

It was widely reported early in his career that he was from Edinburgh. Apparently the myth originates from an interview in which Williams thought it would be fun to do it entirely in a Scottish accent. Williams loved Scotland, visited many times, and was great friends with Billy Connelly. Few can forget his role as Mrs Doubtfire, the Scottish nanny.

10. Rowan Atkinson

In 1976 a young Rowan Atkinson took a break from his engineering degree to perform skits alongside Richard Curtis for The Oxford Revue. Atkinson went on to huge success on TV in “Not The Nine O’Clock News”, “Mr Bean” and is now a big movie star with films including Johnny English, and Mr Bean.

11. John Cleese

A talented scriptwriter and comedy actor John Cleese first achieved great success with the Cambridge Footlights Revue, which was a big success at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1963. He went on to co-found the hugely influential comedy troupe Monty Python and in the 70s co-wrote and starred in the much acclaimed “Fawlty Towers”, playing the irrepressible Basil Fawlty – a role which he is still best associated with. He has also been in many movies including comedies “A Fish Called Wanda” and “Clockwise” and also a number of Bond movies (as Q).

12. Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry forged a highly successful writing partnership with Hugh Laurie (and the Cambridge Footlights). His first play, Latin! or Tobacco and Boys, written for Footlights, won a Fringe First at the Edinburgh Festival in 1980. He went on to become a respected novelist, comedy actor in TV and film and is now one of the UK’s most well known faces.

No doubt Edinburgh will continue to attract some of the biggest names in the entertainment business during the Festival season. Edinburgh is unique in that visitors have a chance to get up close and personal to some of the stars; it is not uncommon to bump into some famous celebrities at some of the venues or around the streets of Edinburgh during this time.

13. Graham Norton

Before becoming the hilarious host of his own chat show and starring in "Father Ted", Graham Norton appeared in drag as Mother Teresa at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1991. Two years later he returned to the Fringe in the no less tasteful "Karen Carpenter Bar and Grill". Fast forward to the present day and Norton is one of the most successful and enduring faces of British and Irish comedy.

14. Rachel Weisz

Rachel Weisz first attended the Edinburgh Fringe with fellow student Sasha Hails in 1991. After winning a Guardian Youth Drama Award, the duo’s improv show "Slight Possession" was transferred to Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre where Weisz was spotted by an agent. She has since gone on to star in hit films "The Mummy", "The Constant Gardner" and more recently "The Favourite" and is the proud recipient of an Academy, Golden Globe and BAFTA Award.

15. Miranda Hart

Sitcom queen Miranda Hart had a troubled start to her career and describes her 1994 Fringe debut as a ‘terrible show’ due to it regularly attracting an an audience of none. Not one to give up, she returned to Edinburgh in 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005 with "Miranda Hart’s House Party" where she perfected the comedy we’ve seen in her hit TV show "Miranda".

No doubt Edinburgh will continue to attract some of the biggest names in the entertainment business during the Festival season. Edinburgh is unique in that visitors have a chance to get up close and personal to some of the stars; it is not uncommon to bump into some famous celebrities at some of the venues or around the streets of Edinburgh during this time.

[Originally written July 2016; updated October 2019]