The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo: but is it art?

Andrew Dickson thought he’d seen everything at the festival – but he reckoned without Gangnam-loving soldiers, kilted pipers from Oman and a directorial concept that encompasses the dawn of geological time. He reports from the front line of Edinburgh’s biggest, oddest theatrical extravaganza

I have seen many things at the Edinburgh festival, but one sight has eluded me until now: a troupe of New Zealand soldiers in full dress uniform slipping on sunglasses and tearing into a bongo-heavy arrangement of Gangnam Style. “The band perform intricate manoeuvres not normally associated with marching musicians,” reads the programme. I glance up. The band have reached the bit in the choreography where they whip their backsides. The programme isn’t kidding.

Whatever I was expecting from the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, it wasn’t this. For me and many festivalgoers, the Tattoo is an obscure ritual that takes place in a vast steel beer crate perched on top of Edinburgh Castle. The closest most of us get to it is remembering to avoid the Royal Mile between the hours of 8pm and 11pm, because of the queue (this goes with remembering to avoid the Royal Mile between the hours of midnight and 7.59pm, because of everything else). I’ve seen glimpses of it on TV, even wangled a ticket years ago, but promptly decamped in confusion.

Who knows what dreadful things the full event involves? Marching bands and gun salutes? Mock rendition flights? Simulated waterboarding? If the weather isn’t awful, watching the culminating fireworks from Princes Street is pretty. The nightly teeth-rattling flypast by RAF fast jets is somewhat less so.

During the Edinburgh festivals season, though, there might as well only be one show in town. The Tattoo has a cast of almost 1,000. It’s seen by about 8,800 people a night, totalling 220,000 each year, 30% of them travelling from overseas for the occasion. Another 100m worldwide are expected to tune in to the BBC’s annual broadcast. And 95% of tickets are gone months in advance (the Tattoo sold out earlier this week). These are figures to make a comedy promoter weep hot tears of envy; Puppetry of the Penis and Lady Boys of Bangkok could retire, on a tiny fraction of the proceeds, and set up rival golf franchises in the Highlands.

So perhaps it is time that I, despite my mistrust of military spectacle, my reactionary republicanism, my dislike of uniforms, guns, loud bangs, being on time, see what all the fuss is about. This year, in the name of art, the Guardian can go to the Tattoo. 102.2m people a year can’t be wrong. Can they?

So, instead of avoiding the queue, I join it. We are a peaceable and stoutly shod crowd, beneath skies the colour and texture of three-day-old porridge. Everyone apart from me looks equipped for a picnic in February, or perhaps a modest Arctic expedition. There is a skittish north-westerly breeze starting to whip down the Royal Mile, carrying with it …read more  

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