Michael Alexander meets the new creative director of The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo which is combining old and new for a spectacular post-Covid-19 return to the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade this August.
The skirl of the pipes drifts through the Old Town as a piper magnetises tourists making their way up Fleshmarket Close in Edinburgh.
Phones are whisked out and selfies are being taken as beaming international visitors capture another iconic moment of their Scottish adventure.
It’s been a strange couple of years with tourism all but suspended and events large and small cancelled.
However, as the world returns to relative post-Covid-19 restriction normality, it’s only just sinking in to the organisers of The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo that after a three year absence, and months of behind the scenes planning, the world famous show will return this summer.
Worth waiting for
Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo chief executive Major General Buster Howes is feeling poetic as he welcomes media to an official press launch held within the cosy confines of The Scotsman Picturehouse.
Referring to the works of William Blake, John Milton and Vincent van Gogh who were barely recognised during their own lifetimes, he reflects on examples of creativity that can sometimes be a “slow burn”.
Since the last tattoo was held in 2019, the Castle Esplanade has remained “persistently dark”, he observes.
It’s a reminder that it can take time for art, in whatever form, to “find its moment”.
However, he’s delighted to confirm that from August 5 to 27, the castle will again be lit up in “exuberant glory”.
“We are finally on the march again both literally and metaphorically,” says the ex-Royal Marine, who has been a trustee of The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo for many years.
“When the Massed Pipes and Drums cross the draw bridge again on August 5, it will be a great moment of celebration for thousands.
“In the light and the darkness of these continuing difficult times, and in drawing people together from around the world in both cast and audience, it will be a celebration of collaboration and of hope and of whirling tartan escapism.”
Major General Howes explains that the ‘Voices’ theme of this year’s show draws inspiration from people across the globe who, despite physical separation, continue to connect and share their voices creatively through spoken word, song, music and dance – languages common to all.
This year’s show is the first from the tattoo’s new creative director Michael Braithwaite who along with new partners in production design, lighting, audio, costume and projection will showcase his vision which combines “time honoured traditions and magic with innovation and contemporary flourish”.
In an interview with The Courier, New Zealander Michael – who is the first non-military director of the tattoo since its founding in 1950 – explains that over 800 performers from across the globe will take part.
There will be cultural showcases and musical presentations by performers from Mexico, the United States, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Australia and New Zealand along with home-grown talent from the UK.
Military acts will continue to play a central role in the performance, with the Army confirmed as the lead service this year.
Audiences can expect to hear the legendary sound of the Massed Pipes and Drums that will echo around the Esplanade as part of Voices, supported by the Tattoo Pipes and Drums, Tattoo Dancers, Tattoo Fiddlers and musicians from UK military regiments.
However, with a background in entertainment including the Harry Potter franchise, Jim Henson’s Creatures Shop, and having worked as a senior producer of then London mayor Boris Johnson’s cultural festival during the London 2012 Olympics, Michael is in no doubt that what he brings to the set-up is “excitement, energy and surprise”.
“Obviously by bringing in a civilian first and foremost and a creative director who’s had a career in entertainment, inevitably that will mean change and that was the reason for doing it,” he explains.
“In terms of the approach, it’s interesting that the tattoo is an existing thing.
“There’s 70 years of tradition and people keep saying to me ‘what’s your vision for the show’?
“I think a vision is something you impart to a blank page when you are creating something from the beginning.
“When you take on a project like the tattoo, there’s a legacy to deal with and tradition to consider, so it’s more curatorial – caring for what already exists and also helping it innovate and grow.
“What I’m trying to do with the tattoo is find the stories within it that have existed in the past that we can bring out.
“It’s not imposing ‘this is what a show should be’. This is nurturing what’s already existed and teasing out the next stage of its journey.”
Lifetime of links
Michael first saw the tattoo live as a 20-year-old when back-packing around Europe.
For five years he lived at the bottom of the Grassmarket right below the castle.
“When the tattoo was on we used to go up on the roof balcony and enjoy the show for free every night!” he laughs, “and very occasionally we would pay for a ticket.”
If someone had said to him then that one day he’d be the creative director, however, he’d have “laughed you out of the room”.
“That’s life isn’t it – a rich tapestry!” he smiles, adding that he used to enjoy visiting Dundee and that the drummer of his old band, The Dead Toys, was from the city.
Working from New Zealand under lockdown when he first took on the role in 2020, the team reflected on the fact that despite the constraints they were working under, they still managed to keep the tattoo family of military and civilian artists worldwide connected and engaged and excited about the direction being charted.
From that early experience came Voices: the voices that connect through music, human connection, song, dance and piping are aspects that have made up the tattoo since the very beginning in 1950.
However, the only way to keep the show alive fresh and relevant, he says, is to try harder every year and make it more contemporary and energetic.
“It needs to preserve the things that are wonderful about it in terms of tradition but also create new surprises, new experiences and new energy,” he says.
“Innovation has been a tradition of the tattoo since the very beginning and that’s something we intend to fully embrace and move forward with in the new era.
”We have new exciting new creative team, new advances in lighting, advances in projection and also a whole new approach to production design and staging, physical sets and costumes –all of which we are extremely excited about.
“To hear my colleagues develop their ideas, it’s a joy and a privilege and an honour to be part of it.”
Joining the already announced iconic The Top Secret Drum Corps from Switzerland, over 100 performers from the Banda Monumental de Mexico will return to the Esplanade this year bringing energetic, colourful carnival energy.
The renowned New York-based Highland Divas will make their tattoo debut, as will the US Army Field Band who promise a marching, military mash up of traditional and contemporary music.
The United States Air Force Honor Guard – the official ceremonial unit of the air force – will make its return to the tattoo with its dynamic display of precision drill, while fan favourites the New Zealand Army Band will also make their seventh appearance.
Michael says they are planning to “excite, surprise and challenge” the audience at various points in the show.
It’s a “thrill” for him to “helming the ship” after three years away.
While the “sheer energy” of the tattoo and its location always strikes him, it’s also an event that continues to put Scotland on the map.
“It’s one of the first projects I’ve been involved in where wherever I’ve been in the world or whoever I’ve been talking to, I’ve not had to explain what it is,” he says.
“’You are doing The Edinburgh Military Tattoo? Wow, really?’ It’s got the same reaction from New Zealand through to here. Everyone knows it. It’s got a unique profile on the world stage.”
Michael confirmed they are already working on the 2023 tattoo which will be called Stories.
This will develop the idea of myth, tale and legend and evolve what’s been started with Voices.
From humble beginnings in 1950 with a show called Something About a Soldier, The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo has since become one of the most recognisable events in the world.
Celebrating decades of culture and history and bringing people together from all corners of the globe, the event draws a live audience of 220,000 to Edinburgh every year.
As a not for profit organisation the tattoo has contributed over £12.3m to military and arts charities across the UK.
The 2022 Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo runs from August 5 to August 27 2022. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased at edintattoo.co.uk/tickets or on the phone via 0131 225 1188.