EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Crowds of giggling tourists, placard-toting buskers and performers of dance, theatre, comedy and children's shows arrived in Scotland's capital on Friday for the start of the 63rd Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
The annual three weeks of artistic mayhem will offer serious dance, theatre, exhibitions and other artistic inventions alongside the wacky and wonderful comedy that has made the world's largest open-access arts festival a massive launch pad for performers, writers and directors.
Shakespeare and the life story of former poet laureate John Betjeman will share a bill of more than 2,000 shows with such offerings as stage star Denise van Outen's "Basildon Blonde" and a play entitled "The Assassination of Paris Hilton," a scheming gossip fest set in the ladies room of a Hollywood nightclub.
Comedians appearing at the Fringe will include top stars such as Ricky Gervais and Janeane Garofalo, Flight of the Conchords members, Alistair McGowan and rising talents such as 18-year-old Daniel Sloss alongside returning successes such as Laura Solon with her "Rabbit Faced Story Soup."
The global recession, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, extraordinary rendition and the class system are all themes that are addressed both in the Fringe's comedy and theatrical offerings that play alongside a raft of children's shows, events, exhibitions, dance and music.
The Edinburgh Fringe Society's new Chief Executive Kath Mainland advised newcomers to drink in the atmosphere of bagpipes, bongos and thronging crowds on Princes Street, but do a bit of planning to get the most out of the festival.
"It can be daunting, the scale of it," she told Reuters this week. "You need to pick a few things that you definitely want to see."
Mainland said that ticket sales were going well after the successful resolution of box office technical problems which plagued the festival last year.
Michele Weaver, who runs the Yorkshire-based Stumble danceCircus in the northern English village of Hebden Bridge said she was excited to be back at the Fringe after an absence of a few years and working on a friend's show.
"I live in the countryside, so I never get to see enough work," she told Reuters on the train up Edinburgh.
"One of the nicest things about Edinburgh is asking people what they've seen ... the word of mouth is incredible."
The success of the Fringe rests on an open-access formula that allows anyone with the creativity, a bit of money and a whole lot of chutzpah to put on a show.
Begun in 1947, the Fringe originally started as an uninvited addition to the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), a post-war initiative to re-unite Europe through culture which was so successful that it inspired more performers than there was room for.
Well aware that there would be a good crowd and focussed press interest, six Scottish companies and two English decided to turn up to the festival uninvited and fend for themselves.
Over the years, more came to Edinburgh to perform on the outskirts of the EIF and by 1958 the Festival Fringe Society was formed to provide information, a central box office and a published programme of all the Fringe shows.
Central to the society's constitution was the policy that there should be no artistic vetting from the society, which still holds true.
Former winners of the comedy awards -- now named the Edinburgh Comedy Awards or "Eddies" -- are a who's who of British and international comedy stars.
Fringe shows will be held in a variety of 250 venues, including a swimming pool. But the Fringe also plays host to street performers, chancers in restaurants, hotels and anywhere performers can find an audience.
Editing by Patricia Reaney