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Tomorrow sees the opening of the opening of the annual Edinburgh International Festival, which runs this year from August 5th to the 29th.

Established in 1947, it is claimed to be the world's biggest annual celebration of the performing arts, attracting some of the finest performers and ensembles from the worlds of music, theatre, dance and opera. This year's festival comprises around 135 performances at venues across the Scottish capital, culminating in a spectacular fireworks concert performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

But the official festival programme is only part of the story. Right from the beginning, the International Festival inspired other artists who were not part of the official line-up to stage their own shows in smaller venues around the 'fringe' of the main festival. Over the years these less formal and alternative events grew into the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which has now eclipsed the original festival.

Often referred to simply as "The Fringe", it is the world's largest arts festival. Last year it comprised 50,459 performances of 3,314 shows in 313 venues ranging from pubs to church halls, schools, small theatres, university buildings, tents and sheds. Performances have even taken place on a double-decker bus and in the audience's own homes.

The Fringe is an open access arts festival, meaning you don't have to be invited or selected to take part. Anyone can put on a show, provided they can find a venue and an audience. Many of the shows take place on Edinburgh's streets and are free, or with the audience invited to pay what they want.

Types of performances include theatre, comedy, dance, circus, cabaret, children's theatre, musicals, poetry and spoken word and even exhibitions. The fringe is often used to showcase experimental, controversial or alternative works and is used by both up-and-coming new artists and more established performers, often looking to give new material a trial run.

Comedy is by far the biggest section of The Fringe, which has helped launch the careers of many of British comedy's best-known names. These include Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, several of the Monty Python team, Billy Connolly, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, Frank Skinner, Lee Evans, Steve Coogan and Rory Bremner to name just a few.

From 1981 to 2005 the Perrier Comedy Award, presented to a Fringe act, was the most prestigious award in British comedy. TV and radio producers keep a keen eye on The Fringe as a rich source for new talent and material.

There is also an annual prize for the funniest joke at The Fringe, so just to close, here is last year's winner, told by Darren Walsh: "I just deleted all the German names off my phone. It's Hans-free."

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