THE ESTATE of one of the 20th century's greatest playwrights, Samuel Beckett, has halted an Edinburgh Festival Fringe production of his best-known work, Waiting For Godot, because women were playing the central tramp characters.

Management of the estate have pulled the plug on the Manchester-based Grimey Up North Theatre Company just weeks before the play's run in Scotland. The estate claims the ''production in drag'' could ridicule the author.

The company, which has just finished three months of rehearsals, argued that, by having women play main characters, tramps Vladimir and Estragon, it would bring the play up to date by showing their plight was that of mankind and not just that of men alone.

Actresses Jo Heathcote, 30, and Jo Waddington, 17, had pulled on baggy trousers and rehearsed the lines of the tramps' conversation as they waited for Godot.

The company, which has spent #1500 on publicity, claims there was a mix-up which led to it originally being assured by agents of the Beckett estate that it could go ahead with the two women taking the parts. It insists there was a five-month delay in receiving the contract for the play, which contains a clause specifying the actors' sex cannot be altered.

The company tried to persuade the estate to relax the conditions, but this attempt failed.

A spokesperson said: ''The Beckett estate just thought we were a gay rights group or that we had a political motive, but that wasn't the case. The women were tramp-like, but they thought it was a transvestite production.''

A spokesman for the agents defended their position, stating it was not a sexist decision but an artistic one. The estate had the right to determine how a production was performed.

''It is most unfortunate and we wish things would have been otherwise. We have to be more strict with Beckett because his plays are so specific.''

He said there was a condition of licence that the play should be performed as written ''and the indications to the sex of the characters and performers must be followed at all times''.

''They had changed the idea of the sex of the performers by doing the production in drag and that is unfortunate.''

Samuel Beckett is one of Ireland's most celebrated playwrights although he spent much of his life in France.

He first wrote Waiting for Godot in French in 1949 and translated it into English six years later.

Meanwhile, the Edinburgh Film Festival has rejected a new film by highly-acclaimed Danish director Lars Von Trier because of an explicit sex scene it believes is a ''joke'' that would annoy the censors too much.

The decision not to show The Idiots, which features a 40-second penetration scene, was taken by Lizzie Francke, the director of one of the world's best-known film screening events.

''The climate of censorship is quite tricky at the moment,'' she said. ''Other films are dealing with delicate and difficult subjects and could have quite a tough time with the censors, and we didn't think it was worth pushing it for this film.''

Last year, the festival showed Dick, a film in which a man nails his penis to a board, and this year will premiere The Acid House Trilogy, Irvine Welsh's latest surreal slice of Scottish life including a middle-aged sado-masochistic sex scene. The controversial David Cronenberg film, Crash, was also premiered at the event two years ago.

Ms Francke said of The Idiots: ''It is an interesting film, but I decided it was Lars Von Trier's joke. It's almost like someone showing their bottom to the world.''

qVisitors to Edinburgh's programme of nine festivals last year spent #125m in the city, almost 3% up on the previous 12 months.

This is revealed in a survey which maintains the city's box-office attraction as a festival destination is a major boost to the local economy.

The spending by 2,400,000 festival-goers brought a direct net benefit to the Edinburgh economy of more than #30m which supported 2551 jobs throughout the year.

The independent study, commissioned by Lothian and Edinburgh Enterprise, the City of Edinburgh Council and the local Chamber of Commerce and Enterprise, also reveals a major knock-on benefit for the whole of Scotland from the festival programme.

It rose by 15% and was worth #129m, supporting 4200 jobs across the country.

Play and the player . . .

q Waiting for Godot was written between October 1948 and January 1949.

q The dramatic situation is simple. Two men wait on two occasions by a tree for someone called Godot who will come and save them. He doesn't.

q The originality of Godot lies in the concrete reality of the silence that has somehow to be filled.

q Early reaction was mixed. Critics loved the play but once the curtain had to come down after 20 disgruntled spectators hooted derisively.

q People in the audience have been known to laugh ironically at the line: ''I've been better entertained.''

q Godot changed everything for Beckett. It marked the beginning of his financial success and an end to the anonymity he treasured.

q Beckett won the Nobel Prize in 1969. He celebrated by going into hiding.

q A Swedish television crew pursued him for two days for an interview. He handed them a photograph.

q Beckett studied at Trinity, Oxford, before arriving in Paris on November 1, 1928.

q He rarely drank before 5pm. He was regularly drunk thereafter.

q He played rugby in a style described as ''charging ahead blindly with grim determination''.

q One friendship in Paris outshone all others. Beckett was introduced to James Joyce and helped research Finnegan's Wake.

q Beckett loved France so much he served in the Resistance during the war.