Edinburgh’s PBH Free Fringe restricts performers’ freedom to put on a show

The Greatest Show on Legs performing in their prime (Photograph by Matthew Hardy)

At the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008, the much-respected comedian Peter Buckley Hill was nominated for a Malcolm Hardee Award for his creation and sustenance of the PBH Free Fringe.

Last week, I blogged that the late Malcolm Hardee’s friend Martin Soan was likely to revive their act The Greatest Show on Legs at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe for a one-week run. The show was to involve two other former GSOL performers. Last night, I went with my eternally-un-named friend (who is not in the comedy business) to see Malcolm Hardee Award winning Lewis Schaffer’s ongoing London comedy show Free Until Famous.

I heard there that the planned Greatest Show On Legs’ performances in Edinburgh have, in all probability, been scuppered by Peter Buckley Hill (oft known as PBH).

In my blog in January this year, Peter wrote that the PBH Free Fringe “is a model for the liberation of performers from the chains imposed on them by others”.

“This guy Peter Buckley Hill,” Lewis Schaffer explained to my eternally-un-named friend late last night, “originated the idea of a festival where people are charged nothing to get in, but donate money at the door at the end of the show. It’s basically indoor busking. He didn’t invent anything new, he just put it into a room. It’s a great idea. And a promoter called Alex Petty did the same thing and called his shows the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

“And that,” Lewis explained, “is a good thing, because it means more free shows for more free comics, rather than just having one guy to go to. It’s like somebody opening up a food centre giving food to starving people and somebody says, Good idea – I’ll do the same thing across town. You wouldn’t say, Oh, this guy’s being evil because he’s copied the idea of doing a free food bank! The Fringe idea is indoor busking. But Peter Buckley Hill thinks Alex Petty is doing an evil thing.”

“There are all sorts of stories,” I explained to my eternally-un-named friend. “Some are probably untrue and urban myths but it’s like a one-sided vendetta. If any PBH Free Fringe act applies to perform or does perform at a Laughing Horse Free Festival venue, PBH bans them from appearing on the Free Fringe again. If he knows you have applied to both the Free Fringe and the Free Festival for a venue, you are barred from performing at the Free Fringe venue because you have had the audacity to approach the Free Festival. The legend goes that, if you appear at a Free Festival venue, PBH un-friends you on Facebook, though we still seem to be Facebook Friends. I have a nasty feeling this may change.”

In the case of the Greatest Show on Legs, one of the performers (who does not want to be named) is booked to appear in a show on the PBH Free Fringe this year. The Greatest Show on Legs had been invited to perform at Bob Slayer’s venue The Hive, which comes under the umbrella of the Laughing Horse Free Festival. When this was mentioned to PBH, it turned out (no surprise) he had a problem with it, but said there would be no problem if the Greatest Show on Legs performed, instead, at a PBH Free Fringe venue.

The rule of thumb is… If you apply to or perform at a Laughing Horse Free Festival venue, you are barred from the PBH Free Fringe. The reverse is not the case. The Laughing Horse Free Festival puts no restrictions on performers applying to both free events, nor on people who have performed for the PBH Free Fringe.

There was a story at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe about a PBH Free Fringe venue which was next to a Laughing Horse Free Festival venue in the same narrow street. The latter venue was a little tucked-away and less-well signposted at the front. If any punter or passer-by asked anyone flyering outside the PBH Free Fringe venue, the flyerer had to say they had never heard of the Laughing Horse Free Fringe venue and did not know where it was. I can only presume this was an urban myth and was a totally untrue story, but I heard it repeated widely. Such stories are fertilised by the one-sided vendetta.

“It is outrageous,” Martin Soan told me last night. “PBH seems to believe that, if anyone performs anywhere else, then they’re not allowed to perform at his places. It could destroy young people’s careers because it can come across as intimidating or bullying though, of course, I am sure it’s not intended that way. Imagine if you’re a young act, just starting out. We never believed there was a career for us when we started. But nowadays there is a career path in it. Suddenly someone turns round and says: Ah, you’re not going to perform here if you go off and do a show somewhere else. That is detrimental to people’s careers. It’s restriction of trade. Not a good way of nursing young talent; it is restricting talent’s ability to perform where they want.”

“It’s also preventing an actual show from happening?” said my eternally un-named friend.

“You could have someone else in the show,” I suggested to Martin.

“Yes, but that’s not the point, is it?” he replied.

“Someone Martin wanted in the show and who wanted to appear in the show has been intimidated into not appearing in the show,” my eternally un-named friend said.

“You’ve hit the nail on the head,” said Martin.

“And the show will probably not happen because of that?” I asked.

“It’s just nuts,” Martin said. “I’m not going to lose sleep over it. But what I’m angry about is this PBH character. Who does he think he is? He said, No, you can’t go and perform at The Hive because it’s part of the Free Festival, but the Legs can perform on the Free Fringe. So he was prepared to poach an act. He was just being bloody obstinate and horrible, if you ask me.”

“Would you perform as part of the Free Fringe?” I asked.

“Not now. No I fucking well would not now. On principle. I have banned and barred myself from performing on the Free Fringe. I don’t know what the distinction is between barred and banned but I have done both to myself.”

“If,” I suggested, “if one of the Big Four venues told someone who was doing a show for them that they could not go and perform as a member of a comedy team at a Free Fringe venue because performing at a free venue would undermine the box office for their performance at the Big Four paid venue, I could see that they might have a point. But PBH would be outraged and up-in-arms about the restrictive practices of the dictatorial Big venue throttling freedom of performance.

“In this case – and lots of other cases – what you have is the PBH Free Fringe saying anyone who dares to perform at the other free festival in town is barred from performing at the PBH Free Fringe. While claiming that free performance shows are somehow liberating to the performer. It’s like Communism coming along and saying We will give people freedom and you end up with a dictatorship by the one-Party state.”

“It’s like The Bridge on the River Kwai,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Alec Guinness did a good thing by keeping the men occupied to build the bridge. He saved the lives of his own men. He was a good man. But, somewhere along the line, he forgot what his purpose was. He fell in love with the bridge and forgot about the men and about the War. At the end of the film, he’d forgotten what the purpose of the bridge was. And it’s the same with Peter Buckley Hill. He’s forgotten what the purpose of the Free Fringe was: to widen the opportunities for performers. The Free Fringe is not for him; it’s for other people and the more people who put on more free shows, the better it is for Comedy.”

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Edinburgh’s PBH Free Fringe restricts performers’ freedom to put on a show

  1. Lewis makes a very astute point at the end of this article. Edinburgh venues have always had political issues with each other and originally we hoped the free venues were going to avoid this.

    I say we by the way because if it wasn’t for the acts who signed up originally the whole venture wouldn’t have taken off, and I think PBH needs to consider that point.

    My compilation show the ‘Great Big Comedy Picnic’ was effectively dropped from the Canons Gait in 2007 because I was doing a solo show with the Laughing Horse. I had the choice of one or the other. I wasn’t aware of his policy at the time of booking the venue as it hadn’t been made clear, I only found out of PBH’s disapproval after I put the poster for my solo show on myspace. A short time late I received a very long email from PBH. If a last minute venue hadn’t come up with the LH mine and six other comics Edinburgh plans would have been ruined that year.

    There was definitely a policy in 2007 that you couldn’t be friends with both venues on myspace.

    The ridiculous thing is that comics are performing in shows in both venues they just make sure PBH doesn’t find out about it.

    Last year I contacted PBH to ask him to confirm the dates of his shows for a piece I was writing for the British Comedy Guide – the dates helpfully weren’t on his website – I never received a reply.

    The book I’ve put out has loads of helpful information for performers doing free show, that could feasibly save them hundreds of pounds but no one in the PBH camp will get to hear about it through the PBH organisational network because he’s in charge of communications. My involvement with the other side is presumably the reason for these actions.

    I like PBH as a person and I used to enjoy his company, what I find upsetting about this situation is that with the amount of work and money involved in doing a Fringe show, PBH’s first responsibly should be to the performers who choose to work with him not a brand name.

  2. heroesofalternative

    I agree with Lewis that PBH appears to have let his argument with Alex Petty of Laughing Horse, however valid or not, to cloud his judgement over this. He certainly seems to have forgotten the reasons why he set up the free fringe.

    The discussion should not be between free and paid or one free model and another, it should be about what deals are in the best interests of artists. It is not in the interests of artists to put restrictions on them and intimidate… The more this goes on the more Underbelly etc must laugh at the situation. Divide and rule!

    I emailed PBH a few days ago offering to meet up and discuss the situation, I hope that we can meet up and negotiate some sort of truce…
    Alternative Fringe
    http://www.heroesof.com/fringe

  3. heroesofalternative

    Oh on reflection I would like to change my comment to: This is more petty and ridiculous than pasty tax and queues for fuel put together!

  4. 1. No PBH performer will ever restrict access to or refuse to give directions to a laughing horse venue… that’s really quite silly.
    2. Any PBH performer can appear as a guest on a LH show at any time and vice versa… A LH performer cannot publicise his show at a PBH venue.
    3. A PBH performer can play a paid venue and a PBH venue at the same time.
    4. PBH and LH were originally a partnership, Alex joined Peter after Peter had set the organisation in motion. Alex and Peter have quite fundamental differences in their ethos and terms and conditions. One is all about a belief that the Free Fringe should remain untouched by sticky commercial fingers and that all performers can perform for free. The other one holds the opposing view to both of these conditions. This is one of the main reasons they split and both feel that the others behavior after the split has forced them to cut all ties.
    5. Both organisations do a great job for the performer and the fact that they are in opposition to each other is a very healthy thing which stimulates both sides to ‘out do’ the other and thus far more opportunities have been created for performers than would have ever happened if the pair had stayed together.
    I have been performing on PBH’s fringe for 6 years and whilst nothing is perfect, I have a great deal of respect for Peter, his ethos and his tireless devotion to an often thankless and very stressful task.

    As performers we are an emotional and dramatic bunch and we will take any opportunity to make a big fuss about the way we have been treated or the restrictions which we face and then its jazz hands all the way to the bar.
    The choice is simple. If you don’t like PBH’s way of doing things then please go elsewhere, just don’t make such a song and dance about it on the way. Hundreds of people every year work with PBH and are very happy to do so and reap the benefits of the provision he provides.

    Peter restricts no-one. He lets them know his conditions and like any other organisation in the world including Alex Petty and the Fringe Society, if you don’t want to follow house rules, your membership is terminated.

    • As I have said to Jools, I think his points 2 and 3 are simply not true. Well, maybe if you add… “though you will get banned from the Free Fringe for doing it”…

      • With reference to point 4 about “sticky commercial fingers” I would like to point out that the LH usually lose money on the Free Festival.

        The £40 fee is to cover the cost of printing the booklet, equipment hire and transportation

        With reference to point 5, when I interviewed Steve Bennett from Chortle and Marissa Burgess from MEN on my site and asked about free shows at the fringe both commented that a number of free venues are unsuitable for shows.

        I don’t think the constant trying to out do each other in number of venues is a positive thing. I think both parties could achieve more by being less competitive with each other and being more selective about where shows are programmed.

  5. Comedy Team

    PBH needs to realise he is NOT in charge of Edinburgh, he does not have a monopoly on the Free Fringe Shows. PBH appears to look for problems to put himself under pressure with in turn this then gives him the excuse to talk to people like shit. No one denies the work and effort PBH puts in , as Does Alex Petty to get all this co ordinated, so why make MORE work for yourself over stupid arguments and in my opinion jealousy against Laughing Horse.
    PBH, you need to get into 2012 and leave the past in the past, because its damaging the Free Fringe. Acts love to come and do it, who has the right to tell them where they can perform? I think long term PBH`s Free Fringe will be the looser in all this if it continues.
    Put it all Behind you Peter, and work with everyone else to make for an even better Fringe.

    • danny worthington

      PBH may not have a monopoly on free Fringe shows but he does have a monopoly on Free Fringe shows, he owns the registered company Free Fringe Ltd,

  6. Donald Mack

    I don’t think that I have ever publicly or privately attacked one side or another, but I was around at the time of the union and of the break-up, as with most things this is not a black and white issue, especially when it involves something as fluid as peoples ideals, hopes and expectations.

    Personally, I wish that this situation did not exist. On second thoughts I have “had a go” at both parties, but for different reasons. As Jools and I have discussed, I have a preference, he has a preference and we both roll on from there. Not a problem between the performers. All performers have to weigh it up and make a decision for themselves. As I said, in an ideal situation we should not have to be forced into making that decision.

    Sorry Jools mate I have to disagree with some of what you say. Also to John pts 2 and 3 made by Jools are both correct and both incorrect. The actual correct response is: it depends upon who you are! Robin Ince (or of similar stature or PBH regard)…Yes. Newbie…No.

    Jools – the fall out between Alex and PBH is not as simplistic as you have painted it. It’s not simply about money, commercialism or fees. There is also personality, ego, work ethic and the general ethos and morality of the two main individuals. Also you contradict yourself where you say PBH restricts no-one and yet you then acknowledge that if you don’t follow his rules then you can’t take part – when one of his unwritten rules is that he does not want you billed as performing with the Free Festival as opposed to HIS Free Fringe.

    For the record, I support Comedy, comedy performers and I love the concept of free shows. I also like and respect the concept of paid shows!

  7. I can see reasons why it’s a good thing that PBH has this rule, but I agree this particular case is unfair. I would make an exception in cases like this.

    That’s probably because I’m the sort who’s always open to bending rules. PBH on the other hand has principals and will not budge on them. And it’s those sort of character traits that have contributed to him effectively building the free fringe.

    It should also be noted that it’s not just PBH blacklisting people. A year or two ago comedian friend who I won’t name was told by Alex that if he did an Edinburgh show at a PBH venue then he wouldn’t give him anymore paid work in London (though in fairness to Alex he’s not as strict as PBH about this kind of thing).

    As the free fringe expands, all these rules will be even harder to enforce (I like many others, know comedians who get away with breaking them already). Personally I think the best course of action is for PBH and LH to come to more amicable agreement about acts being able to perform at either venue.
    e.g. Acts aren’t allowed to have their name used to promote shows on both LH and PBH in one year. Acts aren’t allowed to promote LH shows within PBH venues and vice versa. Anything else is FINE.

  8. Anon

    I’m a newcomer in the process of trying to decide whether or not to join with several others in putting on a free show this August. Having only just been approached to do this, I am torn between going for it, and waiting until next year. I live locally, so cost is not such an issue as it would be for many. The main thing is that I want to invest effort in making a show as good as it can realistically be, and I am aware that doing a Fringe show is a massive undertaking, even for experienced performers.

    My instinct is telling me that it would be better to do a few open cabaret spots rather than a group of us biting off more than we can chew in doing a run of our own, having a horrible experience (well, even more horrible than average), and ending up with a poor reputation before we have even started. I have enjoyed (and financially contributed to) both free festivals as a punter in previous years, and I understand the importance of maintaining the quality of performances. To me, free does not mean lower quality.

    What is a shock is to find out that if I get involved in the free festival slot that is being suggested by our organiser, or in the one particular free cabaret gig that I favour, I will automatically be blacklisted from performing in the other free fest, either this year, or perhaps for life. I find it ironic that instead of focusing on the real concerns (whether we can do ourselves justice as performers and avoid wasting other people’s time, effort and money) the very first thing we are faced with is choosing sides in a pre-existing feud, wherein even if we graft and produce a show to be proud of, it will count against us – simply because of the venue at which we have agreed to perform.

    PBH’s “advice for performers” webpage actually states that if a performer doesn’t like their conditions, they can “fuck off”. I would argue that life is not so simple, and the aggression evident in this feud is being misdirected at potential performers, before they have even begun.

  9. Will someone ask PBH to stop sitting right at the front of open mike nights with no one at them just so he can tell the MC or act trying to work the empty room that he will never ever book them because they dared to “pick on him” while telling everyone in the room how important he is. I had a go at him privately about it years ago and years later he is still pulling this childish stunt which fools no one.

    If you ask be PBH is a bully. A man who picks on the weak.

    PBH can bend his rules when it suits him. He allowed Brian and Krrystal to play both festivals. It just depends where you are in the pecking order. Anyone remember all those years when PBH insisted we all absolutely had to go to the Festival Fringe Society meetings in order to vote as this was vitally important? Then he won an award and now we dont hear a dickybird out of him on this subject. That’s how far his principles go.

    I’m sorry I simply dont believe that Alex doesn’t make a profit on the Fringe. He’s a businessman – he wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t anything in it for him.

    All restrictive practices are fundamentally bollocks and immoral. If you need to resort to blacklisting and social isolation techniques to get your way then you have an anus for a head.

    PBH is an extremely gifted philosopher and like many such people he is also a bit of a wanker.

  10. mraemiller

    Having said that I do think “It’s basically indoor busking. He didn’t invent anything new, he just put it into a room” is a bit disingenuous. The concept of the Free Fringe may be simple but getting people to believe is would work took him the best part of 10 years.

    The system before PBH the Free Fringe came along and challenged it was a disaster. People lost 10s of thousands of pounds for no good reason. Now I’m not morally against people risking money on putting on a show at the Fringe etc – it is a trade fair how much you pay to set out your stall should but up to you – but before PBH people were pressured into deals that were frankly ludicrous all the time. What people risk financially on the Fringe should be proportionate and reasonable to their current level in the “industry” but what used to happen was that completely new acts would be leaned on by their managements to run up £10,000s in debt which most of these management companies would end up having to write off when they didn’t work out. The whole system had become insane. PBH changed that.

    The idea of the Free Fringe was not just to do indoor busking but to keep doing it and keep doing it and get more and more people involved until the level where it became politically respectable. I.e. to the point where people believe they have a genuine choice between the Free Fringe and going to paid venue and that the “industry” would hold it against them for not acting like some crass Loadsofmoney twit. PBH’s achievement has been to lower the operating costs for everyone and not just to popularise “indoor busking” but to make it politically viable. You really have to have seen what it was like pre-PBH to understand where I’m coming from I think …

    He’s still a bit of a twonk though.

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