How the Edinburgh Fringe came together – for comedy at least

I have probably been going to Edinburgh every year since I was an embryo.

Though I think maybe I missed one year.

I was born in Campbeltown on the west coast of Scotland and partly brought up in Aberdeen in the north east. When my parents moved down to London, we used to spend every summer holiday in south west Scotland, where my parents grew up, with a side-trip to Edinburgh to visit my father’s aunt.

I have always loved Edinburgh. I feel more at home there than anywhere else – which is a tad ironic as I have never actually had a home there.

After I left college, I started reviewing movies and used to go to the annual Edinburgh International Film Festival in August (it recently moved to June). Later, I would also sometimes go to a few Edinburgh Fringe theatre productions. At that time, it was mostly a festival where students with thespian ambitions put on plays of dodgy quality. I remember climbing up open iron stairs which felt like a fire escape to see some endless play about Hitler in a tiny upstairs venue called The Traverse.

The play seemed to last longer than the Second World War.

By 1985/1986, I was working for the Entertainment department at London Weekend Television and started going to comedy shows on the Fringe. This was around the time that Alternative Comedy was finding its legs in the UK and also the time the big venues started at the Fringe. Within a few years, a Big Three were solidly established.

Edinburgh is quite a small city but is topographically dramatic. The New Town (1700s) is separated from the Old Town (medieval) by a valley formed in the Ice Age (the railway now runs through it). The Old Town stands on a volcanic ridge and, in places, is built on two levels.

From 1980, the Assembly venue ran in the Assembly Rooms on George Street in the New Town.

From 1985, the Pleasance was in the Old Town slightly outside where the old city walls had stood.

Starting in 1986, the Gilded Balloon was in Cowgate on the lower level of the Old Town.

The Fringe, as well as being an open festival with no central body choosing who appears (you just arrange your own venue and turn up) had no single central location. The Fringe Office was in the High Street, on the upper level of the Old Town, separate from all the venues.

In 2000 (or 2001, depending on your viewpoint), the Underbelly opened, soon become the fourth Big Venue. It was along the Cowgate from the Gilded Balloon.

In 2002, the Gilded Balloon burnt down, which resulted in its relocation to Bristo Square, on the upper level of the Old Town.

The Pleasance then opened a venue called the Pleasance Dome in Bristo Square, re-naming their original location the Pleasance Courtyard.

The Underbelly then pitched their giant purple cow venue – the Udderbelly – in the middle of Bristo Square.

The Fringe Office then opened a performers’ centre – Fringe Central – literally round the corner from Bristo Square.

And, this year, the Assembly venue has moved from its old building to George Square – beside Fringe Central and a 20 second walk from Bristo Square.

So the Big Four venues are all now clustered around Bristo Square in the Old Town, with the original Underbelly, the Pleasance Courtyard and the Assembly Hall venue on the Mound all in the Old Town too.

Quite what this will do to the venues left isolated in the New Town remains to be seen.

But, at least, comedy on the Fringe now has a centre.

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Filed under Comedy, Scotland, Theatre

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