Should the BBC be putting on free shows at the Edinburgh Fringe?

(This was published on 8th August as my first column in Three Weeks magazine, under the title Is Auntie Stealing Your Bums on Seats?)

Three Weeks – on the streets of Edinburgh now

At the start of this year’s Fringe, comedian Stewart Lee lashed out in The Guardian at the ‘Big Four’ Fringe venues. It is not uncommon to attack the overheads imposed on performers by the Big Four. I have done it myself in my daily blog.

Last week, I heard doyenne of Fringe comedy critics and fellow Malcolm Hardee Award judge Kate Copstick tell Mat Ricardo in the chat show part of his Voodoo Varieties show: “In comedy, the audience is dwindling up the arse-hole of television. You could have a crock of shit live on stage at one of the major venues and, if they added an ‘As seen on Mock The Week’ or ‘Star of Michael McIntyre’s Roadshow’ strap on the poster, it would sell out at £16 a pop.

“And then”, she continued, “you get somebody who’s dragged up the arse-end of a tour that has been every place in the UK except Edinburgh to do seven nights at the EICC or somewhere. Fuck you! The Fringe isn’t the place to do that. This is the place to do new stuff, interesting stuff. Don’t just schlep up some tired old crap because you know there’s enough dumb people who’ll pay £16 a ticket for it!”

I agree. But I was interested to find a new target for abuse this week. I was chatting to Mervyn Stutter – up here for the 21st year of his Pick Of The Fringe shows. “There seems to be increasing irritation among comics,” I said to him, “about Big Name TV comedians including Edinburgh in their tours and doing a couple of nights at a big-seater venue, which takes those punters out of circulation for other, smaller Fringe shows”.

“Well, yes”, agreed Mervyn, “last year one of them did a whole four week run at an 800-seater. You don’t want to be unfair, but couldn’t they have done that in September or October? They’re taking money away from struggling comics with less clout”.

“We’re used to that though,” he continued. “You shrug your shoulders and say ‘The Fringe is organic; people can do what they like’. But when I looked at the Fringe Programme this year, under B in Comedy, there were yards of BBC programmes. Pages of them. What the hell is the BBC doing up here? Their shows are free. They have stars in. And you don’t have to pay. Why is the BBC doing so many shows here? It spreads the audience energy too wide”.

“There are 2500 shows being put on by small people with a tight budget or no budget – sometimes on overdrafts.”

“You can only spread bums on seats so far”, I agreed.

“Exactly”, agreed Mervyn. “In the past, there have been only one or two BBC shows and there have been queues round the block. Performers think: ‘Oh, that would have been nice for an audience at my show’. But it’s free and it’s famous and it’s the BBC. It’s an attractive deal. I would go. Brilliant… if there were only a couple of shows”.

“But this year there are acres of BBC shows. I’m sorry. It’s irritating. It’s the Fringe. We’re on against the Olympics. And it’s hard enough already. It’s a legitimate complaint. I’ve nothing against the BBC, but why are they here putting on so many shows? In the past, it was Just a Minute with Paul Merton and you could say, ‘Well, Paul Merton’s a good Fringe person and there’s a connection’. But some of these new shows have no connection with the Fringe at all. It’s about branding and placement and the result is essentially spreading an audience too thin”.

“Fewer bums on more seats,” I agreed. “In the Fringe Programme this year,” said Mervyn, “that would be printed as B*ms.”

(You can download the full Week 1 issue of Three Weeks by clicking HERE)

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