The Edinburgh Fringe is sick. What is missing? The true spirit of the Fringe…

A comedy god has vomited on Edinburgh

The anonymous Poster Menace has e-mailed me another photograph. It is of an food trolley standing unattended in the street after some unknown accident. Unexplained. It could be an exhibit from Tate Modern. To me, it looks like abstract vomit. And a sign of the former essential anarchy now largely missing from the Edinburgh Fringe.

Walking round the streets of Edinburgh this last week, I have realised there is something odd this year.

Things are neater.

They were neater last year.

They are even neater this year.

The Fringe is sick.

The original basis of the Fringe is that it is an open festival. No-one is invited; no-one is organised. Anyone can come, put on any show they like in any place they can get and no-one actually controls what they do. The central Fringe Office simply issues a Fringe Programme with information provided by the performers. It does not control what goes into the Programme or what the performers do.

Except now it does.

As of this year, it has censored shows’ titles, it has censored shows’ descriptions, it has even insisted that the written description of shows printed in the Fringe Programme should use correct English grammar in the phrasing. It has become a schoolmasterly control freak.

Parallel to this, Edinburgh Council has controlled how shows are advertised on the streets. You can still say COCK, PRICK, SHIT in large letters on your posters prominently displayed in public thoroughfares throughout the city (although the Fringe Office has banned these words in its printed Programme – despite the fact they were acceptable in previous years).

In a seemingly reasonable move a couple of years ago, Edinburgh Council stopped turning a blind eye to random postering in the streets by rogue postering companies. This seemed reasonable enough. You cannot, so the argument goes, have people randomly postering on private and public properties and walls all over the city. It also meant the Council could charge for postering. But there was a consequence.

Now you can only poster in designated ways on designated sites using designated postering companies.

Look around the streets of Edinburgh and it still seems like hundreds of different shows are being advertised. But, look closer, and you see that (ignoring the mega big posters which were always put there by big companies) the ‘normal’ sized posters on the streets are almost all for the Big Four venues or for acts being put on by the big promoters.

Any small or middling shows have been marginalised to the half-glimpsed windows and doorways of small shops or, almost invisibly, inside and to a tiny extent outside the smaller venues.

The original basic and essential anarchy and uncontrollability of the Fringe is being reined in and controlled. The big venues are becoming bar areas with performance rooms not performance rooms with bars. The Fringe Programme is becoming a magazine where people have to pay to advertise but have no final control over their own paid-for words. The street advertising has already been moved into more corporate control.

The Fringe has been officialised, standardised and controlled. The PBH Free Fringe  and Laughing Horse Free Festival (occasionally bitter rivals) have re-invented the spirit of the old Fringe. But it may be too late.

On the other hand, there are still some free spirits and uncontrollable events.

Janey Godley and Paul Provenza in Edinburgh last night

Last night I went to see my comedy chum Janey Godley perform on Paul Provenza‘s (terrifying for performers) improvisation-based Set List. She stormed it, but told me afterwards: “It’s like the opposite of normal comedy. Set List gets harder the more you do it. You run on adrenaline the first time but then, the more you do it, the more your brain knows how difficult it is and tries to sabotage you!” 

An extra last-minute guest on the show was Phil Kay, who arrived without a plectrum for his guitar. Someone lent him a credit card and he played with that. There will probably be some Fringe rule preventing this soon, unless the credit card belongs to a Fringe-sponsoring bank.

When I got back to my flat at 3.30am, I found Free Festival/Alternative Fringe promoter Bob Slayer had sent me yet another e-mail. Is there no end to his quest for self-publicity? Let us hope not.

His venue The Hive is on Niddry Street, a narrow, steep street linking the higher Royal Mile with the lower Cowgate. A couple of doors down from his venue is the rival PBH Free Fringe venue The Banshee Labyrinth. At the bottom of the street are Bannerman’s pub and some Just The Tonic venues.

Bob’s latest e-mail reads :


Bob Slayer’s show has ended up in the gutter

John –

I want you to know that it wasn’t me! 

The blocked drains at the PBH Banshee Labyrinth that are causing poo and pee to flow down the street into PBH Bannermans are nothing to do with me! The Alternative Fringe flyers which are floating out of the drain and along the river of tepid toilet water are merely a coincidence… 

Earlier in the week, Daryl at Just The Tonic came up and asked me if I had anything to do with their power cut. 

And now I am getting fingered for blocking drains… ____________________ 

Some people will do – or, at least, suggest – anything to get mentioned in this blog.

1 Comment

Filed under Censorship, Comedy, Marketing

One response to “The Edinburgh Fringe is sick. What is missing? The true spirit of the Fringe…

  1. Barbara Romen

    John: I’ve been hoping someone would write about these developments. The Fringe has gone from a “great equalizer” to a festival of corporate greed. It’s Vegas without the gambling (or air conditioning).

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