Edinburgh Fringe: Arthur Smith’s usually anarchic, sometimes illegal night-time tours of the Royal Mile

Arthur Smith at the 2010 Malcolm Hardee Awards

This Friday at 11.pm, The two-hour Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show starts at the Counting House in Edinburgh, as part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival. Have I mentioned that before?

The show will include the Greatest Show on Legs performing their Naked Balloon Dance and a Russian Egg Roulette contest supervised by Andy Dunlop, international president of the World Egg Throwing Federation. So it’s all respectable stuff, not just people randomly smashing raw eggs in their faces.

Among those taking part in the Russian Egg Roulette will be comedians Richard Herring and Arthur Smith. After our show finishes at 1.00am, Arthur will be legging it up to the gates of Edinburgh Castle for 2.00am which is when he starts one of his legendary night time tours of the Royal Mile. To give a flavour of these always impressive cultural events, here are two extracts from Arthur’s autobiography My Name is Daphne Fairfax, available from all good bookshops and a few dodgy ones:


My tour of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh that year, a genre I now described as ‘radical site–specific outdoor promenade performance art,’ was a riot, ending outside John Thomson’s flat. John, a funny man and a mean impressionist had, that night, collected his Perrier award with Steve Coogan. He spoke from the shadows of the flat convincing a number of my crowd that I was talking to Sean Connery. We dispersed minutes before several police vans full of coppers arrived.

By now the tour began long after midnight; the most extreme starting time – 4am – is, surely, both the latest and earliest show to appear at the festival. The historical element of the event had been largely replaced by more muscular antics. I paid members of the crowd to climb onto an empty plinth, strip naked and sing Scotland the Brave; offered the squaddies guarding the castle a joint to slowmarch (yes, they usually did); induced residents of the Royal Mile to open their window and burst into song; staged kissing contests; introduced guest speakers such as Paul Merton, Hank Wangford, Mike McShane and Big Bobbie the armpit-farter; I might hush the audience to sneak up on a drunk enjoying a solitary piss against a wall, or stop by a shop displaying mannequins in tweed suits, introducing them as The Oxford Revue; I led everyone onto the back of an empty lorry and once ended the show at the Station where I got on the first train to Galashiels.

Oh, we had some laughs.

A DVD of my 1990 tour turned up recently, and watching it alone in the sober light of a Monday morning. I was appalled at how dangerous it now seems, how reckless I was, and how fortunate that no-one was ever seriously injured or even killed.  A fire breaks out, a pissed member of the Doug Anthony All Stars accepts twenty pounds to clamber up the scaffolding clinging to a building, a policeman appears in the background, and then mounts the portacabin on which Malcolm Hardee is standing in his traditional uniform of two socks.

In the previous year’s baccanal, I had turned up with an unruly mob of two hundred at a police lock-up round the back of the Royal Mile.  It was while Nelson Mandela was in prison so I informed the throng that he was in this very jail.  On cue everyone started singing, “Free -ee Nelson Mand-e-la!” until a small old policeman appeared and barked, “Will you please be quiet?  You’re keeping the poor prisoners awake.” Big laugh. Emboldened by my witty foe, I declared, “We will go when you release Nelson Mandela,” to which the gaoler responded, “We’ll be letting him out through the side door further up the road.”  Everyone roared and clapped and we moved on. The funny copper, whoever he was, was a class act, a Scottish Syd, a man of style who diffused a tricky moment with charm and humour.

Although I never did the day-time Royal Mile walks again after ‘83, I have presented a couple of more elaborate and innocent promenades shows elsewhere in town, My eccentric take on Swan Lake unfolded unpredictably round the back of the Pleasance

* * * * *

It was a full, fat, hard-drinking festival for me in 2000, with a suitably dramatic finale which contained the words

‘I am arresting you for breach of the peace and possession of a megaphone.’

I was in an Edinburgh Police Station at 5am when a police officer spoke this sentence to me. How did this unfortunate situation come about?

The story starts in the small hours of Sunday August 27th m’lud. A large crowd is gathered opposite the Tron church watching a man standing on a wall talking through a megaphone.  His underpants are on display and he seems somewhat the worse for wear.  It is myself and I am declaring an end to my tour; what remains of my audience are drifting off home. A couple of policemen arrive on the scene. Unsurprisingly, there is some light jeering from the remaining tourists. But now there are 5 police cars, a van and an armoured black maria. A couple of revellers hustle me round a corner where I put my trousers on and return in time to see post-renaissance comedian Simon Munnery being handcuffed and bundled into one of the cars.

At the time Simon had just taken the sacred megaphone from me, which he was perfectly entitled to do, since he had taken hilarious part in the improvised promenade, having reprised the role of Heinrich, the deranged Nietzschean German tourist.  Now a new part was thrust upon him – arrested man sitting in a cell feeling very pissed off indeed. I felt guilty that it had been Simon, and not me, the police had nabbed, so I led a few stragglers, whose outrage briefly outranked their tiredness, to the Police Station to await his release.  It was a long, strange night. At around 5am Rich Hall came by, fresh from collecting the Perrier award, and joined our vigil for as long as his eyes were able to remain open.  Not long after he left I was taken into a room, charged and immediately released. Later, when I was less angry, I was able to laugh at an imaginary conversation between the coppers.

PC:                  This Arthur Smith is obviously the Mr Big, Sarge.

SARGE:          Aye, we’d better arrest him.

PC:                  I wonder where he could be?

SARGE:          Let’s try the waiting room.

They seek him here, they seek him there…..

At approximately 8am, your honour, Simon was released from custody.  I decided to stay up since my last Leonard Cohen show was at lunch-time and it felt like Simon and I should top the night off together. We repaired to my nearby digs and an unlikely bottle of Asti Spumante. Sipping it, smoking, dazed at the chaos that had led us here, I grimaced at the realisation that I would have to tell Syd about this one. And then I laughed at the thought that I was forty-five years old. It was a beautiful, sunny, late-summer morning.  ‘Goodness me,’ I thought, ‘if this is what I have to do to avoid being bored, it’s pretty damn exhausting.’

“One must have chaos in one to give birth to a dancing star” – Nietzsche

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