Free Fringe in Edinburgh to be ended?

(A version of this piece was published on the Indian news site WSN)

Peter Buckley Hill started it all in Edinburgh

Could this have been a last Edinburgh Free Fringe?

It is a current cliché that British comedy is under threat at a grass roots level.

Comedy clubs are closing across the country.

One cause seems to be that (as started happening at the Edinburgh Fringe several years ago) people are spending their money in large amounts on recognisable Big Name acts in bigger venues and not seeing unknown acts in smaller venues.

There are, however, two balancing factors.

One is that – in my opinion –  in the last two years at the Fringe, the most interesting comedy has been in shows not listed in the Comedy section of the programme but in the Cabaret section. Or shows listed in the Comedy section but which are not straight stand-up shows.

Possibly more about this in tomorrow’s blog.

The other interesting factor is the rise of ‘free’ shows which are, in effect, indoor busking: you do not pay in advance; you pay whatever you want (or nothing) having seen the show.

The Free Fringe was started in Edinburgh by Peter Buckley Hill and spawned the Free Festival (which, depending on your viewpoint, is either a competitor of or complementary to the Free Fringe)… Then, this year, Bob Slayer’s ‘Pay What You Want’ shows started within the Free Festival. These followed the same ‘pay-on-exit’ model, but also allowed you to buy tickets in advance which guarantee a seat. I understand other promoters are looking at using the same model at next year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

Peter Buckley Hill’s ‘free’ model has also spread to London and elsewhere.

Lewis Schaffer has been performing regular twice-a-week (sometimes even more) comedy shows in London since 2009 and has, this year, also been performing a successful weekly ‘pay’ show in London. – well, it keeps getting extended, so it must be successful although Lewis Schaffer eschews success. He has also successfully toured his Free Until Famous show around several English arts centres as a free-to-enter show. And, last night, I went to Nelly Scott/Zuma Puma’s weekly Lost Cabaret club in Stockwell, which is one of several venues running the free model.

Again, possibly more about this in tomorrow’s blog.

This week, though, there has been some trouble in paradise and aggro in the ‘free comedy’ movement.

Five of the PBH Free Fringe’s regular performers wrote a letter to PBH – Peter Buckley Hill – saying, among other things:

We wanted to express our increasing concern about the workload that an expanding free fringe is placing on your shoulders.  Many times you have expressed the desire to step aside and allow the team to take over more responsibility leaving you more time to perform and enjoy the fringe.  Plus, it is no longer feasible to continue without a contingency plan in place should you for any reason be unable to take your customary leading role in the Fringe. Crucially, so much knowledge and information resides with you alone that a failure to disseminate this more widely and plan for your potential absence would in all likelihood lead to the whole organisation fragmenting.

Peter Buckley Hill’s reaction in an open letter (well, e-mail) to Free Fringe participants was:

I am not going to be pushed aside to become a figurehead.  There will be no committee except of people who have proven themselves by undertaking a major responsibility and seeing it through to the end, such as the section Artistic Directors.  There was a proto-committee in 2012/13.  It collapsed and I had to pick up the work myself.  You don’t get to set policy until you have proved your worthiness by doing a job.

Rather than have people trying to take over and change the principles, I will cancel the whole event and wind up the Free Fringe Ltd.  Anybody attempting to start their own organisation will do so from scratch, with their own money, as I had to all those years ago.  You can’t use my name or initials without my consent. The logo belongs to The Free Fringe Ltd, as does all the PA and all the money in the bank.

I presume the people behind this ultimatum will now want to form their own organisation and start charging for membership so they can pay themselves for their own work, just as they propose in the ultimatum.  And in order to do that they’ll capture as many Free Fringe venues as they can.

If I consider it worthwhile, I may decide to continue the Free Fringe with the venues that are left to us.  But I do not have to.  I have put in more money, time and stress than the signatories of this ultimatum can imagine. They’ve never organised the Free Fringe and don’t know the details, and yet they already think they can do it better.  I’ll carry on if there’s support for the real principles of the Free Fringe. Venues may be difficult, as I already said they would be.  If there is insufficient support, then I shall wind the Company up.

I have written a brief paper detailing the things that must not happen to the Free Fringe, and attach it.  If any of these things happen, they would change the whole principle of the Free Fringe. Therefore they will not, no matter how many people think otherwise.

Some things about the Free Fringe ethos are negotiable; some are not.

What are the things that must not happen?

– No payments to venues

– No sponsorship

– No charges to performers

– No performers to be paid for the services they give to the Free Fringe

– No performer to be a customer and demand rights in that capacity

– All performers to contribute to the collective according to their abilities.

This list is not exhaustive. It merely represents the difference between slight negotiable changes and fundamental changes. The Free Fringe may evolve, but if it violates these principles it might as well die.

13 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Edinburgh, UK

13 responses to “Free Fringe in Edinburgh to be ended?

  1. Sounds like Buckley-Hill is using emotional blackmail to try and cling to his throne: “Do as I say (but not as I do) or else all will vanish including the money.”

    Can hardly say I’m surprised: following the appalling way I was treated by him prior to this years Fringe it’s quite clear that, whilst the man has delusions of grandeur, he also might feel a teeny-weeny bit threatened by a woman muso who knows a bit more than ‘just a few chords’. His email to me would support any accusation that he’s bonkers, as well as being a bit of a bully.

    He threatened all sorts of nastiness would happen to me if I published a blog about what happened. But this was just another Buckley Hill hot air moment. I did publish but he remained silent. All bark and no bite.

    • My personal view is this a someone at the centre of this debacle.
      The letter was never meant to be public and without any consultation with us the tirade was delivered without our knowledge or warning. The letter came from the heart and was genuine in its intent to help. We represent most the core of the FF workers and as such believe we were justified in voicing the concerns which are many peoples lips. When asked if anything was negotiable he said that zero discussion will be had about any of the concerns and proposals. Doesn’t sound much like a benevolent free thinking socialist collective to me.

      Yes we will always be grateful for his massive contribution and tireless hard work. I for one will never forget that.

      If he can do this to those who have worked hardest for him and those who are closest to him… then what hope is there for any one else.

      All this said however, there is one thing which has to be stopped. Sending emails to people calling them Cunts, blacklisting people for minor errors and dictating who we can and cant talk to is unacceptable and is brutal bullying which must be sanctioned. Its time to stand up and stop excusing outrageous and manipulative behavior as eccentricity! I love Peter dearly, but cannot stand by and let this happen any more.

      • Thanks for your reply, jools. Such patterns of behaviour are very difficult to break and it gets more difficult as we get older.

        A ‘private and confidential’ email, threatening to sue me if I went public about being deliberately prevented from performing out of pure spite?! Who does the guy think he is?

        Another hurdle is PBH’s lack of understanding of social media and the way he comes across online. We’ve never met and I’m sure he’s a decent bloke in real life, but I steered well clear of him last August and did my own thing, largely – and ironically – at a PBH FF venue.

        I wrote a wee ditty about PBH’s email. Needs some work, still, but might go down well at Brighton LH Fringe…

  2. I think this is very sad. The PBH free fringe is brilliant, in fact it’s huge success is the problem-. I can see how PBH envisages a forum for anyone who wants to perform can peform, a d.i.y. imperative and he is fiecely protective of keeping it a fluid growing free thing. But this year some people experienced unworkable venues and however enthusiastic they were, they simply weren’t going to work for them. Maybe this was because of an ‘expand at all costs’ imperative. This is not a problem exclusive to this free fringe-I think there is room in Edinburgh for lots of different kinds of fringe and the existence of one does not mean the destruction or hostility of another. Extreme personalities can produce fantastic things that would not have been produced if they had not been extreme.

  3. However I think the PBH ff offered a lot more workable rooms than most. I wouldnt have wanted to play the YURT with the football in the background and a courtyard full of pissheads and only the sheer brilliance of Brian Higgins comedy transformed his nightmare LH venue into a triumph.

    This year more and more ‘big four’ type performers chose the PBHFF and did really well out of it.
    I have always been extremely lucky with my allocation of venue and so for me it has been great.

    The contribution thing towards the brochure- personally for me, time is money, and it is more effective for me to give a voluntary contribution than to spend hours ineffectively on the phone garnering advertising revenue. THe amount is so small compared to the necessary expenses of Edinburgh but for PBH it is a point of principle.The principle being you should be able to do the fringe without paying a penny and the smallest penny is the first step to damnation.

    It reminds me of my dog Clifford. He wants to play, he longs to share, but when the moment comes, he gets into a fight, and then he is in an agony of Cliffordness for which I have nothing but compassion.

    • I think the comments about the YURT are valid, but it’s worth pointing out that acts would of known ahead of arriving what the venue was, and could of said no to being in there. As far as I can see PBH places shows into to venues without any discussion about whether or not it is suitable for the show.

  4. I for one hope that the Free Fringe can continue. The letter was written as a way of opening discussion on bringing some fresh thinking to Free Fringe. Why would we not try to put forward some ideas, whether they are all good or not? The intention was in the right place and we are quite hurt by the way it has been pushed out into the public domain without contacting the signatories first. Putting aside any hurt this has caused, I fear he has made a spectacular own goal in doing this, especially with many of the accusations levelled towards us. I have worked extremely hard over the last several years designing brochures etc for the Free Fringe for FREE. I lose quite a lot of money in doing this work (as I have to turn down a lot of other design briefs to get it done). The workload has increased year on year and I’ve asked for more volunteers and more help, yet nothing gets done and more falls on the few each year with the unquenchable thirst for making each year bigger than the last. I have never asked Peter for money for this work and offered my services for gratis as in the spirit of the free movement. Coupled with all this, I wasn’t even allowed a simple timeslot/venue change this year when the two shows I was performing in we’re scheduled 45 minutes apart from each other. I didn’t ask out of some sense of entitlement, but because having two complex and very different shows that close together would have been very difficult, not least because of not being able to fulfil my door duty (as laid out in the FF conditions), flyering etc. This sadly proved correct and on top of all this, the second venue was virtually unworkable. There are many of these in Edinburgh during the Fringe and I don’t begrudge the fact that I was in one. I do mind the ignoring of a legitimate request though. But this kind of thing only happened because the volunteers who worked so hard to schedule shows were cast aside by Peter, putting a lot more pressure on himself. Saying all this, I’m proud of the work the Free Fringe does, I’m proud of my own involvement in its creative direction and I’m proud of the fact that despite everything this year I managed to make two very good shows happen and produce another, garnering four and five star reviews respectively. But I, like the other signatories in the letter recognised some of the issues this year and after trying to approach Peter independently of each other without getting a response, we decided that a group letter may actually get some feedback. This wasn’t quite the retort we expected and it’s a shame things have been blown out of all proportion. Onwards and upwards.

  5. Sad to hear this, it sounds like Pete really does need to call it a day and is in danger of destroying the wonderful festival he’s creating. My only contact with him matches what others have also described – he heckled us when we did an open night in a pub bar that had a PBH room upstairs for handing out our flyers for Laughing Horse venue – I actually thought he was a random drunk nutter untll someone noted he was the legendary sir PBH!

    I really think this opens up the opportunity of a consolidated Free Fringe, with Alex Petty @ Laughing Horse, who do offer a fairly priced model and good venue management, to take over venues and have one free festival to rule them all! LH has it’s own problems with limited promotions and more support necessary – I really think the only solution is to increase promotional subs, but the ‘egalitarian’ model of all supporting really (and sadly) doesn’t work at this scale with such diverse individuals who don’t have enough vested interest in the longterm success of the festival.

    • seanbrightman

      I disagree, one monopolistic free route is NOT the way forward. If, as you say, the LH has its problems now, how is growing it to be the only one going to help? And increasing subs won’t mend the structure. I think should Peter want to continue (or get others to do it with / for him), there is plenty of room for a PBH’s Free Fringe, as well as LH, as well as Heroes and there is probably room for more I’m sure. I think possibly that smaller, well run units, managing a select no. of venues is the way forward. Almost like a microbrewery approach to pay what you want shows.

  6. I agree too, once it is monopolistic it won’t be ‘free’ in spirit.

  7. I’m sympathetic to Sean, Jools and everyone that has worked with PBH over the years to end up being put in this position.

    I’ve felt for some time that Peter’s “my house, my rules” approach was over simple, when it came to running venues. I think he has a responsibility to performers who make sure they are in workable performance spaces. Also that shows can chose time slots, not every show is suited to a late night slot, or a daytime slot. After all it is artists money paying for the PBH branding, with fringe listings at £300 a quid and the print cost of posters and flyers required to carry the PBH logo.

    Whatever happens in the future, hopefully a decision a plan will need to be formulated quickly so as performers know whether or not they need to find a new venue for 2014 – as PBH frowns upon shows applying to both free venues.

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