Has the Edinburgh Free Fringe split apart again? Is it comedy Christianity?

I once had to write an encyclopaedia entry on Christianity in (as far as I remember) 23 lines. This was a nightmare. Almost as soon as it started, Christianity started to splinter apart into sects, sub-sects and competing sub-sub-sects.

Peter Buckley Hill started it all in Edinburgh

Peter Buckley Hill  started it all in Edinburgh

It is becoming a bit that way with the ‘free’ shows at the annual Edinburgh Fringe – which was, itself, an offshoot of the continuing Edinburgh International Festival.

In Fringe terms, a ‘free’ show is one at which the audience pays nothing to go in but can, if they like, donate money on the way out.

As far as organising free shows at the Edinburgh Fringe is concerned, first there was the Free Fringe conceived by Peter Buckley Hill (affectionately called PBH).

Then, splitting from that, was the Free Festival. So, for several years now, we have had the rival or complementary (depending on your viewpoint) PBH Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

This year, Bob Slayer’s Heroes of Fringe operation started promoting the idea of Pay What You Want shows where you can get free entry to shows or – to guarantee a seat – you can buy a £5 ticket in advance. Bob’s Heroes venues, though separate, amicably co-existed with the Free Festival and were listed in their programme.

Then, a couple of months ago, I blogged about what seemed to be a split within the Free Fringe. PBH’s reaction to his critics from within and what he perceived to be their ‘ultimatum’ was:

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… 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’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.

On Tuesday this week, unknown to me, Ian Fox – author of the book How To Produce, Perform and Write an Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Show – asked on the Facebook Comedy Forum:

What was the outcome of all the disagreement that John Fleming was writing about in October?

Peter Buckley Hill replied:

The important thing is that the Free Fringe has been accepting applications since November 1st and is going ahead at full strength, as if anybody would seriously doubt that, especially after the success of 2013. The ethos and conditions have not changed in principle.

and staunch Free Fringe supporter Kate Smurthwaite replied:

I don’t think there was an outcome. I don’t even know if anyone’s actually left (though of course many people leave and join the Free Fringe every year). And I’d hardly call it a disagreement. Free Fringe members are welcome to come and go and express opinions as they like. I don’t know why anyone bothers to write about it.

The Free Festival (not to be confused with the Freestival) broke away from the Free Fringe

The Laughing Horse Free Festival (not to be confused with the new Freestival) broke away from the original PBH Free Fringe

As of yesterday, though, the non-disagreement appears to have given birth to yet another free show operation currently possibly called the Freestival (not to be confused with the FreeFestival).

A single page website headed Project Free has appeared, following an e-mail yesterday which was not sent to me but which I have seen. It said:

You may have heard that there has been a problem within the ranks of PBH’s Free Fringe. It is true and we have been forced to start a new organisation and we would like you to be a part of it.

Briefly, PBH’s executive board, of which I was a member, collectively wrote a private email to him suggesting changes to improve the organisation. His response was to go public and call us all cunts and black list us. The Free Fringe is a collective where everyone is expected to chip in. In reality, it has been like a building site where there are 20 people standing around drinking tea watching one guy with a shovel. We are the people with the shovels. Our group includes the man who gets all the venues, the fund raisers, the brochure designer, the venue programmers etc. 

Having been forced out of the organisation we loved we decided to start a new one. We would like you to join us. We have most of the best central venues on Cowgate, Nidry St, Blair St and will have the Tron Kirk, the big church at the corner of the Royal Mile and North/South Bridge, as our main hub.

When I saw this e-mail, I asked Peter Buckley Hill if he would like to comment in a response which would be unedited by me.

He replied:

There can be no “rival Free Fringe organisation”; the name Free Fringe belongs to The Free Fringe Ltd.  Whatever any other organisations may wish to call themselves, they are not The Free Fringe.

Someone loyal to (but not a spokesperson for) the PBH Free Fringe (and NB not PBH himself) suggested to me that the breakaway group from the Free Fringe did not actually have agreement to use the venues.

The new Freestival or Project Free’s ‘Mission Statement’ includes these words:

The possible

New breakaway group’s ‘Mission Statement’

We operate an open door policy to all groups and performers. We are happy to have our performers appearing on other Fringe platforms… A non-refundable show registration fee of approximately £80 may be necessary, depending on sponsorship, to pay for equipment and professional services, such as advertising and marketing. Shows will be free to enter using a bucket and/or Paypal for donations with other possible advanced paid reservation options still under review…

Sponsorship and support from local companies will pay for a quality brochure print which is distributed to every house in Edinburgh and handed out at train stations and bus stations during the fringe. Acts will be able to advertise their own shows in the brochure. A dedicated communications officer and an efficiently managed, regularly updated social media presence will both be on hand to publicise your shows and further the brand. The brand will be extensively marketed around Edinburgh and in the press before and during the Festival. We are also investigating potential partnerships with external PR companies to get performers discounts on PR management and production.

The Festival Fringe is not part of the Edinburgh International Festival

Festival Fringe – not part of Edinburgh International Festival

Some of this seems a little ambitious for a free shows promoter but it does seem likely there will now be four organisations offering free shows at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe.

This morning, I woke up to a message from PBH – sent at 3.43am – saying:

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. We have responded to our members and applicants via our Facebook page.

This message was posted on the Free Fringe’s Facebook page overnight:

The Free Fringe, popularly known as PBH’s Free Fringe, remains the largest single entity at The Edinburgh Fringe and has so far had over 200 applications from performers for 2014. We have already secured our key venues for next year, including – despite what their email states – the Tron Kirk. Our committee and programming team are looking forward to 2014 and we are looking forward to some brilliant new venues, and performers joining

As should be expected with an organisation of our size, there are those within it who think it should be run differently. They are welcome to that view, and no-one has been barred from the organisation following the ultimatum sent to us by the breakaway group, despite what they claim. If people wish to leave and start their own organisation that again is not a problem, although of course we would expect them to find new venues of their own.

We live in interesting times.

That could either be a good thing, offering more choice to punters keen to see a wide variety of shows – or it could be a Chinese curse on already confused Fringe-goers.

* * * * *

Since posting this blog, someone has asked me if I have any connection with the PBH Free Fringe.

In the past I have staged other people’s shows under the PBH Free Fringe banner. The last was in 2010.

My own annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Shows were initially staged at the Gilded Balloon pay venue but, for the last few years, have been part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

My 2011 chat shows were part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

My 2013 chat shows came under Bob Slayer’s Heroes of Fringe outfit.

As I understand it, under PBH Free Fringe rules, because I have staged shows in the Laughing Horse Free Festival (and will do so again in 2014) I am banned from staging shows at the PBH Free Fringe.

4 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Edinburgh

4 responses to “Has the Edinburgh Free Fringe split apart again? Is it comedy Christianity?

  1. While it’s still unclear as to what is happening I welcome the fact there may be more choice for performers, and hope artists take full advantage of it and go up there with some new and interesting ideas in shows that have been worked on.

  2. Kate Soallreligiousareretards:

    “I don’t think there was an outcome. I don’t even know if anyone’s actually left (though of course many people leave and join the Free Fringe every year). And I’d hardly call it a disagreement. Free Fringe members are welcome to come and go and express opinions as they like. I don’t know why anyone bothers to write about it.”

    PBH’s Free Fringe website:

    “We do want your commitment, and we absolutely must have your full co-operation. Unless everybody works for each other and the team, the system doesn’t work.”

    Somebody explain doctrinal unity to the atheist

  3. Hi John, I think you’re only not supposed to apply to (or not allowed to apply to) PBH’s Free Fringe if you apply to Laughing Horse in the same year. You could apply to PBH’s Free Fringe and not to LH instead, though I’m sure there have been a few performers over the years who have got away with both!

  4. Mark

    well, I’ve done my fringe with the laughing horse, and i know as i have asked, that laughing horse don’t mind you applying to them and anybody else at all, and as far as i know its only PBH that tells performers they cant also apply elsewhere, out of any venue. i had no problems going to multiple paid venues previously with my show applications. even the fringe tell you that you should do all your appyling to many venues and pick the best one for your show. i vote for performer freedom and choice, rather than silliness and bureaucracy, and look forward to seeing what the freeeeeeeestival has to offer as another choice for everyone. then i might do my fringe with theeeeeem, or go back to the horsey again. or maybe the pleasance if someone is kind enough to pay for me.

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