Everyone ‘knows’ that the concept for the blossoming number of free shows at the Edinburgh Fringe first began in 1996 when Peter Buckley Hill (PBH) performed his show Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians without charging for entry. This developed into the PBH Free Fringe, which begat the Free Festival, Bob Slayer’s Heroes/Pay What You Want venues and, this year, the Freestival.
But I realised something a couple of days ago.
And in the audience at yesterday’s Grouchy Club show at the Edinburgh Fringe was Paul B.Edwards, artistic director of the PBH Free Fringe.
I said: “People claim that PBH was the first to perform free shows at the Fringe in 1996. But, in fact, the year before – 1995 – Malcolm Hardee publicised his yet-to-be-published autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake by doing free shows in Edinburgh.
“He didn’t want to pay for the hire of a venue, so he decided to perform the show in the flat he was renting. One of the other tenants in the block of flats was an ex-solicitor who said You can’t do this. You need an entertainment licence. You can’t put on a public performance to a paying audience in a private flat and have rowdy people going up and down our stairs. The guy went to the Council and was threatening legal action.
“So Malcolm said: OK. We won’t charge anyone to come in. We will let them in for free. We just won’t let them out unless they pay.”
And that is, indeed, what happened. The audiences were small – basically as many as could sit on the sofa and on a few chairs in the living room. And admittedly it was more of a hostage situation than the establishment of an altruistic philosophy of free shows. But I maintain that, in fact, the pioneer of the free show model at the Edinburgh Fringe was none other than the late lamented stuntmeister Malcolm Hardee.
I let people into the flat for those shows in 1995. The first thing they saw through an open door directly opposite them was Malcolm, naked in the bath, washing himself in preparation for the show.
“Oy! Oy! I’ll be with you in a minute! he said to greet them. And, when everyone was seated in the living room, he would come in and regale the assembled group with stories from his life. At what point – if any – he put on his clothes, I cannot remember.
“Well,” said the Free Fringe’s Paul B.Edwards at the Grouchy Club yesterday, “I was in the venue with Peter Buckley Hill in 1996 when he started his show… and his show was not free. It was at the Footlights and Firkin pub and all the shows there were £5. Peter’s was the last show of the day and no-one was coming along. So, after the first week, Peter said: Fuck this. I’m going to make it free, just to get people in. That’s how it started.
“Peter has never pretended he didn’t have a ticketed show to start with. He just says he started the free model. The reason he did it was the tickets were not working. In 1996, £5 was a lot of money to go and see a show by someone you had never heard of.”
Getting people into shows in Edinburgh is difficult.
Handing out flyers is seen as vital.
After yesterday’s Grouchy Club show, I had tea with Irish comic Christian Talbot,
“My daughter Kate is my secret flyering weapon,” he told me. “She’s twelve years old and she’s brilliant.
“I have her wandering around outside my venue looking all sad and she goes up to strangers and says Have you seen my daddy? and people tell her No, no. Sorry, love.
“And she says: Well, you should, because Kate Copstick says he’s an ‘engaging performer’ and then she whips out a flyer and gives it to them.
“She’s brilliant. Next year, I’m going to bring her to Edinburgh and have her actually in my show just to get sympathy. She’s going to come on stage and say: I need shoes.”