Category Archives: Festivals

How the longest-running comedy festival got started almost by accident

Geoff Rowe - Leicester Comedy Festival

Geoff Rowe BEM with the 1994 and 2017 brochures

“So. It’s the longest running comedy festival in the world?” I asked.

“In Europe, is what we claim.”

“But almost certainly in the world?” I asked.

Geoff Rowe shrugged: “Probably.”

In 2013, he was awarded the British Empire Medal “for services to comedy”.

“So why did you start it when you were 22?” I asked.

“I came to Leicester to study for a degree in Arts Management at De Montfort University and, in our final year, we had to do a practical project. So, in the summer of 1993, our group sat around in the students’ union and we all read NME and, in 1993, NME put Newman and Baddiel on the front cover. I think that was the first time a non-musician had been on the front cover.”

“That was their Wembley concert?” I asked.

“Yes, their Wembley gigs,” said Geoff. “So somebody in our group – it wasn’t me – said: Why don’t we do a comedy festival? It sounded better than the other option: an Eastern European theatre festival.”

And that is how the Leicester Comedy Festival started in 1994.

“I had a house in Leicester,” Geoff explained, “to stay in over the summer and I knew two people who worked in comedy in London, rang them up and said: Tell me everything I need to know about comedy. I had seen comedy, but never booked it, never produced or promoted it. (He promoted his first concert, aged 13, in the local village hall.) Then, when my group came back from summer holidays, I had got the bones of the festival sorted. I had spoken to some agents and so on.

The first Festival programme with Tony Slattery (left) and Norman Wisdom

The very first Festival brochure in 1994 with Tony Slattery (left) and Norman Wisdom

“So we did the festival in 1994 and it worked quite well. Then I graduated and had no overwhelming desire to stay in Leicester but, equally, I didn’t move back to London again. So, with two university friends, I decided to do it again because it was great fun. There was quite a lot of support for it locally. Even in those days, the venues loved it.

“I kept doing it for about 7 or 8 years and it was the best fun I’ve ever had. It was great. There was no idea it would keep going but, every February, we invited comedians up, we messed around, we got drunk, had fun and it was fantastic.”

“Why February?” I asked. “Surely, after Christmas, no-one has any money?”

“Because we originally did it as part of our degree course and, afterwards, we had to write a report on what we had learned from the experience. So we worked back from the date we had to hand our report in and it was February. But, actually, it is a good time of year because, nationally, there is not much else happening for the media to notice. Also, venues earn loads of money in December and, if the end of your financial year is the end of March, which it mostly is, you get quite a lot of money in December and can then get another load in February.”

“I thought maybe the public had no money left in February,” I said.

“Well, we do sell 70% of our tickets after 25th January because no-one has any money until pay day in January. 100,000 people came last year, a third of them from outside Leicestershire. It’s worth £3 million to the local economy every year.”

“So lots of money to be made,” I suggested.

Geoff Rowe - Leicester Comedy Festival

Geoff amid piles of new brochures ready for 2017

“People,” laughed Geoff, “used to describe it as my hobby, because I wasn’t earning any money out of it. I was earning money working in bars and in restaurants.”

“For around 7 or 8 years?” I asked.

“Yes. Then I thought: Maybe this is something that’s going to survive a bit longer and maybe there needs to be some proper organisation behind it. At that time, there was no regular staff, no regular office. Now Big Difference employs seven people all year round and then it needs more people to handle 800 shows in 19 days.”

“And no sponsorship,” I said, “until the TV channel Dave came on board.”

“We got some sponsorship locally.”

“Local restaurants?”

“That kind of thing. Nothing serious.”

“Sponsorship as in ads?”

“Yeah. And a bit of cash from the City Council. They’ve always been very supportive. For years, Leicester was never on the map. It has changed slightly because of Richard III and the football.”

“Has Richard III had an effect?” I asked.

“A huge effect on Leicester. That and the football,”

Richard III - a great promoter of comedy in Leicester

Richard III – a great local comedy promoter

In 2012, Richard III’s remains were found buried under a car park in Leicester and, in 2015, reburied with pomp and ceremony in Leicester Cathedral. Also in 2015, underdogs Leicester City Football Club (at one time the betting was 5,000 to 1) won the Premier League Championship.

“Leicester,” said Geoff, “was not seen as being groovy. Leeds, Brighton, Manchester were. We were under the radar for quite a long time. So getting sponsorship things was difficult for a long time. If we talked to national brands, they would say: No, if we want to do a campaign, we’ll go to Manchester or somewhere else. 

But then, five years ago, I met Steve North, the channel manager at Dave, and it was absolutely fantastic.”

“And now,” I said, “you have lost them as sponsors…”

“They’re still a sponsor of the festival,” Geoff corrected me, “but not a title sponsor. They’ve reduced their investment. When we started working with them, they did one or two shows each year. Now they are commissioning about 15 shows a year. So they need to spend their marketing money supporting their programmes.”

“And,” I asked, “you are looking for a more titley sponsor?”

“We are for 2018.”

“One of the Big Four Edinburgh Fringe venues – the Gilded Balloon,” I said, “tried Leicester but only for one year.”

“Yes,” said Geoff. “2011. That is one of the reasons why we now run for 19 days. When Karen Koren (who runs the Gilded Balloon) came, we were 10 days. There was really bad snow that year. So 50% of her programme – 5 days – were killed because the weather was atrocious. Karen said to me: If you want this to work and other people to come, you need to make the festival longer so if, in February, there is shit weather, if you have 19 days, it only knackers a third rather than half of your programme. So now we are 19 days. I was slightly nervous about making it so long, but it works better.”

“There are quite a few other comedy festivals around,” I prompted.

“But,” said Geoff, “the model for comedy festivals is often that either management companies or agents or club promoters start them. We don’t promote a regular club; we don’t manage or agent acts. And that makes us independent and we just focus on the festival.”

“And now Leicester has a bigger profile because of Richard III and the football?”

In the first Programme in 1994, De Montfort Students’ Union managed to mis-spell Stewart Lee’s name

In the first brochure in 1994, De Montfort Students’ Union managed to mis-spell comedian Stewart Lee’s name

“Yes. Leicester has changed massively and that has helped. People don’t ask where it is any more. When I started to book acts, at the very end of the conversation, people would say: Can you tell me – where exactly IS Leicester? Somebody told me the Brighton Comedy Festival would succeed and Leicester would fail because, they said: Brighton is just over an hour from London. And I pointed out: So is Leicester.”

“Why,” I asked, “have you lasted so long?”

The Leicester Comedy Festival brochure 2017

Next year’s 156-page Comedy Festival brochure

“Well,” said Geoff, “Big Difference Co Ltd is a registered charity and produces Leicester Comedy Festival. My motivation was never to make money. I want to create a really good festival: a vibrant, exciting festival that sustains itself. I’m serious. It sustains comedians; it helps develop them; it helps the local economy; it’s a good thing in itself, as opposed to some other festivals which are just purely about making money. Joking aside, we HAVE survived for 24 years and no other comedy festival in the UK has. Edinburgh is a general arts festival not a comedy festival. And I think we have survived because of the ethos we have had. If we were just going after money, I don’t think we would have survived so long.”

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Cunning Stunt obsessed comic steals all three Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards

Adam Taffler at the Grouchy Club

Adam Taffler – Grouchy Club last year

And so the insanity has begun.

The Edinburgh Fringe has started.

Three-and-a-half weeks when anarchy is the norm.

Yesterday, it turned out that both the Grouchy Club and comedian Paul Kerenza’s show are booked into the same room at the Counting House 3.45-4.45pm on 14th August. So – as it does not affect us as much – and because we are so sweet – Kate Copstick and my Grouchy Club chat shows will now start on the 15th August not the 14th.

Performing at the Fringe is like a needle in a haystack trying to get noticed in the Amazonian Jungle. The haystack may stand out when you see it, but the Amazon is a big place. And, even after you find the haystack, you still have to find the needle.

Paul Ricketts who, in this blog two weeks ago, mentioned he was organising a comedy show in a toilet, tells me he now has several comedians interested but still has no confirmed (or maybe that should be engaged) venue:

Ceci n'est pas une affiche Édimbourg

Women wanted for stand-up urinal comedy

“There’s interest in the show,” he says, “and it’s been nominated on the Sell This Gig Out! Facebook page, even though it’s impossible to sell-out a show when no-one knows what day or in which toilet it will be held. But there is already standing room only. And I would also like to reach out to women comics to get involved and break down this last bastion of male oppression. If any ladies want you to do stand-up comedy in a Gents, they can contact me via the event page on Facebook.“

Paul helpfully sent me a link to the YouTube video of his last toilet exploits.

Twonkey this is a “haunting photo

Twonkey says this “haunting photo” is from a final rehearsal of Twonkey’s Stinking Bishop

Meanwhile the inexplicable Mr Twonkey sent me an inexplicable photo of what he claims was the final rehearsal for his show Twonkey’s Stinking Bishop.

And the unavoidable Lewis Schaffer, appearing in his first play since his schooldays, sent me a message: “I’m super busy trying to remember my lines so I don’t destroy Giant Leap the play I am in AND also I am thinking about the funny stuff I need to say at my own show Lewis Schaffer is Free until Famous, £5.”

Lewis Schaffer is never knowingly under-sold.

Which brings us to the core of this blog.

Lewis Schaffer (extreme right) in rehearsal for the Giant Leap

Lewis Schaffer (extreme right) in rehearsal for the Giant Leap

As I – perhaps foolishly – decided this year to come up to Edinburgh on an overnight coach rather than by car, I – perhaps foolishly – left the three increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards with performer Juliette Burton. She promised to deliver them to me later today – she is driving up from London to Edinburgh today. At least, that is what she claimed.

Juliette has always shown an obsessive, possibly unhealthy interest in the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award.

Now, this morning, I have received an e-mail from her with photos attached and a link to an 8-second online video. The photos are of a letter she has written to me. It says:


Dear John

Ransom letter, page 1

Ransom letter, page 1

As you know you gave me your awards. Thankyou for trusting me/falling prey to my masterplan. 

I’ve wanted to get my hands on these awards FOR YEARS! Now I have them I thought about not letting them go. I thought about holding them to ransom (because, let’s face it, that’s the only way anyone performing at EdFringe will make any money, right). 

But I’m keen to challenge mental health stigma and misconceptions about people like me, a known nutcase, so I thought the image of “crazed mad person holding awards for ransom; psycho lunatic threatens Fleming” may not help that cause… 

Ransom letter, page 2

Ransom letter, page 2

So instead I thought I’d permanent-mark my name on all 3. But my own plan was foiled… I awoke today, ready to head to Edinburgh with the awards, with permanent marker in hand… only to find the attached security camera footage. And 3 empty boxes.

Your awards seem to have escaped.

If you want to see your 3 empty boxes again, please send me £1,000,000,000,000 … in Scottish notes. 

Ransom letter, page 3

Ransom letter, page 3

With that, I might break even this festival.

Yours,

Juliette.

PS No, I don’t know why I wrote this and then emailed you the picture of it rather than just type it in an email… Artistic? Old fashioned? Crazy?


This is the 8-second video she linked to.

Juliette is fast catching up with Lewis Schaffer in the self-promotion stakes.

Juliette Burton with Russian Egg Roulette medal

Juliette proudly displays 2014 Russian Egg Roulette medal

She is also appearing in the official Scottish National Russian Egg Roulette Championship at the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show on 28th August. At least, she thinks she is. She will learn I am not a man to mess with.

But, even if I ban her from that, she is still up at the Fringe performing her Look At Me show (6 performances only) AND her Happy Hour show (9 performances) AND is appearing in the tenth anniversary Abnormally Funny People shows.

Look At Me - Fringe 2015

Happy Hour - Fringe 2015

Inevitably – this being the Fringe – entirely separate from Juliette, last night I was sent a link to the new Abnormally Funny People video.

And now I have very slight toothache.

Fairly regular – every third year or so – I get toothache in Edinburgh and have to get dental treatment.

Welcome to the Fringe. Share my pain.

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What is it like to direct the Edinburgh Fringe and the City of London Festival?

Paul Gudgin in London yesterday

Paul Gudgin talked yesterday

The Edinburgh Fringe Programme is published in two days time.

Paul Gudgin, former boss of the Edinburgh Fringe, got in touch with me last week to publicise the City of London Festival, which he now runs.

But, when we met yesterday, inevitably, the subject of the Edinburgh Fringe’s increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards came up.

“There aren’t many other comedians,” suggested Paul, “for whom the idea of setting up an award in their honour would gain traction.

“I once made a proposal to a couple of people who were interested in doing a book about the 10 or 20 people who ‘made the Edinburgh Fringe’. Obviously, people like Ricky DeMarco, Nica Burns, Bill Burdett-Coutts, Christopher Richardson but then I thought, actually, Malcolm Hardee too. There are certain key individuals who left an indelible mark on Edinburgh.”

“More like a few suspicious stains in Malcolm’s case,” I suggested.

The bare image promoting the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards

Malcolm Hardee had substance or left stains?

“But on the comedy side of the Fringe,” said Paul, “he was one of the significant characters. It was that period from the early 1980s when comedy took hold and took off at the Fringe. At that time, a lot of the theatre was quite political and had a purpose and then you had someone like Malcolm Hardee fooling around, but there was some substance behind that too.”

“What was the substance?” I asked.

“I think whatever was on sale,” said Paul.

“He did epitomise the spirit of the Fringe,” I agreed, “in the sense that the spirit of the Fringe is that it is intentionally not organised. You were Director of the Edinburgh Fringe for eight years (1999-2007).”

“Yes,” said Paul. “That job title – Director – was strange, because you direct very little. In a way, the art of running the Fringe is having a seam of competence running under the general nonsense.

“It is anarchic up to the point when people want to receive their cheques. Then everyone expects it to be throughly professional. The job, really, is just about enabling. You try to maintain an equilibrium between what the city wants and what the performers and venues want.

The Royal Mile during Edinburgh Fringe, 2008

High Street in the Royal Mile during Edinburgh Fringe, 2008

“A lot of my time was taken up with disputes and complications between venues and performers particularly as the venues became more sophisticated and more commercially challenging.”

“What does ‘commercially challenging’ mean?” I asked.

“It was getting harder and harder to run venues in Edinburgh,” explained Paul, “because the people who own the properties – the Council and the University and other property owners – wanted more and more money.

“There is a slight temptation to demonise the big venues, but they have two major pressures – they are being squeezed by their landlords and they have all built up quite considerable infrastructures which need to be paid for. Also they have no security of tenure.

“It is one of the challenges we have here in London as well. When you try to put on a festival in a place where real estate values are soaring, it is going to affect you.”

“The collateral damage,” I suggested, “is that, because Edinburgh performers see themselves as getting ripped-off by the big pay venues (not the free venues) the Fringe Office is seen as ripping them off too.”

“The Fringe Society,” said Paul, “is a much steadier ship, because it doesn’t have the level of risk which the venues do, but it’s by no means wealthy.”

Paul Gudgin outside St Paul’s Cathedral

Paul Gudgin – now in the City of London

Paul started his career at the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk – “It was both a concert hall and a festival,” he told me.

Then he ran the Bury St Edmunds Festival – “It was mainly the festival,” he says, “but I was involved in running a couple of civic venues as well.”

Then, 1995-1999, he ran The Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh which, every August, runs events as part of the official Edinburgh International Festival.

Then he became Director of the Edinburgh Fringe for eight years, then four years as an independent consultant and now – since last August – he is Director of the City of London Festival.

“Why did you leave the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t say I got bored with it at all. If you’re bored of the Fringe, you’re bored of life. But I do genuinely believe that, with festivals, you have a shelf life. It’s all about energy and ideas and there comes a point where a new person should take over.”

“So why London now?” I asked.

The Gherkin  - 30 St Mary Axe, London

City of London – old and new

“All the good festivals I’ve ever been to,” Paul explained, “are characterised by the fact that the city is pretty much the star of the show. That’s certainly the case with Edinburgh. There are now 90 Fringe festivals around the world. Adelaide is fantastic and Amsterdam is a really good little Fringe. But I’ve been to a few others – no names – where, even though you have those same principles and some good shows, somehow the place doesn’t work in the way Edinburgh does.

“The City of London is a really interesting place, because virtually no-one lives here but 350,000 people descend on it during the day and you have these amazing buildings and spaces. On the one hand it’s this massive world financial centre and, on the other, it has extraordinary history and heritage. So there are a lot of interesting contradictions and I thought that was an interesting starting place for a festival.”

“Surely,” I said, “the City of London’s image is that it is dull and filled with non-arty people who are not anarchic and anarchy not conventionality is a good thing for creativity.”

(Note to non-UK readers of this blog, The City of London is not the same as the city of London. The City of London is the one square mile original city of London which is administratively separate from the rest of London. Now read on, confused…)

“The City of London,” I said, “is a staid city full of staid people.”

“But,” argued Paul, “in a way, that description might have been used of Edinburgh about 40 or 50 years ago. Edinburgh was seen as being very formal and stuffy and Glasgow was the place where things happened. In some ways, the Edinburgh Festival helped change that narrative. And, if ever there’s a place in the UK that needs a bit of a different narrative at the moment, it’s the City of London.”

“So you want to make the City of London Festival less stuffy?” I asked.

The City programme - over 250 live events

Paul’s programme – over 250 live events from 22 June

“Broader, definitely,” said Paul. “When I was a young music student, I used to come for lessons at the Guildhall and, since then, there have been massive changes in the City. There is a night time economy now. When I used to come, you couldn’t get a drink or a restaurant past 7.00pm. It’s a much younger and more diverse place now than it was years ago and I think the Festival programme has to reflect that.

“My predecessor’s major passion was classical music, particularly contemporary classical music. And there was quite a bit of dance and they did some wonderful installations. But most of the programme was classical music.

“We have still retained that music because, if you have St Paul’s Cathedral and all these amazing churches and livery halls…”

“But now you also have a new comedy section,” I said.

“Yes,” said Paul. “the festival hasn’t particularly had comedy before. I think if you put someone like Andy Zaltzman inside a large inflatable bowler hat shaped venue, it may get a bit of attention.

The City of London Festival’s new inflatable bowler hat venue

The City of London Festival’s new inflatable bowler hat venue

“We have all these beautiful venues – churches, livery halls – but they’re firstly mostly very formal and secondly hidden away. Stationers’ Hall is stunning – absolutely stunning – but no-one knows it’s there. And, while it’s nice for people to discover venues, you also need people to know you are actually happening.”

The large inflatable bowler hat venue is a symbol of the re-energised 52-year old City of London Festival.

“Is your target comedy audience,” I asked, “the people who go to comedy clubs in the West End?”

“Well,” said Paul, “we do have to get the London comedy audience coming into the City, but what I really want is a sense that, when it’s festival time, groups of people who work together in offices in the City will say Let’s go and have a drink, have a bite to eat and take in some comedy at the festival – in the same way non-tourists do in Edinburgh, where it becomes a big part of the social calendar. I’d love to see people coming out of their offices, walking down to Paternoster Square and taking in a bit of comedy.”

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Edinburgh and Vancouver – where people are strippers AND comedians

Vancouver’s Folk Festival before the Great Hula Hoop Robbery

Vancouver’s placid Folk Festival before the Great Hula Hoop Robbery of 2013

I am driving up from London to Edinburgh today.

Being at the Edinburgh Fringe for what amounts to four weeks can be like living inside a rather noisy and crowded bubble. But, if you think it’s noisy and crowded in Edinburgh, think what it’s like in Vancouver.

Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent e-mailed me before I set off for Edinburgh at 6.00am this morning.

“Last night,” she told me, “only 200,000 people showed up for the annual fireworks show in Vancouver…. 400,000 had been expected and the Vancouver Police Department had issued a radio advisory that vast numbers of people were going to be performing public urination. I saw no evidence of that at all and the streets smelled normal this morning.

“Vancouver is awash with festivals at this time of year – There’s the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, the International Buddhist Film Festival, the Powell Street Festival (of Japanese Culture), a Brazilian Festival, at least two Latin American Festivals, a Caribbean Festival and Gay Pride Week.

“For the last, a rainbow version of the Canadian Flag is flown merrily on flagpoles all over downtown, all the major Canadian banks have rainbow-coloured feather boas and ribbons fluttering everywhere and a zebra crossing on Davie Street has evolved into a rainbow crossing.”

Anna has been working at one of the festivals – the Folk Festival.

“I was a receptionist in the massage tent,” she told me, “booking massages for the artists. I recognised one of them from his name tag – one of Canada’s top violinists whom I had known thirty years ago, when I was a striptease artist in Toronto.

“I greeted him with the words: Holy shit…It’s Ben Mink! and he was so surprised to see me he immediately telephoned a recluse we both knew in Ontario so I could say Hi

Complementary cucumbers were the order of the day

Complementary cucumbers were on display

“Later during the festival I had a conversation with Marie Lynn Hammond, who cleverly realised that I was ‘Nurse Annie’ – one of the characters I performed as, in striptease AND comedy.”

Yes, Anna was both a striptease artist AND a comedian – so it was not/is not just Malcolm Hardee, Martin Soan and Bob Slayer who combine the two vocations.

Anna continued: “Marie Lynn Hammond’s bass player Dennis Nichol asked me: You are Nurse Annie?? Can I have your autograph?

“I thought he was joking, but he insisted. I was flabbergasted. Nobody has asked for my autograph for the last thirty years – except for building managers wanting it on my rent cheque.

“We had a conversation about the good old days before cassette tapes were invented and strippers had to dance to live music. It turned out that he had once played at the Zanzibar Circus Tavern on Yonge Street in Toronto, which is the first place I danced professionally.

“The only sad thing that happened during the festival was a public announcement that there had been a theft of hula hoops and juggling balls…. WOULD THE THIEF PLEASE RETURN THE HULA HOOPS AND JUGGLING BALLS the plaintive announcement said.

“I thought,” Anna told me, “that perhaps the spirit of Malcolm Hardee was roaming the forests and mountains.”

But no.

With luck, though, it will be roaming the venues, streets and pubs of Edinburgh over the next four weeks.

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Juliette Burton on what it’s like to sing at Scotland’s T in The Park rock festival

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

Comedy performer turned rock chick Juliette

Comedy performer turned rock chick Juliette

The annual T in The Park is Scotland’s equivalent of the Glastonbury music festival.

This year, the acts included Snoop Dogg, Paloma Faith, Killers, Mumford & Sons, The Proclaimers, Dizzee Rascal, Stereophonics, Travis and comedy performer Juliette Burton, who is staging a show at the Edinburgh Fringe titled When I Grow Up.

In it, she recounts how, this year, she tried to be all the things she dreamt of being when she was a child – including a baker, an artist, a Muppet and a pop star.

Performing yesterday at T in The Park was her “research” for being a rock star. She sang one song – Dreamers (When I Grow Up) – which is on sale for charity now and online as a music video later this week.

“What was it like yesterday?” I asked her.

“Unusually,” she told me, “there was no rain. But it got so dusty I am still sneezing dried mud out of my nose. I thought I had got a tan but when I had a shower this morning I realised it was just dust.”

“I’ve been to Glastonbury a few times,” I said, “but never to T in The Park. It’s much the same I imagine?”

Juliette about to go on stage

Juliette about to go on stage

“Well,” said Juliette, “there were the obligatory sightings of men and women peeing in public. That was expected. But there was an unusual fashion I hadn’t realised existed where young women wear hot pants cut so high that their bottoms hang out. I played ‘spot the arse’ which was a fun game. Sometimes it wasn’t bare cheeks I spotted but arses of a different kind – young men. I learned a lot about how to spot people on different types of recreational drugs.

“Then there were the tanked-up teens who decided to play volleyball in the middle of the crowd dressed as Monty Python-esque characters. There were some other excellent costumes around: the panto horse, the superheroes, the men dressed as bananas and a guy with a hoodie that just said CUNT on it. I was not sure whether he was advertising it or wanted to find some or he just wanted to let people know he was one.”

“So it was a different audience to the normal comedy show audience you’re used to?” I asked.

“Yes,” agreed Juliette. “Normally my audience keep their shirts on. There are usually far fewer nipples on display at a comedy show.”

“Were you more nervous?” I asked.

“I was trying to cope with the nerves by not thinking about it until it happened,” replied Juliette. “Which is a great coping strategy… until it happens. Before going on stage I was more of a bundle of nerves than I’ve been in a long while. I felt physically sick. I was worried I’d not be able to pogo in the shoes I’d chosen, worried I’d forget the words and worried about being bottled by the crowd.”

“So it was much scarier?” I asked.

Juliette on screen and on stage yesterday

Juliette on screen and (tiny on the right) on stage yesterday

“Terrifying,” said Juliette. “My comedy isn’t stand-up exactly – and stand-up is terrifying for much the same reason as T in the Park was terrifying – the crowd. But a comedy crowd – especially during the Edinburgh Fringe – comes to see a show because they love comedy. They want to watch a show you’ve put your heart and soul into creating.

“The crowd at yesterday’s T in the Park gig was not there to appreciate the fact I wrote a pop song to realise my childhood dream of being a pop star. They were there for the beer. They were mainly men, already pissed and enjoying themselves.

“I’ve never taken drugs – because I’ve already had a psychosis and nowadays I like to get my highs from laughter. So some of the young men may have also been on something else. It was a music a music festival after all. I don’t know about that. But I do know they were loud and a little aggressive. And they just wanted more beer.

“Even the compere of the show said they were the toughest crowd they’d ever had and the crowd was terrifying because they weren’t listening. So seeing that crowd before I went on was absolutely the scariest thing. I mean, what if they bottled me? Or chucked pints of pee at me?”

“So how did it go?” I asked.

Juliette fending off marriage proposals yesterday

Juliette had to fend off marriage proposals from front row

“Actually,” said Juliette, “it was frickin’ awesome. I owe a lot of that to the amazing comperes – Ben and Rufus. They introduced me in a way that meant the crowd (even that crowd) would warm to me – We want you to go crazy for this lady. Imagine she’s Rhianna and Beyoncé’s love child! – and they said they’d give free beer to my biggest fans…

“So, with that sort of introduction and bribery, I was lucky. Some of those guys, though, took the biggest fan thing really seriously. I got proposed to mid-song by two of the guys in the front row.

“I was told by the lovely team backstage that another thing in my favour was the fact most of the guys in the audience were ‘laaaaaads’ who, when they see a woman, just revert to Animal mode. And that’s Animal from The Muppets. They just end up shouting WOMAN! WOMAN! in their minds. The fact I wore a sparkly dress also meant they were distracted by something shiny.

“So lots of different tactics meant I didn’t get bottled. If they had been preparing pints of warm liquid excreted from their bodies especially for me, they kept them reserved for another band later on – maybe The Killers or David Guetta… I hope it was the latter because The Killers were fantastic.”

“And afterwards,” I asked, “you felt what?”

Not everyone in the audience was a lad

It looks like not everyone in the audience yesterday was a lad

“I imagine,” replied Juliette, “that will be how it is for the first performance of my actual show at the Fringe in the Gilded Balloon – terror and then fun. That’s why performing is amazing – it’s real life. A mix of the best and the worst. Maybe the preview reviewers might get their nipples out too… I don’t know.

“After the show yesterday I was so high – on life, not whatever those guys in the front row had been taking. I wanted to do it all again. I don’t know… Maybe I will get the chance again one day.

Juliette foregrounded by either arms or legs

Juliette foregrounded by either arms or legs

“Emotionally, my inner tweenager was overjoyed – I’d just realised a childhood ambition. All those days I had dreamed of singing a song to adoring fans, wearing a cool dress; all those days I had fantasised about it in my bedroom at home and drew little pictures of myself performing on stage – putting those pictures in a little homemade magazine inspired by such intellectual publications as Bliss magazine – I was NOT a cool little girl.

“And then finally, yesterday, I had realised that little uncool girl’s dream. It felt brilliant. But not as good as I imagine the first show at the Fringe will feel – That has been fewer years gestating but I think I care about it in the long term far more.”

“How does yesterday fit into your Fringe show?” I asked.

Juliette is torn between Gonzo and Jimmy Carr

Juliette wants to recreate T in the Park orgasm

“The pop star section is at the end of the show,” explained Juliette, “and there will be proof of all that I’ve done in all this mad research on video and in photo form throughout the show on a Powerpoint. I don’t want to give too much away, but the pop star bit is a big climax of the show. Much like the orgasm I had walking off stage at T in the Park yesterday. It’s meant to be euphoric, life-affirming and uplifting.

“What did you think when you woke up this morning?” I asked.

Did that really happen?” said Juliette. “Followed, right now as I’m talking to you, by thinking: Seriously – anything can happen. We can make anything happen if we want it to – and if we work hard enough for it.

“Did you video yesterday’s performance for YouTube?

“Yes, some kind fellow performers filmed it for me. And I did a little introduction to camera afterwards to explain it. I’ll be editing that in the next day or two and get it online. And, if I can do a plug…”

“Yes you can,” I said.

The downloadable Dreamers song

Downloadable Dreamers from iTunes, Spotify & Amazon

“Anyone can buy the song I performed yesterday from iTunes, Spotify and Amazon – Just search for Dreamers (When I Grow Up).

“All the money raised until the end of the Fringe is going to Children in Need.

“As is all the money raised from auctioning off the When I Grow Up Dreambook – which is being signed by all kinds of exciting people – already including Janey Godley, Robin Ince, Stewart Lee and more. They’re all writing in it what they wanted to be as a child and what they do now. It will be on eBay during or just after the Fringe.”

“And when is the pop video you shot for the song – which I blogged about – going online?”

“Hopefully later this week.”

“So,” I asked, “what you have learned from all this is…?”

“That I think the Fringe might actually be a more restful time than this past week,” laughed Juliette. “And it would be a terrible waste of a life if we didn’t do something we at least enjoy, right?”

YOU CAN SEE A VIDEO OF JULIETTE’S PERFORMANCE HERE:

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One self-styled “mediocre comedian” trying to plug his show & get a Malcolm Hardee Award at the Edinburgh Fringe

I pose desperately with the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award

I maybe spy a Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award attempt

Honestly! The things people do to try to get nominated for an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award are many and varied.

Yesterday, I got a message from comedian Gareth Morinan:

“I’m emailing to inform you of a minor scandal that I have caused on a largely redundant committee of the Edinburgh Fringe Society,” he said.

This is the umbrella organisation which publishes the annual programme listing shows appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe. It does not decide – no-one decides – who can perform at the Fringe.

“I am a member of the Fringe Participants’ Council,” Gareth told me yesterday, “along with a random hodgepodge of promoters and venue managers.”

“This year, I listed my show 11 times in the Fringe Programme (see p88-90), and explicitly state how what I did was a more cost-effective way of advertising in the programme than buying advertising space.”

Just some of Gareth’s Edinburgh listings

Just some of Gareth’s Edinburgh listings

As he explained in his listings, Gareth said: “These 11 listings are for the same show. Why have I chosen to list it as 11 two day shows, rather than one 22 day show?… These 11 two day listings cost a total of £880. One page of this programme can fit 12 listings. Yet an advertisement taking up just a quarter page costs £1,200. You do the maths.”

But this stunt had a consequence.

Yesterday Gareth told me: “An agent/manager/promoter resigned from the Participants Council in protest over what I did (I technically broke a rule about listings, but the Fringe only noticed this after she told them I had).”

According to Gareth, the agent/manager/promoter said in her resignation letter:

“I feel I need to protest at Gareth’s 11 entries in the Fringe programme… It shows a mean spiritedness towards the Fringe in terms of the comments regarding the costs of advertising and registering. I don’t think a person behaving in this way has the interests of the Fringe at heart and I don’t feel I can serve alongside him… I also can’t see myself being able to accord the respect I would wish to fellow Society members who seem to be on boards and committees for their own personal advantage, not to do the work we undertook to improve matters for all participants when we agreed to join. So it will be better if I resign. I hope you will understand and accept my decision.”

I have to say I am a little surprised, because Gareth’s piece of self publicity – listing your show 11 times in the Fringe Programme to save money on taking out a quarter page ad – and getting more advertising space in the process – seems to be exactly in the true spirit of the Fringe.

Gareth told me: “I resent the implication that I’m only on the Council for personal advantage.”

My immediate thought was: Why on earth are you NOT there for personal advantage? Surely that is why most industry people are involved with Fringe committees. And absolutely right.

Gareth in a previous Fringe incarnation

Gareth in a previous Edinburgh Fringe show incarnation

But Gareth argued: “What do I personally gain from being on the Council? I am a mediocre comedian, I probably have less financial stake in the Fringe than any other member of the Council.”

More relevantly, he then added: “The people I represent tend to think the Fringe is about pushing boundaries.”

Aye. That, I thought/think is the point of the Fringe – and certainly it was one of the reasons for establishing the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards.

I felt the Fringe was being treated – and sometimes treating itself – too seriously.

There was also the fact that establishing the Awards would enable me to get free tickets to Fringe comedy shows for ten years.

But back to yesterday.

Gareth continued: “I thought I’d try and needlessly blow this up into silly proportions if possible. Partly to make a point about the Fringe, but mainly because I’d like to use her resignation as a cheap publicity stunt for myself, thus adding some irony to the situation. I don’t know if you have any interest in writing about this story, but if you do let me know. It’s all just a bit of fun.”

I told Gareth last night that I was not interested.

He replied: “My hugely meaningful political journey is just starting… I will keep you in the loop!”

When I woke up this morning, I had changed my mind. Thus this blog.

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Answers to nine questions asked by first-time Edinburgh Fringe performers

My first view of the world this morning

My first view of the world from bed this morning was fuzzy

I did not get to bed until 4.30am this morning, only had three hours sleep and have to go out. This is not good.

At my age, I should be in a bed that tilts being tended by uniformed nurses wiping spittle away from the edges of my mouth. But enough about my fantasies.

I deserve one day of blog-writing laziness. So below is a blog I posted over two years ago.

I have updated the audience figures. But the situation and advice remains the same as it did two years ago. The situation has been slightly affected by the increasing importance of the PBH Free Fringe and Laughing Horse Free Festival, so some of this advice (particularly the financial stuff) refers only to pay venues.

Anyway, in a spirit of altruism and pomposity, I thought I would give my personal opinion on nine Things Performers Need to Know About the Edinburgh Fringe…

1. HOW MUCH DOES ACCOMMODATION COST?

You know the phrase “an arm and a leg”?

If you think you can get anything as cheap as that, you are having an idle fantasy or you are taking hallucinogenic drugs far stronger than you should if you want to stand upright on a stage.

And, if you haven’t been up, you have no idea. The Edinburgh Fringe is unimaginably large and sprawling. It is the biggest arts festival in the world; Edinburgh is a relatively small city. In 2012, there were around 22,457 performers in Edinburgh simply for the Fringe. That is just performers. Then you have the back-stage, administrative, media and service industry people and the audiences themselves.

An Edinburgh street during the Fringe

One solution to 2012 accommodation problems in Edinburgh

Last year, there were 42,096 performances of over 2,695 shows from 47 countries in 279 venues. And that’s just the Fringe.

Simultaneously, you have the separate official Edinburgh Festival, the Military Tattoo, the Art Festival, the Book Festival and the Television Festival. Any one of those would be a major event on its own in any other city.

In Edinburgh, they are happening simultaneously. Plus there are endless other events and street theatre on a massive scale. And just normal meandering tourists.

Last year, at the Fringe alone, there were around two million bums-on-seats for shows. No-one knows exact figures for sure because of the increasingly large PBH Free Fringe and Laughing Horse Free Festival numbers.

It is a simple case of Thatcherite market-led supply and demand. The demand for accommodation is enormous; the supply is severely limited.

Someone I know who is friends with an estate agent in Edinburgh was told – this is true – that one rule of thumb they use for calculating rental rates for flats during the Fringe is to ask the owner: “How much is your annual mortgage?” That then becomes a fair amount to charge someone for the month of August.

I had relatives and friends in Edinburgh until five years ago. Now I have to pay. It’s horrendous.

The phrase to bear in mind with everything connected to the Edinburgh Fringe is “like lambs to the slaughter”.

But, like the mud at Glastonbury, it is addictive.

2. SHALL I GO UP FOR JUST ONE WEEK?

No.

The first (half) week is dead and tickets are half-price or two-for-one. You will get low audiences and even less money. If you do get audiences, they will fall off a cliff on the first Tuesday, when the half-price deals end.

The second week (called Week One) is usually almost equally dead.

The third week (called Week Two) perks up a little.

The final week is buzzing.

The Royal Mile during Edinburgh Fringe, 2008

The Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Fringe back in 2008

But, if you have not been there since the very beginning and only go up for the last week, you will have generated no word of mouth about your show, no momentum and no review quotes to put on your posters and flyers. And you will be wiped off the face of Edinburgh awareness by a tsunami of other shows which have all these things.

That is if you even get a review, which is highly unlikely.

Whenever a foolhardy Fringe virgin asks my advice, I also tell him/her:

“You have to go up for three consecutive years”

The first year, you will be lost and ignored. The second year you will, with luck, know how to play the system. The third year, reviewers and audience will think you are a regular and you may get noticed.

I know one act who has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe three times. Great act. Wonderful. Got 4-star reviews every time. But, because he/she could not afford to go up every year, there was no momentum building from year to year. He/she, in effect, had to start from scratch each year as an unknown.

Remember that it is not just audiences but reviewers who have a high turnover. The punter and reviewer who saw your show two years ago is probably not in town/ not reviewing this year.

3. CAN I RELAX ON THE PUBLICITY FRONT BECAUSE MY VENUE’S PRESS OFFICE AND THE FRINGE’S PRESS OFFICE WILL HANDLE ALL MY MEDIA PUBLICITY?

You have no idea how it works.

No they won’t.

The venue’s press office is not there to specifically publicise your show. They publicise the venue and act as a central contact point. They will try to be even-handed, but they have lots of other shows. They cannot do constant hands-on publicity for you.

Same thing with the Fringe Office. They are a central contact point. Keep them informed. But they are too busy to do the impossible and publicise your show. Last year, they were dealing with 42,096 performances of 2,695 shows in 279 venues. And with 22,457 self-obsessed and wildly disorganised – possibly mentally unstable – performers. This year, the numbers will probably be higher.

The Samaritans are the ones to ask for help in Edinburgh.

4. DOES MY VENUE’S STAFF KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING?

No.

Trust me.

No.

Most only arrived a week ago, some are Australian and the ones who are not have little experience of anything outside their friends’ kitchens. They probably had no sleep last night and are certainly only at the Fringe to drink, take drugs and, with luck, get laid by well-proportioned members of the opposite sex. Or, in some cases, the same sex.

Trust me.

With help and advice, they could organise a piss-up at the Fringe but not in a brewery.

5. HOW MUCH MONEY MIGHT I MAKE?

Are you mad?

You have to assume a 100% loss on your investment. Even if people make a profit, they usually calculate that by ignoring accommodation costs and the amount of money they would have made anyway if they had not gone up to Edinburgh.

6. I HAVE A PROMOTER AND/OR PRO AGENT. HE WILL LOOK AFTER MY INTERESTS, RIGHT?

He might do. And you might win the EuroLottery. Or he might try to screw you rigid.

One thing to look out for is an agent/manager/promoter’s expenses.

Edinburgh: pretty but with great big potential storm clouds

Edinburgh is pretty but with great big potential storm clouds

One performer I know went up with a well-known promoter who was looking after seven shows that year. He quite reasonably deducted the cost of his own accommodation and transport. But, instead of dividing the total costs by seven and spreading that cost between all seven shows, he deducted 100% of the cost from each show’s profits, thus getting back 700% of his total costs.

Another thing to look out for is agents, promoters or managers who take their percentage off the gross, not off net receipts. They should be taking their percentage off the genuine profit – the net receipts after deduction of genuine overheads and expenses. If they take their percentage off the gross receipts before deduction of overheads and expenses, you are being severely disadvantaged.

Alright. They are fucking you.

If your show makes £100 but costs £90 to stage, then the profit is £10. If the promoter/agent takes 10% of that net profit, then he gets £1 and you get £9.

If your show makes £100 and the promoter/agent takes 10% off that gross profit and the show cost £90 to put on, then he gets £10 and you get zero.

And, in both those examples, the show made exactly the same amount of money.

And let’s not even get into the games which can be played with the point at which they add in or deduct VAT.

7. IT’S MY FIRST EDINBURGH. WILL I GET FINANCIALLY SCREWED BY UNSCRUPULOUS PEOPLE?

Yes.

8. WILL IT RAIN?

Yes.

9. SHOULD I GO BACK AGAIN NEXT YEAR?

Yes.

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