Tag Archives: Al Cowie

Edinburgh Freestival organiser faced 2 murder attempts and got neck broken

Al Cowie drinks his own Laughing Juice brerw

Al Cowie – a man who has several stories to tell

The venue chaos at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe got even more complicated yesterday when venue organisers Freestival announced they had a new venue which will host up to 40 free shows on four stages every day. I had hinted about this venue in a blog earlier this month, which also mentioned another rumour which has not yet happened and one particular jaw-dropping fact which may eventually emerge, I suspect, next year.

“So I hear Freestival have a new venue,” were my opening words when I talked to Al Cowie. He was involved in organising the original Freestival last year but this year (entirely amicably) he is not involved with Freestival.

“Mmmmm….” said Al. And that was that subject over with.

Al last appeared in this blog last month when he was organising a laugh-in in a brewery. And, in February 2014, I blogged about his ancestor Horace Cole who was a massive practical joker.

“So,” I said when we met this time, “titter-making runs in your blood?”

“I do quite like a practical joke,” Al agreed, “Horace’s idea of a practical joke was a friend of his waking up with a carving knife embedded in his pillow. OK, that might seem a little bit mean, but I can see the funny side of it.”

“What’s a good example of a practical joke?” I asked.

“I was,” replied Al, “growing chilli plants in my house and so, one evening, we decided to squeeze the chilli onto one of the flatmate’s toothbrushes, which I thought was very funny, though he didn’t think it was so funny the following morning when he brushed his teeth.”

“Schadenfreude?” I suggested. “Did he get his own back on you?”

“He squeezed chilli onto my toothbrush. But I knew he was likely to do it, so I checked. And he was driving to Newcastle the following day and when he put his contact lenses in… Oh yes! With chilli! Really strong chilli!

“Is that not dangerous?” I asked.

“Well,” Al said, possibly avoiding an answer, “there’s the tequila suicide where you snort a lemon and put tabasco in your eye.”

“And you die?” I asked.

“Oh no, it’s just a horrible way to drink tequila.”

“It surely can’t be good for your eyes,” I suggested.

“I don’t think it is. It is too dangerous to do practical jokes now: you would get arrested. We’ve become too serious. I really do enjoy popping brown paper bags behind people. I have a 120 decibel air horn on my bicycle.”

“You have aristocracy in your blood, don’t you?” I asked.

“A little bit.”

“That means a lot?”

“Not at all. I come from a military family. Winston Churchill’s 2IC was a guy called Alanbrooke and he was my great-grand-uncle.”

“What’s a 2IC?”

“Second in Command. He oversaw the retreat from Dunkirk and was generally credited with saving 300,000 there. And the Germans reckoned if they had had Alanbrooke to advise Hitler, they would have won.”

“Difficult for anyone to advise Hitler,” I suggested.

“True enough, but I think Churchill was equally difficult. He needed someone like Alanbrooke to temper his worst tendencies… and keep up with his drinking… I grew up very much in the countryside in Gloucestershire and Northern Ireland.”

“Your family were…” I prompted.

“We were sent over after the (Irish) Clearances. We were sent over to land that had already been cleared, rather than…”

“Where was this?”

“Donegal and Fermanagh.”

“There’s no reason I can’t print this, is there?”

“No. One of my cousins was Roger Casement, who was hanged by the British government. So I have family on both sides.”

“Cousin?” I asked. “Not a direct cousin.”

“Well, in Ireland, if you’re related, then you’re cousins. I was reading the history of Ulster recently and it’s quite clear that most people changed sides many many times. But I don’t really know my history. My great-grandfather was Prime Minister.”

“What was his name?”

“Brookeborough.”

Basil Brooke, 1st Viscount Brookeborough was third Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. 1943-1963.

“So,” I said. “Military family. Why weren’t you in the military?”

“I was in the Territorial Army for ten years. I joined in 2000 and the general feeling then was that there was going to be no more war. I joined the TA as a fun thing: keep me fit and a nice group of guys. And then 9/11 happened and suddenly everything gets a little bit serious.”

“When did you leave?”

“2011. I stopped really going after I broke my neck.”

“When was that?”

“Six months before I got into comedy, about seven years ago. I was riding one of the Household Cavalry horses out in Hyde Park first thing in the morning while I was working with the City of London Police and, of course, the Commissioner of the City of London Police would sometimes ride out with me…”

“Of course,” I said.

“…and he would then give me a lift into work. So I was galloping down Rotten Row and the horse tripped up and pitched into the ground on its head and so did I and I got compression fracture in my spine and, yeah, it was really annoying.

“I got an X-ray where it didn’t show up. I was in so much pain. It was like someone taking a sledgehammer and smacking it into my back every time I took a breath or took a step. I went to my GP, who was called Dr Savage, and she said: Well, you don’t know pain. You’ve never been through childbirth.

“She didn’t want me to have a second opinion, but I went and saw a neurologist and he said: Don’t do anything. You’re going straight in to have a CT and MRI scan. By that stage, I had already been on a military unarmed combat course for a week. Someone had grabbed my arm in that and I had lost feeling in my legs. I also rode a green horse who threw me off…”

“A green horse?” I asked.

“A very young horse. Then I went and saw a chiropractor who successfully cracked my back because I just couldn’t breath. Then I went to the South of Ireland and bonnet-surfed on a speedboat in a storm on a lake in Galway. That would not be sensible even if I hadn’t broken my neck. I do consider myself very lucky.”

“I think you should reconsider the facts,” I said.

“Someone has tried to murder me a few times.”

“You mean different people have tried?” I asked.

“Yes. Different people. Someone tried to stab me in the head because he thought I was posh and should therefore die.”

“In Ireland?”

“On Battersea Bridge in London. He heard my accent and tried to stab me in the head with a Stanley knife but missed. He swung at me seven times, but I kicked him onto the ground.

“Someone tried to murder me in Argentina. I was hitch-hiking in the desert and this guy gave a lift to me, my friend and a random Argentine bloke. Then we set up camp in the desert and the Argentine bloke came up to us and said: Look, I think you guys should probably get out of here, because the other guy has just suggested to me that we murder you and take your kit. So we left that situation.”

“Has your neck mended?” I asked.

“I have an ache, but it’s nothing important. I don’t believe in pain. I think it’s your body complaining. Pain is not real. the damage is real, but the pain is not real.”

I must have looked bemused.

“Does that not make sense?” Al asked.

“Not remotely,” I said.

“Pain is not real,” Al repeated. I was not convinced.

“Isn’t it,” I asked, “something like electricity travelling down your nerves?”

“Exactly,” said Al. “The pain is just a signal. I once tried to take the blade off a circular saw. I put a spanner onto the central lug and pulled the trigger. The spanner flew out the window and the circular saw went straight through the side of my palm; I’ve still got the scar. I am so lucky; really very lucky. It’s enough to make you believe…

“…that God hates you?” I suggested.

“No,” said Al, “believe in multiple universes: that there are many other universes in which I’ve died.”

“Apart from running comedy gigs in breweries,” I said, “what are your plans?”

“Well, I do a drivetime radio show on Wandsworth Radio, 7.00-9.00 in the morning on Fridays. It’s only online – great for people who live in Hong Kong. And I’m setting up three technology businesses at the moment, which I can’t really talk about. And I’m moving more into clowning now. Clowning and cabaret and burlesque. I really enjoy doing different things. I had an awful lot more fun when I first started doing comedy. I once ate a girl’s sock on stage. Now I am enjoying myself again and having fun.”

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An update, 2 un-named comedy shows & a monthly comic piss-up in a brewery

AN UPDATE

Rare sight - shy Copstick - at Mama Biashara

Kate Copstick, London’s Mama Biashara shop

A couple of days ago, I blogged about comedy critic Kate Copstick and her Mama Biashara charity’s work in Kenya. It ended with a part-description of one Somali woman’s very gruesome medical condition.

Recently, Copstick has been staging some comedians’ Edinburgh Fringe preview shows at her Mama Biashara shop in London, with all proceeds going to the charity. She has now posted an update on the case I blogged about:

The good news is that a chunk of the money raised at Sara Mason‘s lovely preview at the Mama Biashara Emporium has paid for medication and stuff that I sent down to Lamu – triple header antibiotics, topical antibiotics, cleaning hooha and a big diagram explaining it all. Gloves and swabs and stuff. Now just a few days into treatment, the sores are drying up, the swelling and the fever and the sickness are disappearing and the pus has stopped. She is really getting much better very quickly! The maggots are diminishing but, as I feared, are coming from inside. I am heading to Kenya on Sunday and hope to get to the lady and start to sort that out with more meds also paid for by Mama Biashara previews at the Emporium.


ONE COMEDY SHOW WITH AN UNCERTAIN NAME

Yesterday, I blogged about character comic turned author Lindsay Sharman.

Lindsay Sharman is at the Edinburgh Fringe in a show of some title

Lindsay is at the Edinburgh Fringe in a show called something

Yesterday afternoon I realised, when I transcribed our chat, that I had not asked the actual title of her upcoming Edinburgh Fringe show. I texted her a message:

I can’t find you in the Fringe programme. What’s the show title? One might have thought I would know this!

In the absence of an answer, I posted the blog. Several hours later, this little flurry of texts ensued:

LINDSAY
I’m not in it. Probably a mistake. But the whole show is potentially a mistake.

JOHN
I should, of course, have checked all this  before posting the bleedin’ blog, shouldn’t I? But I think professionalism is over-rated. So wot’s your show called? Where is it? Indeed, wot time? I might even come and see it.

LINDSAY
It has many different names. The preview is called Lindsay Sharman Gives Us The Willies – Comedy Museum, 30th July. In the PBH Free Fringe Programme, it’s The Madame Magenta Big Live Podcast Show Extravaganza, 2.40pm at the Voodoo Rooms. It’s not a podcast btw. And I sent it to Chortle, who might list it as Magenta Is The Warmest Colour. It is an exercise in ensuring low audience numbers and a miserable month. I am going to hire a flyerer.


A MONTHLY COMIC PISS-UP IN A BREWERY

Comedy accessed through a secret door

A secret comedy world suitably accessed through a secret door

After that little flurry of texts, I went to Al Cowie’s extraordinary and un-advertised monthly comedy show staged under his LLaugh! banner (yes, that’s LLaugh) in Wandsworth, which has been running for the last three years. It takes place in a brewery where the beer is free – they are not allowed to sell it and the show is advertised nowhere, therefore it is, in itself an interesting gig.

I had to follow e-mailed instructions to find the venue. This included going to a station, walking for about 10 minutes, crossing a 4-lane highway, doubling back on myself to reach a building site, finding a white door in an orange wall and waiting for a man in a white coat called John (the man, not the coat) to come and escort me to the venue inside The Old Ram Brewery.

It was worth the trip. It was Al Cowie’’s 40th birthday, the acts were Alexander Bennett, Josh Howie, Joz Norris and Stu Turner and the room was completely full.

The man in the white coat turned out to be John Hatch.

“What is this monthly comedy evening called?” I asked Al Cowie.

“The LLaugh ComedyThe Piss-up in The Brewery… I dunno… Whatever… It’s not called anything, because we’re not allowed to advertise it.”

“Why?” I asked.

Al Cowie drinks his own Laughing Juice brerw

Al Cowie drinks his own Laughing Juice brew

“Because… um… Well, we… We… We can’t advertise it bec… I… I don’t actually know why we can’t advertise it. We can say that we run comedy here monthly, but we can’t advertise… “

“We’ve survived for nine years without advertising,” said John Hatch.

“So,” explained Al Cowie, “in order for people to find out about it, people have to e-mail John – john.hatch@rambrewery.co.uk.”

“This is,” John Hatch explained, still wearing his white coat, “the longest continuously brewing site in the UK. We can trace it back to at least 1533 when a family called Ridon or Roydon owned it. There are two different spellings because, in those days, people just spelt things the way they wanted to. There is a record of there being a brewery in Wandsworth in 1512 which we assume might be the same one, but we can’t say it was continuous between 1512 and 1533. The Young family owned it from 1831 until 2006. I was with Youngs for the last 18 years.”

“What,” I asked John Hatch, “did this room the performances now happen in used to be?”

“The Tack Room,” he told me, “which was part of the stable building, built in 1896. There were 18 horses here when Youngs closed in 2006; I’m told there were at least 40 at its peak.”

“They must have been very popular with local gardeners,” I said.

Painting of John Young inside stables urinal

Painting of John Young inside a stables urinal

“John Young was a bit of an extrovert,” explained John Hatch. “The horses were kept here right to the end because he liked animals. He also had goats here, hens, a Dorset horned ram, peacocks, ducks and 17 guard geese.”

“Why?” I asked.

”Because he could,” explained John. “He was the chairman and he got his way. The geese were brought in to ‘protect the site from hostile takeovers’. The hens laid eggs for the stable staff. The goats were fire marshalls. He said they were a calming influence on horses during a fire and were more intelligent than horses. So, in the event of a brewery fire, they would direct the horses to the fire assembly points, set off the fire alarms, phone the fire brigade and do what goats do best.

“He had peacocks and hens and geese but, one day he decided he wanted an ostrich. Then he did research and found that ostriches can jump very high and, to raise the perimeter wall around the entire site would be very expensive. So he decided not to get an ostrich and thought: What can’t jump? I know! An elephant!

“So he ordered a baby elephant to go in the stables to keep the horses company. After a few weeks, he got a bit impatient when the elephant didn’t arrive. After a few months, he got very, very impatient and phoned up the suppliers of the elephant and shouted: Where’s my elephant! 

Joz Norris discovered the brewery’s royal connections

In a dark corner of the brewery, Joz Norris discovered the Queen Mother pulling pints

“They were surprised and told him: Oh, Mr Young, the order was cancelled months ago.

“What? he said. Who by?

“By your brother, they told him. Didn’t you know?

“So he didn’t talk to his brother for over a year. He was very, very angry about the lack of an elephant.”

“Did he,” I asked, “ever get an elephant?”

“Sadly not.”

“Was there,” I asked, “a practical reason for wanting either an ostrich or an elephant? I would not have thought they could serve the same function.”

“Most breweries need an ostrich or an elephant sometimes,” said John Hatch, without explanation.

“In later years,” said Al Cowie, “the company’s shareholders wanted to sell this place because the land was valuable. But John Young didn’t want to. So, at one company AGM, he turned up in a beekeeper’s outfit just to ‘keep the pests away’. Another year he had boxing gloves around his neck and said he’d fight anyone who wanted to sell the place.”

John Hatch reads the fire regulations to the audience amid birthday balloons

John Hatch reads the fire regulations to the audience last night, amid birthday balloons

John Hatch told me: “We do birthday parties, stag parties, quiz nights, any excuse for a party and, because I can produce 70 pints at a time, we can brew whatever you want.

“I need to brew the stuff and it has to condition for a couple of weeks but, if people want me to brew a funny beer with a funny colour or a funny flavour, I can do that. whereas a bigger brewery can’t afford to produce 1,000 barrels of specially-commissioned beer.”

The next comedy night will be on 5th August. The beer will be free. There will be no elephant in the brewery.

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Cowgatehead chaos: the unseen emails

This week’s Grouchy Club podcast

Copstick argues her point in this week’s Grouchy Club podcast

This week’s Grouchy Club Podcast features a slight disagreement between co-host Kate Copstick and me about the mess over the Cowgatehead venue at this year’s upcoming Edinburgh Fringe.
VIDEO HERE
AUDIO-ONLY HERE

In the podcast, I say that I think Peter Buckley Hill (known as PBH) of the PBH Free Fringe and the competing Freestival organisers are both telling the truth as they perceive it, even though their versions of what has happened seem mutually exclusive. You would have to listen to the podcast to get the idea. (Never knowingly underpromoted.)

The basic highly-simplified situation is that both organisations claim to have had rights to the Cowgatehead venue. The PBH Free Fringe now have a written contract; the Freestival claim to have had an earlier oral contract. Under Scots law, oral contracts are legally binding.

The key point to me is the point at which the Freestival offered a ‘compromise’ solution of splitting the rights to the building in two (as they were last year) with the PBH Free Fringe staging shows in the upper half of the building and the Freestival staging shows in the lower half.

It was the point at which this proposed ‘compromise’ meeting did not happen that it became inevitable that acts could lose an estimated £77,000.

As I understand it, the idea of splitting the building is currently totally unacceptable to the PBH Free Fringe. There is also disagreement over the number of venues possible in the building, with PBH saying it is not possible to put nine performance rooms in the bottom half.

In a statement on 5th June, Frank Galbraith of PBH Free Fringe wrote (the capitals are his):


So that we are all clear on this point the licensee has confirmed with us and the Fringe Office that NO COMPROMISE MEETING WAS EVER AGREED OR EVEN DISCUSSED WITH FREESTIVAL FOR THEM TO USE OR SHARE THE BUILDING.


As I understand it, the compromise suggested by Freestival involved splitting the high-rise venue (as last year) with the Free Fringe running six rooms (at the top) and Freestival running nine rooms (at the bottom), three of which they would specially build.

As I understand it, the PBH Fringe holds that it is not possible to have nine rooms in the bottom half of the building.

On Scots comedian Alan Anderson’s Facebook page, there is a posting from Al Cowie, who was part of the team administering the Freestival last year (but who is not working with them this year). He writes that, last year, Freestival themselves built the six rooms used and he continues:


Freestival had budgeted for building a further 3 rooms this year, and would no doubt have done so in the current situation had PBH allowed this. So while PBH has made claims that the 3 rooms never existed, this is correct but also disingenuous.

As for the meeting between the licencee and Freestival, before PBH then phoned the licencee again (according to PBH’s own words), apparently when the licencee met with the Freestival team, he agreed in principal with PBH getting the top of the building (above George IV Bridge). PBH had it last year, and 6 spaces could be housed there with ease (there is space there for substantially more stages in fact). Freestival would stay in the bottom. As compromises go, it was a good one.

Of course, this is if we are to believe both PBH and Freestival (and the words used by PBH denying the compromise are very careful in not saying that Freestival have lied about their meeting with the licencee or whether the licencee agreed, it is other people interpreting those words as him saying that Freestival lied).

PBH’s response to Freestival arranging a meeting and reaching out to PBH and the Fringe Society to moderate (again, taking my information from what PBH wrote) was to phone the licencee. After that conversation, there was no compromise on the table, there was no meeting in London to happen, and further, it was at this stage the PBH also said that he now had two other Freestival venues as well, the Tron Kirk and St John’s, so disrupting many more shows.

The Cowgatehead building is massive (it used to be a library) and can take at least 19 stages, plenty of space for the 9 stages for Freestival’s, 6 stages of PBH’s and at least space for 4 more. If PBH had wanted to allow Freestival to use the space, he would still have had his 6 stages. But doing so would not damage Freestival as much (and I genuinely don’t think that PBH did this to harm the acts, I think that they are merely collateral damage in his entirely public desire to make Freestival to fail and collapse. And fair play to him, he’s probably succeeded in that).

However, the fact that the damage to acts wasn’t meant personally, doesn’t change that the damage was deeply personal to those of us who were booked into the venue by Freestival.


It would be easy to assume that this whole anarchic ongoing mess was partially caused by the PBH Free Fringe and the Freestival being at each others throats in the whole run-up to this fiasco and that neither side knew what the other side was doing.

This was certainly what I thought had happened.

However, it seems that, earlier this year, there was co-operation between the two apparently opposing organisations and that the PBH Free Fringe, as an organisation, was perfectly prepared to share the Cowgatehead building with the Freestival and acknowledged that a nine-room Freestival operation was at least entirely possible.

In the emails below, the people involved are:

FREE FRINGE
Frank Galbraith
Paul B Edwards

FREESTIVAL
Julian (Jools) Constant

At one point, the Fringe Office itself becomes involved.

Suruchi was a Fringe venue in 2014.

The Elio mentioned is Elio Crolla. I understand the Crolla family own the building and, this year, have rented it out to Kenny Waugh who is the gent farming out rights for the Fringe performance rooms.

I have altered abbreviations to make the correspondence more understandable – For example, I have changed Cgh to Cowgatehead.


20th JANUARY 2015  

From: Julian Constant
To: Frank Galbraith

Hi Frank.

I hope you and mags are well. We are looking for another bar of our own this year and wondered if you were going back into the top half of Cowgatehead. If you are we will stay well away and not tread on toes.

Any pointers for other empty spaces for bars which you don’t want would be appreciated.

By the way. We won’t be doing Suruchi  this year if you guys want it. It’s a 30 seat nice room.

Warmest regards

Jools


20th JANUARY 2015  

From: Frank Galbraith 
To: Julian Constant

Hi Jools,

All well here, hope all ok with you.

I had agreed with Elio to use same space again this year.

However Elio has now taken seriously ill with cancer and is presently in hospital. I understand he may not be with us for much longer, days as opposed to weeks.

Very sad situation for a young man (46ish) and his family.

I will check with his brother, when the time is right, what his plans are for the upstairs level.

I will let you know about other available spaces you can approach, including void spaces suitable as pop up bar, when I get home.

Cheers for now.

Frank


5th MARCH 2015

From: Paul B Edwards
To: Julian Constant

Hi Jools,

Frank’s alerted me to the Freestival listing of nine stages for Cowgatehead this year (I’m trying desperately hard not to get involved). Can I just check with you that this is maximising the space below the George complex and doesn’t include George itself?

We’re obviously keen to have our venues back again and I’d rather know in advance what you’ve negotiated if it affects us. I hope to God you haven’t encroached on it (I don’t think you would have) and would appreciate it if you could let me know asap. Things have been fairly quiet and aggro free this year and I really would rather keep it that way!

Cheers,

PaulyB


5th MARCH 2015

From: Julian Constant
To: Paul B Edwards

Well well. Last year aggression & rudeness… I offered to meet you last year to discuss talk about all of this properly in a adult fashion. Then I get first hand reports from two different people that you were loudly & openly slagging me off in the loft bar to anyone who will listen… & now you’re making semi polite requests for information. I will discuss whatever is or isn’t happening in Cowgatehead with Frank (as he is a reasonable man worth having a conversation with) as and when it becomes appropriate.

Jools


5th MARCH 2015

From: Paul B Edwards 
To: Julian Constant

You’re damn right I was slagging you off last year. I made no secret of it and how I thought you acted was disgusting. It wasn’t just you though. It was all of the Freestival people. I myself suggested we talked about this year at the end of the Fringe when you attempted to glad hand me in The Loft itself, but not until after the dust had settled. This year I’ve sent a discreet request for information to you in the hope Peter won’t get ill again because you’re trying to take our venues. It was also in the vain hope you weren’t being underhand.

I’ve refused to get involved this year and sent the email below in an attempt to avoid any nastiness. I see it was in vain. Let’s just put it this way – If you have the nine stages that are potentially available in Cowgatehead this year – great, I’m pleased for you, well done. If you have made attempts to nick the George complex you’re just proving what I have (sadly) long suspected.

I really do hope I am wrong, for pete’s sake, for Peter’s sake.


10th MARCH 2015

From: Fringe Office (Participants) 

To: Julian Constant
CC: Fringe Programme

Hello Jools,

Thanks for letting me know. There were a few things to add to the venue to make it live and I’ve done that just now. I think it was the confusion around people asking about Cowgatehead as a venue and not the new name of Cowgate Tops George IV Bridge with the space names of Cowgatehead 7, Cowgatehead 8 and Cowgatehead 9. I’ve copied the programme team in so that they are aware as well.

Just so you know, the Free Fringe has not told us they aren’t using this space this year, and they do have an active venue at the same address as Cowgate Tops George IV Bridge called the name they gave it last year, George on the Bridge. We’ll monitor how things go to ensure shows end up in the right spaces.

You’ll also always have the proofs as well to double check.

Best wishes,

Kevin


19th MARCH 2015

Frank Galbraith  
To: Jools Constant

Hi Jools,

All well here, hope you’re well and not getting too stressed!!! the fekin Edinburgh Fringe does that to people.

Also, that fekin building attracted enquiries from all over the world this year, including the Bangkok girlie boys. When they lost the meadows this year Giorgio told me he was offered £50k for Cowgatehead.

Its a great building but it does come with high levels of stress at times, especially when the EdFringe deadlines keep getting earlier.

Hope all goes well for you this year and off course stress free.

Cheers for update,

Frank


19th MARCH 2015

Julian Constant 
To: Frank Galbraith

Hi Frank

I hope you and Mags are well.

After hearing 6 different versions of what is happening to Cowgatehead all from credible people all claiming to have the definitive answer from someone on the inside… We now finally have a conclusion.

Kenny Waugh has signed the deal to take the lower half & you have the floor at George IV Bridge Street street level.

I should have just listened to you in the first place.

I will alter the location description we have used on edfringeware so that no more confusion is caused.

Warmest Regards

Jools


As I understand it, the signed deal referred to in the final email is between Kenny Waugh and the owner of the building for rental (by Kenny Waugh) of the building.

 

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The Edinburgh Freestival comedian whose relative pulled cunning stunts involving Virginia Woolf and bottoms

Al Cowie, not aristocrat, but part of hydra-headed Freestival

Al Cowie, not aristocrat, but part of hydra-headed Freestival

Yesterday, my blog was about the new Freestival events at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

Comedian Dan Adams was one of the four-headed hydra who explained to me what was planned but seemed to take a lot of interest in the highly coveted annual Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award.

It is for the best cunning stunt publicising a show or act at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Before we chatted, fellow Freestival hydra-head Sean Brightman had talked with me about the Cunning Stunt award too – and how funny it would be if the whole long genesis of the Freestival with its well-publicised bust-ups with the Free Fringe were simply the most complicated ever publicity stunt for a clutch of shows in an attempt to win the highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award.

Of course, the Freestival is not a cunning stunt.

It is real…

I think.

On the other hand, if I were trying to get a cheap blog out of this, I might bring up the interesting background of another of the Freestival’s hydra-heads, comedian Al Cowie.

“So you’re an aristocrat,” I said to him after my blog chat with the Freestival Four.

“No,” said Al. “I’m the smell left behind after the aristocrats have left the room. I have the accent but none of the cash.

Horace Cole was my grandmother’s cousin. He was the ultimate Cunning Stunter. He was peripheral to the Bloomsbury Set and he did the Dreadnought hoax. He hired a train to go down to HMS Dreadnought in Weymouth. He said he was a member of the Foreign Office and went there with other members of the Bloomsbury Set, all dressed up as Abyssinian royalty. Virginia Woolf was the Crown Prince of Abyssinia.”

The Abyssinians  - Virginia Woolf is on extreme left in beard

The Abyssinians – Virginia Woolf is on extreme left in a beard and Horace de Vere Cole is on the extreme right in a top hat

Cole went to Paddington station in London, claimed that he was ‘Herbert Cholmondeley’ of the Foreign Office and demanded a special train to Weymouth.

The stationmaster arranged a VIP coach.

In Weymouth, the Navy welcomed the Abyssinian princes with an honour guard but could not find an Abyssinian flag. So they flew the flag of Zanzibar and played Zanzibar’s national anthem.

The group inspected the fleet, had their own translator and talked in gibberish drawn from Latin and Greek.

“When the Navy found out…” said Al.

“How did they find out?” I asked.

“Because Horace Cole went and reported it to The Times, who would not print a photo, and the Daily Mirror, who did… When the Navy found out, they sent two young subalterns up to Cambridge to give him a good caning…”

“Literally?” I asked.

“Yeah. But they didn’t catch him. There’s been a book written about it: The Sultan of Zanzibar.”

The book about Horace Cole’s hoaxes

The book about Horace Cole’s hoaxes

“Did he do the party stunt with the bottoms?” I asked.

“Yes,” said. Al. “He organised a white-tie party and invited lots of people whose only connection with each other was that they had the word ‘bottom’ in their name and he had a man at the top of the stairs at the party announcing the arrivals as they walked down the stairs:

Mr and Mrs Bottomley… Mrs & Mrs Ramsbottom… and, because he didn’t have ‘bottom’ in his surname, he didn’t turn up.”

“Oh,” I said, “I hadn’t heard the bit about the announcing of the names. I read that all these people, none of whom knew each other, were invited to this party without any explanation of why and it was only after everyone started talking to each other that they eventually worked out it was a vast practical joke and why they had all been invited.”

“All of these stories.” said Al, “have been told to me and I don’t know which the accurate ones are. One of the best is that he bought out the entire first night – every seat – of a stage show in the West End of London and then gave the tickets out to various people with carefully allocated seating so that, when the lights went up, if you were looking down on the stalls from the circle, all the bald heads in the audience read out a rude word. But I’m not sure what the word was.”

“It must have cost a fortune,” I said.

“Yes,” said Al. “He wasted his entire fortune on practical jokes… He dug up Piccadilly. He got his mates dressed up in workmens’ clothing and they went and dug a trench all the way across Piccadilly. There was a policeman there, so they hauled him in to divert the traffic while they did it.

“When they had dug a trench all the way across Piccadilly, they went into The Ritz and just watched the chaos which ensued. It took London about four days to work out what on earth had gone wrong.

“Then, a few weeks later, he went up to a bunch of real workmen who were digging up the road and said: Look, I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but a group of my friends have dressed up as policemen and they’re going to try to stop you digging up the road.

“He then went up to a group of policemen and said: Look, I shouldn’t really be telling you this, but a group of my friends have dressed up as workmen and they’re digging up the road.

“And then he left them to it.

“He was a fascinating character,” said Al. “Winston Churchill described him as a man who was dangerous to have as a friend. His sister married Neville Chamberlain. But, when he died, no-one turned up to his funeral because they thought it was a practical joke.”

Horace de Vere Cole (1881-1936) died in poverty in France.

So it goes.

The winner of the highly coveted 2014 Cunning Stunt Award will be announced during the Highly Coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show on 22nd August in Edinburgh.

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A revolution at the Edinburgh Fringe. New Freestival organisers explain what to expect from them and their sponsors

The Festival Fringe is not part of the Edinburgh International Festival

The Fringe is not part of the Edinburgh International Festival

The Edinburgh Fringe is a thing of Byzantine beauty organised by no-one and, within that non-organisation are lots of people organising things. 

I organise the annual highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Fringe. Last year they were the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards. This year, they are the highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards and my blog has taken over the mantle of being increasingly prestigious. Say it often enough and, with luck, people will start believing it.

If I were to attempt to simplify the organisation of the Edinburgh Fringe’s non-organisation, there are venues where you pay in advance (pay venues) and there are ‘free’ venues where you pay nothing to enter but, if you want, you can donate money on the way out (a bit like indoor busking).

There were, until this year, three free organisers:

PBH’s Free Fringe started it all, organised by highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award nominee Peter Buckley Hill.

Around ten years ago, there was then a split in the Free Fringe ranks and the Free Festival began, organised by Alex Petty of Laughing Horse, in one of whose venues I stage the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show.

Emerging from the Free Festival in the last couple of years has been the Heroes of Fringe Pay What You Want venues run by highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Bob Slayer. At his venues, you can either walk in for free or pay for a ticket in advance to guarantee a seat.

Then, back in December, I blogged about another rift in the Free Fringe which has now spawned the Freestival, organised by a hydra-headed committee of performers all of whom, I imagine, aspire to win a highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award.

If you need any more background, I suggest you either take counselling or settle down, take Valium and read the blog I wrote last December about the genesis of the new Freestival group.

On the Freestival website (soon to be re-designed) there are eleven members of “the current committee and helpers” listed.

Last night, four of them – Dan Adams, Sean Brightman, Al Cowie and Alex Marion – explained more to me.

Last night (from left): Sean Brightman, Dan Adams, Alex Marion, Al Cowie

Last night in London (from left) four elevenths of Freestival: Sean Brightman, Dan Adams, Alex Marion and Al Cowie

As they are part of a hydra-headed collective speaking collectively – and, frankly, because I can’t be bothered to differentiate between the four voices on my sound recording – I shall quote what the four of them individually said as coming from a mythical single beast called The Freestival.

“You had a big bust-up with Peter Buckley Hill,” I started. “You suggested ways in which you thought the Free Fringe could be improved.”

“An innocent mistake,” said the Freestival. “In hindsight, we should probably not have done that but, then, we would have ended up doing shows somewhere else.”

“So you would have broken away anyway?”

“We might have gone with Laughing Horse,” said the Freestival, “or Heroes of the Fringe without the hassle.

“With the Free Fringe, it’s PBH’s name on it and however much he’s set up committees in the past, it’s pretty well established it’s always him. With Laughing Horse, it’s Alex and he gets other people on board to help, but it’s him and he works very very hard. Bob Slayer, same thing: he’s keeping it very small – very wise – and he’s going great guns with it but, again, it’s just him.

“We set the Freestival up as a committee and the thing that differentiates us from any of the other free groups is we have an accountant. Plus, should any issues happen, we’ve got some flexibility in the system, because what we’ve done is looked round at who has the expertise in various different areas, so that we can call on them and genuinely use them. None of us knew about accountancy, so we’ve got in a fantastic accountant performer – Gemma Beagley.

“Essentially, we want to bring in the money from outside that will allow us to put on really good free Fringe sh…”

“You can’t use those two words together,” said the Freestival, interrupting itself.

“Free Fringe?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied the Freestival, “apparently it’s illegal for us to use the two words together.

“It’s difficult to describe without using those words,” continued the Freestival. “But essentially what we want a festival full of acts we believe in so we can promote them to the public with genuine honesty. With all due respect, all of the other free organisations are pretty much open to anyone.”

Random visual plug for my Fringe show

A random plug for Bob Slayer

(Before I get a complaint from Big Bob Slayer, I should point out that, keeping things small, he is very choosy about the acts he allows to perform in his venues.)

“What we have,” continued the hydra-headed Freestival, “is the manpower to select the acts we really want to put on. It’s like running a comedy club where we put on the best acts available to us on the night. So, when people go to a Freestival show, they will know it’s going to be a good show in a good venue. We want all of our venues to be a pleasure to go to. In Edinburgh, for performers and audiences, that’s not always the case. There was one in a toilet last year.”

“There seemed to be some doubt,” I said, “that you had The Tron as one of your venues.”

“We do have The Tron,” said the Freestival. “And The Cowgatehead, which is opposite the Underbelly. Last year it was called The Cowshed.”

“They were both PBH venues last year,” I said.

“Yes. The reason they’re coming with us this year,” said the Freestival, “is that they are directly linked to our sponsor. We do have a sponsor – La Favorita, a chain of Pizza restaurants, a local Edinburgh business. They’re a restaurant group (the Vittoria Group) with a small chain of pizza delivery restaurants. They had a concession outside the Tron Church at last year’s Fringe.”

The new Freestival 2014 logo from sponsors La Favorita

The new Freestival 2014 logo from sponsors La Favorita

“How many venues have you got,” I asked, “and how many rooms within those venues?”

“We’re currently working on getting around twelve venues,” replied the Freestival.

“Each with multiple rooms?” I asked.

“There might be more spaces, but we’re working towards a 12-venue plan. We’ve got the Cowgatehead, the Tron, St James, which is a brand new venue near the Grassmarket. Inside that, we’ve got two floors with a main room for about 150 people and we’re going to put two rooms on the top floor, each of which will be 60-80. It’s going to be built to our spec.”

“Why are you different from the other free venue organisers?” I asked.

“We want people,” said the Freestival, “to be astounded by how good our venues are. And we want to publicise all of our shows. It’s not enough to just say They’re in our brochure, so that’s our responsibility to them discharged. If both the acts AND we publicise those shows, then all of us benefit.”

“Is that where the sponsor’s money is going?” I asked.

“The sponsor,” said the Freestival, “is paying for the brochures, the publicity costs, the new website and the setting-up of the venues. The acts are spending six months preparing the best show they can create and we don’t think they should have to set up the venue themselves.”

“So,” I asked, “will each of your venues have a venue manager and a sound person?”

“Yes,” said the Freestival, “though there might be a couple of venues that share sound people.”

“Are the sound people free?” I asked.

“There is a small up-front sub,” said the Freestival, “which is on our website. It is £80.”

“What was PBH charging last year?” I asked.

“£3 per each individual day’s performance,” said the Freestival, “and/or you had to organise as many benefits shows as you could for the Free Fringe. If anyone thinks they can find a venue in Edinburgh in August, fully set-up with publicity and technical support as part of the package, for less than £80 over three weeks, they’re welcome to go and take it. What the sponsor’s money allows us to provide is quality venues. And soundproofing wherever possible.”

“Perhaps,” I said, “the sponsor could soundproof the walls with pizzas. You could have the first edible Fringe venues.”

“How we have approached sponsorship,” explained the Freestival, “is How will it benefit what we want to do? NOT How will it benefit the sponsor? The sponsor gets concession stands selling pizzas at a couple of the venues and outside The Tron, exactly as they had last year. They want to get their name seen everywhere because they want to grow as a business and this does that for them.

A random pizza, like the Fringe, full of ingredients

A random pizza, like the Fringe, full of different ingredients

“Having an accountant and sponsor on board informs the decision-making process, but we have control over any artistic decision. There will be nothing about this does or does not fit the sponsor’s brand. None of that at all. What the sponsor wants is to be part of something which will be good. They have no control over the creative side of things. They are just a conduit to provide us with the ability to stage some really good shows.”

“What about the antagonism from PBH over the split?” I said.

“He wants to shout, he wants to scream at us,” said the Freestival, “but really we’re not here to undermine him. We’re just here because we think there’s another way of doing things that can achieve a better set of results.

“Every year, the Free Fringe grows, every year there’s more venues, more shows and inevitably what that means is that there’s less control over the quality of the venues. What we want to do is keep small, keep to a limited number of venues, keep to acts we believe in, that we can publicise with our whole heart, that we can inter-act with and put them in venues they are happy to play in and the public want to spend time in.

“We have made a conscious effort to make relationships with other parts of the Fringe and the comedy industry in general. Hils Jago of Amused Moose will be running Logan Murray’s comedy courses in our venues.

“Whilst we are another free entity up in Edinburgh,” said the Freestival, “I truly believe there’s room for many more free entities up there and many more different models. All of us really believe in our model but, if other people want to go with different models or to perform in our venues AND in other people’s venues, fantastic for them.”

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