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Improbable but true: The Edinburgh Fringe ‘Big Four’ venues are not so big

Two updates to yesterday’s blog in which I mentioned an odd coincidental meeting at an Edinburgh Fringe launch in London.


I also mentioned that, last night, I was going to a London Fortean Society talk on The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles and Rare Events Happen Every Day.

I had already seen this talk by David J Hand back in February at the splendidly-titled Dirty Dick’s in the City of London. But the talk was so interesting I thought I would see it again. It may seem improbable that I would see it a second time, but it is true.

Conway Hall - improbable meeting place

Conway Hall – an improbable meeting place

This was the first meeting in the Fortean Society’s new, occasional, venue Conway Hall at Red Lion Square in Holborn.

The host asked how many people had been to a Fortean Society meeting before. I think only three hands went up.

There were, I think, just over 100 seats and eventually only four empty seats remained, scattered around; one was next to me. Almost at the last moment before the talk started, a man sat in the seat. After the talk finished, we chatted.

He, too, had been to a Fortean Society meeting before. In fact, he, too, had seen exactly the same lecture back in February.

A coincidence. Not a big one. But, in a hall of just over 100 people, only three of whom had been to any Fortean meeting before, with only four empty seats before it started, another man who had seen exactly the same lecture before had sat next to me. Proof that coincidences, miracles and rare events do happen every day.


In yesterday’s blog, I also mentioned going to a launch event for the Edinburgh Fringe’s ‘Big Four’ venues – the Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly.

This brought a comment from Charles Pamment, who runs the Space UK venues at the Fringe:

Charles Pamment at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe

Charles Pamment of theSpace at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe

As you know I’m not one to rock a boat but I reckon but all this rock and roll over the term the festivals “big 4” when it comes to venues is a tad inaccurate, depending on I suppose ones definition of ‘big’ of course. In fringe terms I’d like to think it means a venues performance programme size, a number of shows, or number of difference performance genres or even the number of sub-performance genres defined in the fringe programme. What else could it be?

Knowing you as one who still embraces the fringe ethos as a platform for all I thought you would appreciate some stats, these may be a little rough as not all shows are listed on the fringe site yet but for all wants an purposes we (theSpaceUK) have produced the largest programme on the fringe since 2012. 

And this year is no exception, this August we will include some 290 shows in our programme, apparently the largest programme by one producer in the history of the fringe, so I’m told.

This is likely to be more shows than two of the big 4 put together (recent years define such), and near on 60 more than the Pleasance and give or take a few, 100 more than Assembly.

Now, you could I suppose throw in the free fringe as the producers of the largest programme, but I suppose there seems to be a varied number of different producers of that these days too. So, I suppose when one hears this weary term ‘big 4’ you can understand that one wonders exactly what that defines or is it as someone recently said to me simply a 00’s term that stuck!

Charles is. of course, correct, in that Space UK is a bigger provider of Fringe shows than any of the oft-called Big Four.

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Myths, dangers and curses of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

(This blog appeared on Chortlethe UK comedy industry website)

I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Roadshow in London on Saturday and a couple of people asked my advice because they have decided to perform on the Fringe for the first time this year. Then, on Monday morning, a non-performer who appeared briefly as a guest at last year’s Fringe e-mailed me about the possibility of staging a full show throughout this year’s Fringe in August. On Tuesday morning, an established comedy act phoned me about returning to the Fringe after a gap of several years. And, yesterday afternoon, I got Skyped by someone who lives in mainland Europe about coming to the UK and playing the Fringe for the first time.

On Saturday, I asked about the long-and-widely-quoted statistics that the average Fringe show audience comprises six people and the average Fringe-goer is only in the city for three days. The Fringe Office told me both were urban myths.

Fringe Chief Executive Kath Mainland, in fact, told me that 50% of Fringe audiences come from Edinburgh (ie the EH postcodes). And that does not include the large numbers of Glaswegians who commute to Edinburgh Fringe shows. If true, it would mean that over half the audience is coming from lowland Scotland and performers should perhaps tailor their shows more towards Scots audiences if they want to get bums on seats.

Like all Fringe statistics, of course, even that one should be treated with a pinch of salt. The only way of knowing who goes to the Fringe is if punters buy tickets in advance and give their postcodes. The vast numbers who buy tickets with cash at the venue on the day don’t do that. And all Fringe statistics are mightily skewed by the fact no-one does nor can know how many punters attend the increasing number of free shows – let alone where they come from.

So, as always, performing at the Fringe is like juggling spaghetti in the dark and, when you get there, like standing in a cold shower tearing up £50 notes. This year, the uncertainties are even greater – not because of the recession but because of the rapidly changing nature of the Fringe – especially the crumbling of the box office for middle-ranking comedy shows. It happened last year and is likely to happen even moreso this year.

There are two types of show at the Fringe.

There are the traditional shows where audiences pay for tickets. And the free shows put on by the original PBH Free Fringe and the separate Laughing Horse Free Festival.

On Saturday, the gloriously entertaining Peter Buckley Hill of the PBH Free Fringe (a notable former Malcolm Hardee Award nominee) said he has had an 85% increase in applications for the PBH Free Fringe this year.

This is not surprising.

Paid-for show tickets are usually around £10 each – that means £20 if you are a couple and, if you see three shows in one day (which is not uncommon), that is going to set you back £60. For that amount of money and with limited time and vast numbers of shows on offer, you want to make sure you are not throwing your money away. So you pay to see ‘safe’ acts you have seen on TV or, at least, very long-established Biggish Name acts with a known track record.

People used to go to the Fringe and ‘take a punt’ on a show which sounded like it might be good… though it might be shit. That was what the Fringe was about. The excitement of the unexpected and the chance of stumbling on future stars.

What is increasingly happening now is that audiences are prepared to pay for the TV names they know. And they are prepared to take a risk by visiting several free shows. But excellent, experienced comedy acts playing paid-for venues who have not had TV exposure are seeing their audiences fall year-on-year. I know of at least three top-notch comedians who are not going to the Fringe this year because the potential on the paid-for Fringe in major venues is increasingly risky – they will still make a profit but the profit-to-hassle ratio has changed – and they cannot be seen to play free shows because it would lower their professional reputation with reviewers and the media.

It can cost £7,500+ to stage a good comedy show in a major venue at the Fringe.

The Fringe is alive and well for Fringe-goers who want to take a free punt with a high risk of seeing shit… and for Fringe-goers who want to pay to see re-heated TV acts of known quality. But the Fringe is increasingly difficult to financially justify for excellent, experienced live comedians with no TV exposure.

Another factor this year will be the death of the Fringe in the new town.

Edinburgh is two cities – the ‘new town’ (Georgian) and the ‘old town’ (medieval).

With the move this year (for at least three years) of the major Assembly venue from George Street in the new town to George Square in the old town, all the Big Four venues will now be clustered around Bristo Square, George Square and the Cowgate.

People may decide to go to a specific show in the new town, but the four places where punters will come to vaguely sit down and only then decide which show to see will be the Pleasance Courtyard, the Udderbelly Pasture in Bristo Square, the Pleasance Dome in Bristo Square and the George Square gardens which will have, I understand, two new Assembly venues in them. So street flyerers will get more passing trade and bums-on-seats potential in or near Bristo Square/George Square/Cowgate (as well as in the traditional maelstrom of the High Street on the Royal Mile). If someone flyers in the new town near a venue, they will be flyering in isolation and not picking up other shows’ punters.

This August will be particularly interesting to see and particularly uncertain for performers, yet the lure of the Fringe is still almost irresistible. There is that 85% increase in people applying to perform at PBH Free Fringe venues.

Uncertainty is almost an aphrodisiac for performers, but the financial repercussions are incalculable and go on and on.

What will happen next year when the end of the London Olympics overlaps with the beginning of the Edinburgh Fringe? Who knows?

For years, I have tried to find someone who can juggle cooked spaghetti for one minute and have always been unable to find anyone. But I have blind faith success may be possible. In that respect, I suppose I am much like Fringe performers going to Edinburgh.

The Fringe is an ongoing Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.

(NOTE TO READERS IN THE USA: The British English phrase “bums-on-seats” means something more financially sustainable than it does in American English)

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