I wrote this article for the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s magazine UK Writer in 2005.
With this year’s Edinburgh Fringe rapidly approaching, it might be of interest.
Though plus ça change.
LIFE ON THE FRINGE
I saw a tribute to Scottish comedian Chic Murray at the Edinburgh Fringe this year. It was out-of-town in a smallish room in what appeared to be a local housing association care home. It was difficult to find as there were no signs, no placards and the names on the buildings bore little relation to what was in the Fringe Programme.
In that sense, the whole experience epitomised the Fringe: a barely-credible ramshackle affair which, at its best, strays occasionally into fantasy and anarchy.
The man who epitomised the spirit of the Fringe was comedy promoter, club-owner and universally-admired talent spotter Malcolm Hardee. He drowned in January this year in a Rotherhithe dock into which he fell, drunk, happy, with betting shop winnings in his back pocket and, according to the Coroner, still clutching a bottle of his favourite beer.
This blatant piece of self-publicity also epitomises the Fringe. Desperate in-yer-face screaming publicity which attempts to get your voice heard, your posters and flyers glimpsed, your creative work or genius seen despite a market so full of product it’s as if the eleven largest hypermarkets in Britain have had all their groceries accidentally delivered to a one-man corner shop in Bolton.
Every year, within a four-week period in August, more student libidos are pumped to excess, more talentless egos are pumped with cocaine and more genuinely creative people are crushed forever than anywhere else on earth. During the Fringe, Edinburgh is a city of testosterone, bullshit and backstabbing amid dazzling primary colours and unrealistic expectations.
It is also a city of mystery. Why are there two separate shops close to each other in the Royal Mile both selling Christmas decorations and knick-knacks all-the-year-round? Why is there a blackboard fixed to the wall of the gents toilet in the Gilded Balloon basement which says: IN MEMORY OF GAVIN COLQUHOUN – FRIEND OF THE UNION ?
I mostly know the Comedy area, where stand-ups congratulate other stand-ups on their reviews from behind double-glazed smiles, adding, “Of course, it’s only The Scotsman that counts,” or “Of course, The Scotsman doesn’t really count,” depending on their relative numbers of stars and adding, “Good review, but it’s disgraceful he was so condescending to you. You deserved better.”
Writers tend to be immune from most of the worst excesses because the Fringe is a performers’ showcase. As elsewhere, the writer is only noticed if, like Ricky Gervais in The Office, he or she is a writer/performer.
This is a land where comics take their audiences into the toilet to perform because they think it will make them a Fringe legend and/or get them two inches in a newspaper.
Malcolm Hardee became a genuine legend by – while in the nude – driving a fork lift truck through American performance artist Eric Bogosian’s show… followed by his entire audience. PR man Mark Borkowski managed – on two consecutive years – to get acres of outraged newspaper coverage because French ‘Motorbike & Chainsaw Circus’ Archaos were going to juggle turned-on, buzzing and potentially limb-chopping chainsaws as part of their act: something they had reportedly done on the Continent. In fact, they never had and never did juggle chainsaws. It was PR bullshit. But PR bullshit is potent in Edinburgh. Who is to say that Mark Borkowski or Malcolm Hardee were less creative writers of fantasy scenarios than J.K.Rowling? They were not writing for print; instead they were structuring a rather warped, fantastical form of reality.
Betwixt all the spluttering and erratic flickering fairy lights of the performers’ egos and the sweeping searchlights of the normally desperate publicity agents flit the self-important Oxbridge media moths, who are often those most dangerous of creatures – airheads with degrees. With no opinions or tastes of their own they listen, drunk, to ‘the word on the street’ in the Gilded Balloon Library Bar or – far worse – coked out of their heads in the front bar of the George Hotel. They choose to sign acts not on talent-spotting ability but on gossip and who will impress their Soho House friends most.
They all read The Scotsman and The List, the local equivalent of Time Out, because they assume those two publications above all will know what shows to watch. But, of course, The Scotsman is above such things most of the year and The List knows only the acts who regularly play the small, bitchy and incestuous Scottish Lowland comedy scene where talent plays second fiddle to back-stabbing and back scratching.
The Fringe is a case of the blind leading the blind with the Perrier Award selling itself as fizzy water but often turning out to be flat. In recent years, acts of rare originality have been passed over for acts which have created a buzz yet failed to soar when given the chance. Look at a list of recent Perrier winners & nominees and you look at a list of Who Were Theys because the Perrier has got hamstrung by its own rules rather than looking for pure talent.
Until the last weekend of this year’s fun fest, the most un-remarked-on development at the Fringe was the creative rise of the tiny and shabby Holyrood Tavern, a 50-or-so-seater drab room behind a dingy pub at the bottom of the Pleasance hill en route to the old Gilded Balloon and the new Smirnoff Underbelly.
Seldom visited by media moths, only six years ago the Holyrood Tavern used to have naff acts you wouldn’t want to see even when drunk and in a tee-shirt on a rainy day. In the last five years, though, it has been programmed by Vicky de Lacey (female half of the Brian Damage & Krysstal comedy act) and the Holyrood has become a fascinating hotbed of interesting acts – some brilliant, some talented though underdeveloped and some just plain bizarre. Last year, the Holyrood Tavern’s Wil Hodgson won the Perrier Best Newcomer award. This year, their Laura Solon rightly won the prestigious main Perrier award for “Kopfraper’s Syndrome” while, with less of a fanfare, their “Desperately Seeking Sorrow” (Johnny Sorrow & Danny Worthington) was nominated for the new Malcolm Hardee Award.
Vicky De Lacey and Brian Damage run Pear Shaped comedy clubs in London and Sydney and are shaping up as the new Malcolm Hardee, although adding a pair of breasts to his legendary bollocks. They drink, they can spot talent and they run fascinatingly creative bills in shabby venues. Acts that used to play Malcolm’s venues – like the legendary Pigeon Man Phil Zimmerman – are now turning up at Pear Shaped venues.
So, while the media moths are attracted to the brightly coloured and wackily-posed posters of the three (or, with the Underbelly, four) main venues and sign up the Douglas Bader end of the creative spectrum – acts with no legs – the really interesting acts have been passing them by.
It will be interesting to see if this changes next year for two reasons.
One is that Pear Shaped at the Holyrood Tavern have now won major Perrier prizes at two consecutive Fringes. The other is Scots comedienne Janey Godley.
As Janey, a small, feisty Glaswegian in a black tee-shirt – with stomach-cramps and on prescribed steroids after an allergic reaction two days before to raw Japanese fish – touted her show on the steps, she was being physically shoved and brushed aside by the designer-dressed Oxbridge media moths. Turning, she lambasted them for coming to her capital city in her country looking for talent then shoving aside the only performer with the gumption to flyer in the one place where she could get access to all the movers and shakers.
“You could be shoving aside the one person who can get you promoted!” she yelled at them.
At this point, a shirt-sleeved man emerged, looked at the flyer and started helping her to plug her show. She continued to shout, touting her show: “JANEY GODLEY IS INNOCENT – The only Scottish female solo stand-up show on the Fringe!”
A camera crew, filming the good and the great as they emerged from the McTaggart venue instructed her to stop shouting and move out of their way.
“I was here first,” she shouted at them. “You move your fucking camera!”
“She’s not moving,” the shirt-sleeved man told them.
She didn’t move; people started taking her flyers; the shirt-sleeved man took one himself and left. Half an hour later, I got a text message from Janey.
“Who is Greg Dyke?” it asked. “He was a nice man who helped me flyer.”
Janey Godley’s website is www.janeygodley.com
My website is www.thejohnfleming.com
We are both available.
This is the Fringe.
Well, that was the Fringe in 2005.
The Holyrood Tavern has since been ‘modernised’. Pear Shaped no longer runs a venue at the Edinburgh Fringe, though its adventurous London club continues.
The Perrier Awards no longer exist as they keep changing their name.
Janey Godley will not be performing an hour-long show at the Fringe this year – her show The Godley Hour is at the Soho Theatre in London during the final week of the Edinburgh Fringe. But, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe, she will be taking part in one of two new annual Malcolm Hardee Debates on the proposition “Comedians are psychopathic masochists with a death wish” – on Monday 22nd August at The Hive. Details here.
At the Fringe, publicity is all-important.
Remember the wise advice of Max Bialystock.
“When you’ve got it, flaunt it, flaunt it!”