Tag Archives: City of London

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.”


Filed under Edinburgh, Festivals, London

Walking the plank, ten years of comedy awards and cataract operations

Yesterday afternoon, I went to Gordon ‘Bres’ Breslin’s annual get-together for former hecklers at the late Malcolm Hardee’s comedy clubs. There was talk of legendary heckler The Pirate and questions about where he was now. I vaguely remember Malcolm telling me The Pirate had, in his ‘real’ life, been a City of London stockbroker and that, once he made his mint, he retired early and went to live in Spain.

I could be corrected.

Also at the get-together, I got chatting with that wondrous act Frank Sanazi (he sings like Frank Sinatra, looks like Adolf Hitler). He told me a prominent comedy critic had come up to him after a show and said: “You know, secretly, I like your act!”


He’s a comedy critic!! Why secretly??

Frank Sanazi – real name Pete – also told me a tale of chatting on the Wibbley Wobbley floating pub with Malcolm (who drowned a few feet away in 2005). Malcolm was lamenting the poor standard of some of the Open Spot acts who appeared there.

“What can I do?” he asked Pete. “They’re shit.”

“You could make the worst ones walk the plank,” Pete suggested jokily.

“That’s a thought!” Malcolm said, seriously.

When we met yesterday afternoon, Pete said that, as was often the case with Malcolm, he possibly took this idea too far by drowning.

With luck, though, Malcolm’s memory will be kept alive by the Malcolm Hardee Awards which I started in 2005 or 2007 (depending on how you calculate it).

Another reason for starting the Awards was that I realised they meant I could get free tickets for any comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe for at least ten years. (I know Malcolm would have approved of this scam.)

I decided in 2007 to get a decade’s worth of trophies made in advance in case I encountered some serious financial embarrassment in the future so the Malcolm Hardee Awards (unlike some other lesser awards at the Edinburgh Fringe which rely on sponsorship) will certainly be awarded until 2017.

Coincidentally, last night, I went to the annual Fringe Report Awards masterminded by the remarkable John Park. He announced on stage that next year – 2012 – after ten years – both Fringe Report and the Fringe Report Awards would stop. A great pity, as Fringe Report encourages theatrical talent on the way up (as the Malcolm Hardee Awards try to do with comedians) rather than awarding trophies to people who are already vastly successful.

Now, I am off to have what I hope is a routine follow-up check-up on my eyes.

Last year, I had two cataract operations.

I hope I’ll be seeing you soon.

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Lower costs and corruption with the creation of a national UK police force?

The government reckons it can make large savings on the cost of policing by making cutbacks to “backroom” posts which will not affect the numbers of police on the streets. I have no idea if this is true or possible, but there obviously could be large savings to be made by cutting duplication of bureaucracy and by centralisation – all the more so if a National Police Force replaced the local police forces we currently have.

I understand the arguments against having a National Police Force – basically, that we don’t want  policing to be controlled by central government because there might then be a short, slippery slope to a police state.

But we already have the Special Branch, MI5, GCHQ, Echelon and god alone knows who else roaming the country observing us. The motorway cameras are linked centrally and the local police CCTV cameras can be linked-in. if someone tries to detonate a bomb in Haymarket in London, the perpetrators can be linked relatively quickly to an attack at Glasgow Airport and people can be arrested on a motorway in the north of England. All because the various national government, local government and police cameras around the country can be accessed centrally.

Yes, I know… this is all being done not by the government itself but by the independent police and/or possibly by the Special Branch and MI5 (in reality called the Security Service and, not surprisingly, never known by its initials).

But, let’s be real, this is the 21st century. Crime is not limited to national boundaries, let alone county boundaries. I really do not think (much as I’m sure they are loveable people) that the Dumfries & Galloway Police are really resourced to outwit a South American drug cartel with a turnover of billions of dollars per month.

There is also the corruption factor.

Larger bureaucracies, by and large, are less prone to corruption than local, smaller organisations. In my lifetime, there has been very little corruption at national government level in the UK. Some, but not a lot. Local government, of course, has always been prone to corruption because of old-boy networks. It’s a question of size. I am old enough to remember the much-admired T. Dan Smith scandal in North East England.

The UK is relatively large and it seems to have little national political corruption.

The Republic of Ireland is much smaller and seems to run almost entirely on corruption – the Charlie Haughey factor, I think – everybody knows everyone else. It’s amiable and admirably Irish, but widespread. Political corruption Scotland I know nothing about, but the size of the country’s population and its concentration in the central strip between Glasgow and Edinburgh doesn’t bode well.

Corruption in the current English police forces (according to the National Criminal Intelligence Service in 1998) has reached Third World levels though, to be honest, that’s no different to the 1960s when the Richardsons (always far more sophisticated than the Krays) were rumoured to have an Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police on their payroll. In 1966, the Metropolitan Police was so corrupt that Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, was reported to be thinking of replacing up to 70% of the Met’s CID with officers from Birmingham, Devon & Cornwall, Kent and Manchester… and, frankly, if he thought there were un-corrupt police in Manchester in the 1960s, he must have been taking some seriously strong illegal substances.

When Roberto Calvi of Banco Ambrosiano was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge, there was a persistent rumour that one million pounds had been paid to someone in the City of London Police to obstruct, divert and stifle the investigation.

It always seemed to me that the bungled investigation of the Stephen Lawrence killing in 1993 – which resulted in the Met being officially labelled as “institutionally racist” had less to do with racism and more to do with corruption. In a pub, a Customs & Excise investigator working on a separate case saw the criminal father of one of the suspects hand over a bulging envelope to a police officer working on the Lawrence enquiry. To add surrealism to corruption, at that time the criminal father was wanted by the police but was living quite openly in South East England. I rather suspect some other brown envelopes may have found their way into other policemen’s hands.

At the moment, the Home Secretary oversees the Met; other police forces are overseen by local government committees. If the police forces in England were centralised into a single English Police Force – or, even better, if it were politically possible to create a single UK Police Force – there might be less blatant police corruption and the centralised bureaucracy would presumably be much cheaper because duplication would be cut.

On the other hand, of course, the bribes might just get bigger.

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Filed under Crime, Drugs, History, Politics, Racism

Bankers, Cockney rhyming slang and a very wise woman

There’s a report out today about the British banking system. About whether the banks are too big. The problem for me isn’t size, it’s efficiency – and I wish I could say that in reference to other areas of my life.

The words “piss-up”, “brewery”, “in”, a”, “organise” and “couldn’t” spring to mind and the Cockney rhyming slang for “wankers” comes as no surprise to me.

For many years, my current account has been with Bank of Scotland; I also have an account with Halifax, which is part of Bank of Scotland. Both are now owned by Lloyds Bank.

Because of the lack of Bank of Scotland branches in London, I have long paid money into my BoS account via Halifax: I just walk into any Halifax branch with my BoS Cashcard and pay money into my BoS account.

If I want to pay a bill – a gas or electricity bill or anything else, I can now just go into any branch of Lloyds Bank with the appropriate paying-in slip and pay the bill using a Bank of Scotland cheque.

Yesterday, I attempted to pay a Virgin Media cheque into my own Bank of Scotland current account at a Lloyds branch.

I was told I could not pay anything into my Bank of Scotland current account – not a cheque, not cash – because, although Lloyds own Bank of Scotland, it is “a separate bank”.

Well, chums, Bank of Scotland and Halifax are equally separate, but I can still pay money into BoS via Halifax – and I can still pay a bill via Lloyds using a Bank of Scotland cheque.

So I can pay money into other people’s accounts with other banks via Lloyds, but I cannot pay money into my own Bank of Scotland account, despite the fact Lloyds own Bank of Scotland.

We appear to have entered a surreal parallel universe here.

So I am moving my account to Royal Bank of Scotland. They have not-a-lot of branches in London, but they do own NatWest Bank and I can simply walk into any NatWest branch and pay money into a Royal Bank of Scotland account. No problem.

Lloyds may not be too big to survive. But it is certainly too incompetent to survive.

I remember standing in Liverpool Street station in the heart of the City of London one Friday afternoon at 4.30pm watching City workers going home, early, paralytically drunk. Not just swaying but staggering, their limbs jerking erratically like headless chickens with Parkinson’s Disease wearing dark business suits.

These were not old drunken men; they were bright young City dudes in their twenties and early thirties and they must have been drinking all afternoon, while foggy-mindedly running the UK economy in the financial powerhouse that is the City of London.

I had money in two Icelandic banks when their entire financial system disintegrated in 2007. Those two banks were each more efficient than Lloyds Bank – and they both crashed. I suspect those Icelandic bankers did not drink ‘on the job’.

British bankers do.

Whither the British banking system?

Whither Lloyds?

The mother of a friend of mine used to live in various dodgy foreign countries (her husband was in the RAF and she later worked for NATO). She wore a series of thin but pure gold bracelets on her wrists because she knew, with them, she could buy her way out of any country if it suddenly collapsed.

A very wise woman.

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