Tag Archives: festival

Not quite dead yet – Lynn Ruth Miller is making merry in Montenegro

Lynn ruth Miller on her 82nd birthday

Lynn Ruth Miller on her 82nd birthday

A message received today from performer Lynn Ruth Miller which, I think, deserves a blog in itself for unexpectedness:


I am now in Montenegro with 200 Russians at a conference called Well Over Fifty.

So far, there have been lectures on how to pulverise spinach for a gourmet treat, how to be happy – whatever that is – how to not give a damn about money after you make the first million and a demonstration by a 97-year-old woman shorter than I am on how to shoot a bow and arrow: a technique I have long needed in case I get accosted in a dark alley.  

The bow and arrow was a great deal bigger than she was and the only problem she did not address was how to transport it in your handbag. 

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Edinburgh Free Festival boss on PBH fall-out and the Cowgatehead fiasco

The Cowgatehead venue last year

Cowgatehead venue – entrance to the Edinburgh labyrinth… Abandon hope all ye who try to explain what’s happened here.

This year, the Edinburgh Fringe Programme will make the Minoan labyrinth seem like the open plains of the Serengeti (and contain more rogue animals) because of the ongoing Cowgatehead affair. As a result of it, acts are going to be performing in different venues at different times to where/when they are billed. Or not at all.

The Cowgatehead elevator pitch explanation is that there are four organisations offering ‘free’ shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. In order of appearance: the PBH Free Fringe (so-called after its founder Peter Buckley Hill) from which split off the Laughing Horse Free Festival, Bob Slayer’s Heroes of the Fringe and the Freestival.

Freestival understood they had rights this year to programme acts in the Cowgatehead venue. Now the PBH Free Fringe has those rights. As a result, it has been calculated that (overall) acts will lose at least £77,000.

Over a week ago, I had a long-planned chat with Alex Petty of the Laughing Horse Free Festival (not directly involved in the Cowgatehead fiasco) and I have been sitting on the resultant blog ever since then, awaiting the rumoured sudden announcement of a new venue or venues (unconnected with Alex).

Two days ago, I was told yet another free venue may have been lost because there was no signed contract (again, unconnected with Alex). And not a venue one might have expected. But that (if true) has not yet been announced.

The Edinburgh Fringe thrives on gossip, starts in just four weeks time, the chaos continues… and the most gobsmacking story of the whole Cowgatehead affair (which I believe) seems unlikely to be revealed for several months, if ever. Now there is a tease. I do like a good tease.

Anyway, I met and chatted to Alex Petty of the Laughing Horse Free Festival over a week ago.

“Cowgatehead has been a mess, then,” was the first thing I said to him.

Alex Petty at Soho Theatre, London

Alex Petty at the Soho Theatre last month

“I think that’s fair to say,” he replied.

“It could be turned into a show,” I said.

“Probably a musical,” suggested Alex. “That’s what usually happens at the Fringe.”

When booked and advertised shows were unceremoniously chucked out of the Cowgatehead, some were given homes by other promoters.

“The Free Festival,” said Alex, “has got about 15 shows that have moved across this year. Bob Slayer has some. And I know Darrell (Martin, of Just the Tonic) has a load. Behind-the-scenes, most venues do help each other. That does genuinely happen. I was lending equipment to Freestival people last year.”

“And,” I said, “The Gilded Balloon had trouble with a new room this year, so the competing Pleasance Dome has let them use one of their rooms. And a couple of years ago, Bob Slayer was short of chairs, so the Underbelly venue gave him some – for free.”

“There is a genuine Fringe community,” said Alex. “The one good thing about the Cowgatehead affair is that people have proved this community idea does happen. I find Peter’s publicity wants to make people believe there is a battle between free and paid venues, a battle between Free Fringe and Freestival and Free Festival but most of the venues just want to get on with it and will help each other out.”

“The whole Cowgatehead thing was unnecessary,” I suggested.

“In reality,” agreed Alex, “if everything that Peter said had happened had happened and Freestival had maybe buggered it up a bit, then if Peter had just put out just exactly what had happened and said We have six spaces rather than nine, so six shows are going to go ahead and we will help out the other shows, finding them other places, then people would have said he was brilliant for saving the venue. But it was the whole way he did it that has made him into a Public Enemy as well.”

“I think,” I said, “the Rubicon was that meeting arranged by Freestival to agree a compromise in London which Peter said he couldn’t go to because it didn’t exist (using the present tense). If that meeting had happened, no act would have lost money or rooms. I think the Free Fringe and Freestival have both (as far as I can see) told the exact truth and, with Peter’s very exact use of present and/or past tenses in what he said, apparently opposite realities can both be true. Did you see the emails between the Free Fringe and Freestival which I posted in my blog? They were both co-operating amiably on all sorts of things. earlier his year.”

Free Fringe

Free Fringe – interesting times

“I would suggest,” said Alex, “that Peter had never seen any of those emails. The problem with the Free Fringe which I had, Bob Slayer had and Freestival had was that, as individuals, you think: I could do this better. If we could change that a little bit, that would help. And you genuinely believe you can take things forward. But then you hit a brick wall with Peter.”

“Why did Laughing Horse and PBH fall out?” I asked.

“We worked with him for two years and it gradually got more and more obvious that we had – and it was probably only slightly – different views on how things should work. Obviously, Peter is well-known for his (acts) not-contributing-any-money-for-anything stance unless it’s voluntary. Whereas we suggested acts should bung in a bit of money to go towards printing a programme. It was a hundred little things like that amplified.

“Essentially, after two years, I came to the realisation: This whole thing is being held together by a very narrow, wet bit of string. It’s not working for everyone. Peter wasn’t happy about it. We weren’t happy. What can we do? Let’s go and do our own thing. In our own heads, not really knowing the full psychology of Peter, the whole idea was: We will go and run some free stuff our way – which is basically the way Peter does it, but we take a bit of money and we supply equipment. Same ends; slightly different route getting there. We can maybe both have a brochure together and work together where we can.

“At that point, there were only four venues – Lindsay’s, Canons’ Gait, the Meadow Bar and Jekyll & Hyde. As part of a conversation we had with Peter, we said: If you speak to them and we speak to them, they’ll make a decision about what they want to do. And, obviously, the moment we said that, we were Public enemy No 1.”

“You started Laughing Horse,” I said, “with just one little club in…”

Free Festival shows in the Fringe Programme

Free Festival shows in the Fringe Programme

“Richmond,” said Alex. “In March 1999. I’ve never had any sort of plan. I went up to Edinburgh one year and thought: Better do something here. We don’t do so many comedy clubs these days. We still have the one in Richmond. One in Brighton. Edinburgh has pushed us on to doing festivals. We still do our New Act competition each year in the UK. We’re probably associated with 4 or 5 different venues but it’s really moved on to festival stuff.

“We do the Perth Fringe World and Adelaide. So much of the stuff has all sprung from doing Edinburgh. Last year we did the Singapore Comedy Festival for the first time: lots of expat Brits, Americans and locals – a good mix of Malay and Thai and other people doing comedy.”

“You co-run that festival, don’t you?” I asked.

“My job mostly is finding the acts, looking after the acts and maybe giving advice on setting up venues. There’s a couple of people out in Singapore who essentially run it.

“This year, we did three nights of shows in Hong Kong, Manila two nights, Singapore three nights. It worked pretty well. It was fun. Twenty-odd comedians all meeting up in Hong Kong and having ten days together in three countries and figuring out if comedy is ever going to work in Manila.”

“Because?” I asked.

“Because Manila was certainly an experience. It’s the only time I’ve been nose-to-nose with someone who is meant to be the head of a biker gang who says he doesn’t want comedians anywhere near the venue because they’ve had a bit of a falling-out with one of the acts.

“It was completely not the act’s fault. But there was a disagreement with the act and the wife of this guy who was really kicking-off – irate, with hands all over the place. We ended up just basically bundling the comedians out the back door and saying: Let’s not do any more comedy here. He was a really irate man. It was my first trip to the Philippines; never been there before.”

“Are you going to be back in Manila again next year?”

“Yes.”

“So, after this,” I said, “the Cowgatehead kerfuffle was a stroll in the park?”

“Absolutely.”

“Laughing Horse,” I pointed out, “has not done the obvious leap from comedy promotions and venue-running into comedy act management. Why?”

“I like to be out doing shows. Management is just more admin, more sitting in front of a computer, more shuffling numbers and contracts around. We’ve had conversations about Laughing Horse having a small agency but it’s not what I’m interested in.”

“How are you going to expand?”

“Well, Perth has only happened the last couple of years. That is a cracking festival. At the moment, I just produce shows there. I’d eventually like to find a venue to run and push it forward that way. In Adelaide, we’re involved in a couple of venues – one we run; one we co-run. I’ve been at Melbourne two or three years now and I’m hoping to build up and see what happens there. The Sydney Comedy Festival happens in May and that could be added on to the end of Melbourne. We may look at that one year. There’s also the New Zealand festivals that happen in May. So there are some other things out there to look at. Though May clashes with the Brighton Festival back in the UK, which has ended up being the Edinburgh preview festival.”

“Next year?” I asked.

Alex Petty at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013 (Photograph by Brian Higgins)

Alex Petty at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013 (Photograph by Brian Higgins)

“For Laughing Horse, the plans are more of the same, really. I would like Freestival to continue. The more promoters of free shows there are the better. This nonsense happens at Edinburgh every year in one way, shape or form. It’s chaos. My experience of other festivals around the world is you just turn up and do your thing. Why not at Edinburgh? Is it lack of spaces? Is it bigger egos? I don’t know. I think it was Brian Damage who said to me that the Fringe basically is always chaos for everyone but you get there and always get through in the end and that’s a philosophy that has always been true. Somehow it all works. But I don’t think anyone really knows how.”

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My cheap life and how PBH changed the very costly face of the Edinburgh Fringe

Malcolm Hardee Show 2014

Tonight, I stage the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show – starting slightly late in The Counting House, one of the venues provided by the Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Edinburgh Fringe.

I am old enough to remember Swinging London and the Summer of Love. I helped out briefly at The Free Bookshop – it was a garage in Earl’s Court – where people donated the books they had read and other people could come along, take them away, read them and, if they wanted to, bring them back.

I even went barefoot for a brief time, but grit and dog turds on suburban London pavements proved to be a deterrent to long-term foot liberation.

The International Times ‘it’ girl

The iconic ‘it’ girl on the hippie International Times logo

Later, I was Film Section Editor – I wrote reviews and gossip about movies – for a re-incarnation of iconic hippie newspaper International Times (latterly called simply it after The Times threatened legal action on the basis people might confuse the two).

So I am no stranger to the concept of “Let’s make it free, man” which has now changed the face of the Edinburgh Fringe.

There are currently four free organisations at the Fringe: the original PBH Free Fringe… the breakaway Free Festival… Bob Slayer’s Pay What You Want model which is separate from but happily co-exists with the Free Festival… and the Freestival, this year’s new breakaway from PBH. I understand that, next year, there may even be a fifth free organisation.

My first involvement with the free organisations at the Edinburgh Fringe was in 2008, when I helped stage a comedy show for a performer.

This year’s PBH Fringe logo

This year’s PBH Fringe logo

The performer wanted to go with the PBH Free Fringe, so I staged my other show with the Free Festival to keep a foot in both camps. If the performer had wanted to go with the Free Festival, I would have staged the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards shows with PBH.

In 2011, I staged some chat shows with the Free Festival.

In 2013, I staged some chat shows with Bob Slayer’s Pay What You Want operation.

And this year’s Grouchy Club chat-with-the-audience shows are with the Free Festival.

The ‘free’ show model is that the audience pays nothing in advance. They can pay whatever they want (or nothing) on leaving. It is like indoor busking.

With the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award Shows, I take no profit and cover none of my costs. 100% of any and all money donated goes to Kate Copstick’s admirable Mama Biashara charity in Kenya.

On my Grouchy Club shows, no money is collected. The shows are totally free. This is because I am old enough to know how to stage 23 hour-long shows for a total cost of £60.

I love Edinburgh.

My favourite places in the world are Edinburgh, Prague and Luang Prabang in Laos. I feel more at home in Edinburgh than anywhere else. Which is strange, as I have never had a home here.

My other childhood destination in August

Isle of Whithorn: Another childhood destination in August

When I was a kid, after my parents moved to London, my family used to go to Scotland every August for our summer holidays – we stayed (for free, obviously) with relations in Wigtownshire where both my parents grew up, and in Edinburgh, where my father had an aunt. After I left college, I started going to the Edinburgh Film Festival (then in August; now in June). And, around 1985, I started going to the Edinburgh Fringe. So I have been going to Edinburgh in August for most of my life, possibly since I was an embryo.

And, perhaps excepting two years, for free.

When I was accredited at the Film Festival, I happily sat in press screenings in darkened rooms from 10.00am to 10.00pm.

When I came to the Fringe, it was usually scouting talent for TV companies, publishers or whatever.

The Malcolm Hardee Awards, with ‘Million’ award in middle

The three Malcolm Hardee Awards, awaiting their collection

I started the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards in 2007 partly because I thought Malcolm (who drowned in 2005) deserved to be remembered, definitely because I wanted to see new comedy talent and partly because it was a good way to get free tickets to every comedy show in Edinburgh for ten years. (I had trophies made in advance for 2007-2017.)

In 2007, shows were mostly pay-to-see at a rapidly escalating rate. If a show costs £10 and you see 6-8 shows per day for perhaps 28 days, that adds up. Well, at that rate, 6 shows per day actually adds up to £1,680.

It is said that the Free Fringe was started by PBH (Peter Buckley Hill) with one show in 1996. But it took a few years to get momentum going and it was probably just before I started the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards that the Free Fringe started having a serious impact.

In 2008, PBH himself was nominated for the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality for starting the Free Fringe (the award eventually went to comic Ed Aczel) and, in 2009, PBH won the panel prize from the Perrier Award (which, that year, was calling itself the Edinburgh Comedy Awards).

This year, PBH has again been nominated for one of the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards – as the Act Least Likely to Make a Million Quid because (the nomination says) “unlike most acts, Peter has heroically never aspired to make any money from the Fringe and has staunchly defended his free model.”

Peter has said he declines to be nominated: “I did not seek it and do not want it.”

Well, you can’t really turn down a nomination. You can turn down an award, if it were to be offered (which it has not been yet, at the time of writing) or send a Native American Indian along, like Marlon Brando did at the Oscars. There is, luckily, a community of Native American Indians in nearby Glasgow, left behind from when Buffalo Bill performed his Wild West show there in the early 20th century…

The Act Most Likely Award awaits its fate in Edinburgh this morning

The Malcolm Hardee ‘Act Most Likely’ Award awaits its fate in Edinburgh this morning

I have no idea if Peter will win this, one of the three increasing prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards. We decide this afternoon and announce the full awards at midnight tonight, during the Counting House show.

But he deserves an Award. He has changed the face of the Fringe.

Most of the shows I saw at the Fringe this year were free shows.

All three of the nominees for the main Comic Originality Award were performing free shows.

For the Cunning Stunt Award, two of the nominees were flyerers and the other one was performing a free show.

In the Act Most Likely To category, both the nominees were linked to free shows.

That reflects a major change in the Fringe.

Janey Godley podcasts with daughter Ashley Storrie

Janey Godley (left) podcasts with daughter Ashley Storrie

In her podcast last week, my comedy chum Janey Godley, who has always very successfully performed in pay venues at the Fringe, revealed that, next year, she will be performing in a free venue. I know that she and her husband go through Fringe revenues with a fine tooth comb. This is not a minor change. If someone with Janey’s profile in Edinburgh is prepared to move from the pay model to the free model, others will move.

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Edinburgh Fringe: My Grouchy Club co-host Kate Copstick says I am “odious”

In Edinburgh last night, bad eating options continued

In Edinburgh last night, bad eating options…

In yesterday’s blog, I mentioned a comedian who, for two consecutive days, had not noticed the line between admirable persistence and pointless harassment to plug his Edinburgh Fringe show. Yesterday, I had yet another text and another phone call from him. Thankfully, my iPhone makes it easy to block numbers, which I have now done.

Over-promotion without originality is counter-promotion.

My yesterday – in brief – was seeing in their shows:

– Weirdo Ali Brice directed by Weirdo Adam Larter in Eric Meat Wants To Go Shopping. It is rare to see a director with a  propellor on his head.

– Beloved, if unnecessarily hirsute, Alexander Bennett putting a black sack over the head of a member of the media in Follow Me. Brave or foolhardy?

– Carter and Ollerton doing the best pigeon impressions in their Won’t Go Quietly show since Phil ‘Pigeon Man’ Zimmerman.

– Daphna Baram in AKA Miss D talking about the current Gaza Strip violence, during which I heard a punter behind  me genuinely confuse ‘Hamas’ with ‘hummus’.

Three of the shows above were at the Freestival’s new (and not yet completed) Cowgatehead venue.

Years ago, my chum Janey Godley performed at the new (and not yet completed) Green Room Venue. She complained that the signage outside the venue was virtually non-existent. Someone involved suggested that the venue could be “a little secret that punters will slowly discover and treasure”. This is not something to say to Janey about a Fringe venue at which she is performing and the guy was lucky not to be found attached to a bag of cement underwater in Leith.

But I think Cowgatehead may have out-done The Green Room in the invisibility stakes.

Not only is the interior signage to the (I think six) performance spaces either non-existent or brilliantly hidden (worse than C Venues, which is traditionally a triumph of confusion) but there is no signage at all outside which hints that this might be the Cowgatehead venue; it is just a narrow doorway with no sign.

Note that, above, I was criticising the new Freestival, a breakaway from the original PBH Free Fringe. PBH is Peter Buckley-Hill.

At The Grouchy Club yesterday: a bad selfie of Coptick and me

The Grouchy Club yesterday – a bad selfie of Copstick and me

Yesterday, at the first of my daily Grouchy Club shows with Kate Copstick, she told the audience:

“I met Peter Buckley-Hill in the Cowgate last night. He was the man who started all the free shows (at the Fringe) as a real mission from his heart and soul. He thought people ought not to be getting ripped-off: performers, punters, whoever. He started with one show – Peter Buckley-Hill & Some Comedians and, on the shoulders of that, stands every single performer in any free show on this Fringe.

“He grew the Free Fringe and then this lot, Laughing Horse, got invoked (we were in The Counting House, a Laughing Horse Free Festival venue) but only because it looked like there was a bit of a thing already going. I don’t believe they would have started it on their own. There was a bit of a hoo-hah and they ended up with quite a few of Peter’s venues.

“After that, there was a £5 Fringe and then an Oh, We’re Free Too Fringe and then, this year, some misguided, egotistical, selfish little shits decided that Peter wasn’t running his Free Fringe well enough. Good grief! they said. These incredible artists are being expected to play rooms where there is sound-spill from the next venue!

“These boys decided they could do it better than Peter. But they wanted to do it better with quite a lot of his shows and some of his venues. So they have now started the Freestival. They stabbed him in the back and hurt him – though he wouldn’t admit that – hurt him considerably. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who hurts Peter Buckley-Hill is beyond the pale.

“He can be ‘challenging’ to work with but I really believe, in an increasingly industrialised comedy environment, passion is something to  be treasured beyond everything and Peter does what he does from passion. You should try to see Peter Buckley Hill & Some Comedians. It’s very late.”

“Is he on this year?” I asked. “I thought he wasn’t coming up to Edinburgh.”

“Well,” said Copstick, “I met him in the Cowgate last night and he said to me: I understand you’re doing a show with the opposition… And you’re doing a show with the odious John Fleming… I am such a clype. That’s a Scottish word that means tell-tale. I said I don’t think John’s odious… Peter said: Oh! He’s odious! You’re with the Freestival.

“I said: I’m not with the Freestival. I know it’s bad enough we’re at The Counting House, but that’s because that’s where the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show goes on. A brilliant show. And it’s so big it needs a venue like The Ballroom at The Counting House.

“He said: I thought you were with the Freestival… No, no, no, we’re not, I said. And then I got a text from him this morning to say – far be it from me to be partisan – that the Cowgatehead is not quite ready for the Freestival acts.”

“I want to know why I was odious,” I said. “I don’t mind. I think being called odious is good. It’s better than being ignored.”

“I don’t think you’re odious at all,” said Copstick. “Have you written something nasty about Peter in your blog?”

“No,” I said, “I always try to be very even-handed about Peter.”

“Ah, but you’ve been writing stuff about the Freestival,” suggested Copstick.

“Well, I went to the Freestival launch,” I admitted, “a couple of days ago and said they had very good fairy cakes.”

He who is not my friend is my enemy,” said Copstick.

“Haven’t you got a little bit in the Freestival Programme?” a voice from the audience asked.

“Oh yes, so I have!” I said. “Ah!”

“Oh John!” said Copstick. “That’s odious!”

“They asked me to write a little bit for their brochure,” I said. “I’ll write anything for anyone.”

“Actually,” said Copstick. “It’s quite cool to be odious.”

“It’s good PR for me,” I said.

“Indeed,” said Copstick. “Indeed.”

Below is the piece I wrote for the Freestival Programme. They headlined it:

A Few Words From (The Increasingly Prestigious) John Fleming

Is this the piece that made me so odious?

This Freestival piece made me an odious man?

I started the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards in 2007 (or 2005 – it depends how you look at it).

I started them partly in memory of Malcolm Hardee – the increasingly prestigious (since his death) ’godfather’ of British Alternative Comedy – and partly because I thought the Fringe awards scene had got a bit stale and established and the whole thing needed a bit of chaotic amateurism re-inserted to re-invigorate it. I think I do that rather well.

There is a lot to be said for chaotic amateurism and, just to prove my point, there are now four lots of people organising ‘free’ shows at the Fringe – the original PBH Free Fringe, the breakaway Laughing Horse Free Festival, Bob Slayer’s complementary Pay What You Want @Heroes shows and now, this year, the Freestival (another breakaway from the original PBH Free Fringe).

(That last sentence was edited in the printed Freestival Programme to “and now, this year, La Favorita Freestival”)

While the Freestival people seem to be commendably efficient at getting sponsorship backing, I still retain high hopes that there can be an element of chaotic amateurism in there.

The Fringe without chaos would be like the Glastonbury Festival without mud. You would feel less soiled but be less satisfied.

The spirit of the Fringe is much talked about but difficult to define. I think it is chaotic amateurism stopping only a tiny bit short of utter anarchy.

That starts from the basic fact that no-one organises the Fringe.

The Festival Fringe Office co-ordinates and helps performers and punters, but anyone can take part and do anything anywhere within the laws of libel and short of actually murdering or mutilating members of the audience. (Although I would pay to see that show.)

If Fred Bloggs wants to come to Edinburgh in August and perform Hamlet in Swedish every hour for 28 consecutive days in a butcher’s shop in Leith while dressed as a penguin, then he just has to arrange the venue himself, pay the Fringe Office to list it in the Fringe Programme and he is performing on the Fringe… and he would stand a good chance of getting an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award.

In fact, he does not even need to be in the Fringe Programme. If he merely SAYS he will and DOES perform, then he is part of the Fringe.

I have always thought the Chinese curse – May you live in interesting times – was a rather attractive option. Which is why I enjoy the Fringe.

The only Fringe rule is constant, blatant self-publicity.

I write an increasingly prestigious daily blog at http://blog.thejohnfleming.com

If you REALLY want to know what is happening behind-the-scenes at the Fringe, you should read my daily blog or go hear the gossip at the daily Grouchy Club.

When I was asked to write this piece, I asked: “Does it not matter that both my shows are at the Free Festival, not the Freestival?”

“No,” I was told. “We’re all free. We’re all in it together.”

That is the sort of anarchy I like.

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The Edinburgh Fringe’s free festivals as seen by The Free Festival’s Alex Petty

GrouchyClub_MalcolmHardeeAwards2014

Blatant self interest at Edinburgh Fringe

I have to declare an interest. At the Edinburgh Fringe this year, the annual increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show AND the daily Grouchy Club which I am hosting with critic Kate Copstick are both being staged at The Counting House – a Laughing Horse Free Festival venue. The Edinburgh Fringe is strangely complicated. Pay attention. This year, the Fringe officially starts on Friday but, as always, actually starts this Wednesday. The Laughing Horse Free Festival and Bob Slayer’s Heroes of Fringe/Pay What You Want shows start on Thursday. The La Favorita Freestival starts on Friday. And the PBH Free Fringe starts on Saturday. There are two types of venues in Edinburgh. There are the traditional ‘pay’ venues. That means audiences pay in advance to see the shows and the performers pay large amounts to rent the rooms and facilities.

This year’s PBH Fringe logo

This year’s PBH Fringe logo

But there are now four organisations hosting ‘free’ shows. That means entry is free (though you are expected to donate money on the way out) and the performers pay nothing to perform in the venue. The original Free Fringe was started by Peter Buckley-Hill (known as PBH) in 1996. He was later joined by Alex Petty of Laughing Horse Comedy, but they split in 2004 and Alex started the (in Peter’s eyes) competing Free Festival. My understanding was that Peter did not agree with Alex’s view that they should charge the acts a small amount to cover the cost of appearing in the printed Free Fringe programme (although the PBH Free Fringe runs fund-raising pre-Fringe shows in London). Last year, Bob Slayer started his ‘Pay What You Want’ version of the free model which means you can either get in for free or guarantee a seat by buying a £5 ticket in advance. This year, there was another breakaway from PBH’s original Free Fringe organisation. The breakaway organisers – calling themselves The Freestival – have managed to get £25,000 sponsorship from local La Favorita pizza chain, matched by £25,000 sponsorship from Arts & Business Scotland.

Alex Petty talked to me at the Soho Theatre

Alex Petty talked to me at the Soho Theatre

“PBH seemed to feel threatened by your Free Festival,” I said to Alex Petty when we met at the Soho Theatre in London. “Do you feel threatened by the new Freestival this year?” “Not at all,” said Alex. “I think the more free organisations the better. And let’s not forget the Scottish Comedy Festival down at The Beehive, where they do a mixture of paid and free stuff.” “Would you take sponsorship like the Freestival?” I asked. “I think that’s given them a good foundation this year,” said Alex. “They’ve started as quite a large organisation with several venues and performance spaces, whereas we started with one venue and gradually grew and acquired equipment and things we needed over the course of eleven years. What they’ve managed to do is get the equipment and stuff in and pay for the set-up for their venues in one go.

The Laughing Horse Free Festival logo

The Laughing Horse Free Festival logo for this year

“The Free Festival gets sponsorship in little ways – Kopparberg sponsor various bits of The Counting House. The Three Sisters is sponsored. It tends to be the venues themselves in partnership with sponsors, not us. It pays for the stages. “And then a lot of the companies behind the venues put money in as well. Our three main venues – The Counting House, Three Sisters and Espionage – spend a lot of money on advertising themselves, supplying equipment and staff. “We’ve never got to the point of having a big headline sponsor for the Free Festival. A lot of companies who want to sponsor comedy are alcohol companies and they want to get their products into the venues, but we have 22 venues all tied to different breweries, different companies. Some are owned by bigger companies; some are independent; trying to get them all to sign up to the same thing is difficult.”

The new Freestival 2014 logo from sponsors La Favorita

The new Freestival 2014 logo from pizza sponsors La Favorita

“Now, with the Freestival,” I said, “there is even more competition.” “We’ve all got slightly different ideas,” said Alex. “It’s going to be a friendly rivalry.” “Bob Slayer’s Pay What You Want shows are listed in your Free Festival brochure,” I said. “Can you see a joint Free brochure coming out?… Although presumably not with PBH Free Fringe shows in it.” “Peter can be very combative about stuff,” said Alex. “It’s his way or no way. He’s got a very set vision and sticking to that is good in many ways. You would think Peter would be happy and proud that there are so many people now doing free shows, but he’s not happy with other people doing similar things.” “The perceived problem with free shows,” I said, “is the quality.”

Bob Slayer’s Pay What You Want hybrid of free and pay to book

Bob Slayer’s Pay What You Want hybrid of both free & book

“Well,” said Alex, “there are good and bad free shows. There are good and bad paid shows. There used to be a lot of Oh. It’s free. It must be rubbish. But now people are just treating them as normal shows. Every individual show, free or paid, rests on its own laurels. “The more people put on serious free shows and set up decent venues, the more people will come across to the free shows. In the last eleven years, it’s grown ridiculously and we have not seen a dip in audiences even though, every year, there are more shows – We have grown; PBH has grown; Bob Slayer has come along and expanded things. I think, with bigger and better acts and more venues running for free, that is going to pull audiences away from paid to free venues rather than taking any numbers away from the existing free audience.” “But the quality of the free shows,” I persisted, “must be lower, because you haven’t got the technical back-up. You can’t do a 10-person musical.”

The cast of Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel (Image by Idil Sukan of Draw HQ)

The cast of Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel (Image by Idil Sukan of Draw HQ)

Austentatious was in The Counting House Ballroom last year,” Alex pointed out, “and this year we have Who Ya Gonna Call? (the Ghostbusters musical). In terms of putting on large, complex productions, it’s difficult. But the Ballroom at The Counting House means we can put on things which have 6-10 people on stage. It has programmable lights; we can do scene changes and lighting changes. The Three Sisters is getting there as well, with a couple of its bigger rooms.” “I understand,” I said, “that the Freestival have put soundproofing into the Cowgatehead. So things ARE looking up. But what do you get out of it? Not vast amounts of money.” “Sadly not,” said Alex. “Laughing Horse gets work and good PR. When performers go up to Edinburgh and then progress their career, we go on with them to other festivals where we do make money and we get a lot of good PR which pushes us up in the industry a bit for getting further work.

Janey Godley at the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show last year (Photo by Stephen O’Donnell)

Janey Godley at the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show in the ballroom of The Counting House (Photograph by Stephen O’Donnell)

“We don’t run quite so many comedy clubs any more. We have 10 or 15 places where we do regular monthly gigs or on-and-off. But we do a lot of corporate bookings and one-offs. We have 22 venues in Edinburgh during the Fringe – about 35 performance spaces. We have four venues during the Brighton Fringe. This year we did the Perth Fringe in Australia for the first time. Our main one in Australia is still the Adelaide Fringe; we manage some spaces out there. And we’ve done the Melbourne Fringe for the last couple of years. The Singapore Comedy Festival we started doing this year: we actually run that festival with guys out in Singapore – we pay acts to come out and do the festival. So we run venues and promote and produce shows and make money throughout the year.” “So how can you expand in Edinburgh?” I asked. “We’re comfortable with where we are at the moment. We’re at a size which is manageable. We want to do better what we are doing now.” “Have you ever wanted to perform yourself?” I asked. “No,” said Alex,. “I see all the stresses and strains the acts go through. I like being in the back room, enjoying it and putting stuff together.” “How did you get into the business?”

Laughing Horse came out of the Black Horse

Laughing Horse Comedy originally came from a Black Horse

“I used to go to a comedy club in Richmond with a mate of mine, Rob Lee. He wanted to get into comedy. It ended up not being the thing for him. “But I had sat down with him and his brother and we wrote a bit of material for him and he did do a few gigs and one of the local pubs we drank in – The Black Horse – said You should run a comedy club. That’s where the name Laughing Horse comes from. A couple of the guys he’d done open spots for – Kevin McCarron and Fenton McCoot…” “Fenton McCoot?” I asked. “He was an ex-hairdresser who, about a year-and-a-half in, just vanished completely. I’ve not heard from him since. He moved back to Ireland, apparently. But he just vanished at one point and him vanishing was when I started booking the acts because no other bugger would do it. So we started running a comedy club and we fucked everything up as we went along but gradually got our thing together and we got a second comedy club and, over the course of two or three years, learnt what we were doing and started to go up to the Edinburgh Fringe. We just learnt as we went. Now I can book all the acts I want to see myself.” “I like comedy,” I said, “ because it gives me a chance to meet bizarre, mentally-deranged people.” “There’s certainly a few of those around,” said Alex, “But I think the one thing that’s lacking on the comedy circuit these days is there are not the good entertaining nutters around that there used to be. People who would go on and do bizarre acts and be great at what they did for five minutes. I miss that element of the comedy circuit. It has got blander.”

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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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Comic Devvo needs money to publish a book for a toilet to save his nan’s house

Devvo in a ‘selfie' taken yesterday

Devvo – a ‘selfie’ taken in Doncaster yesterday

“So you’re going to publish a book,” I said to Devvo yesterday via Skype. “How come? Surely you can’t read or write?”

“It’s a picture book, John,” he told me. “That’s the beauty of it. It’s a picture book.”

“For children?” I asked.

“Definitely NOT for children,” he confirmed.

“You have to paint your ceiling,” I told him. We were video Skyping. I could see a large crack in his ceiling.

“It’s the spare room,” he said. “We got a lotta work to do on our house.”

“It looks like the House of Usher,” I told him.

“Well, it’s me nan’s house,” he said. “I live in me nan’s house. It’s on the outskirts of Doncaster. It’s all falling apart.”

“Doncaster?” I asked.

“The house,” said Devvo. “She burns coal, me nan does. She burns coal. What the previous owners did was to re-arrange the walls but they did it really badly, so we need lots of money to fix all the things. It’s me nan’s falling-down house that eats all the money.”

“So what sort of book is it?” I asked.

“It’s kind of like a David ShrigleyChris (Simpsons’ artist) type of silly book with loads of like Devvo-type stories in. There’s life tips, dating tips, there’s…”

“Filter tips?” I suggested.

“No filter tips,” said Devvo, “but I’ve made little stories with me and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’ve called him Arnold Shuitzman, because I thought that sounded more fun.”

The book every fine toilet should have

A book that may save Devvo’s nan’s house

“OK,” I said. “Look. You’re a chav from Doncaster. Writing a book is a bit above your station, isn’t it?”

“I’ve done it,” said Devvo, “because I like pictures and drawing and I want to make some money and people make money selling things. So I thought Let’s make a book to sell.”

“So it’s got photographs?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“And drawings?”

“Yeah. I’ve drawn stuff and I’ve learned how to use PhotoShop a bit and I’ve written stuff and drawn bits and found pictures and put them in PhotoShop and made really cool pictures so people will go Ah, they’re dead funny, aren’t they? Yeah, they’re dead funny!

“Can you send me a copy of the book?” I asked.

“I can send it to you as an eBook,” said Devvo, “but you have to keep it to yourself because, if you allow these things to be freely available, it would be jeopardising everything and I know what you’re like, giving away things.”

“No, I understand,” I said. “Some of us have been trying to turn our blogs into eBooks for the last two years and I’m two months away from proofreading the first one but, my god, it’s like wading through treacle.”

“That’s why I’ve just done pictures,” explained Devvo. “It just took two weeks to do and it was really fun.”

“So you’re artistic?” I asked. “Or autistic?”

“Bit of both,” said Devvo. “No, I’m not artistic at all. That’s the thing. I’m probably the least artistic out of all the people that exist. But that’s alright. Maybe I’ve found a little talent. Maybe it’s another thing to add to my bow.”

“Your bow?” I asked.

Devvo’s Kickstarter appeal page

Devvo’s Kickstarter appeal page

“My bow,” said Devvo. “When it’s done, it’s going to be a printed book as well as an eBook. The Kickstarter appeal has done really well. It’s got close to £900. We met our Kickstarter target in 24 hours and it closes on 15th March.”

The book’s estimated delivery is the end of March. If you pledge £10, you get a physical and a digital copy of the book. If you pledge £250, Devvo will perform “at your house, in your house, on your roof, in your car, at your local church. Whatever.” And you also get ten copies of the book.

“So you reached your target in one day,” I said. “What are you going to do with the extra money?”

“Well, this is it,” said Devvo. “It’s clever business with crowdfunding. You put the target at an achievable level and you really want to make more anyway. So it’s all just clever business. I really need to get about £1,000 to make good quality books.”

“So,” I said, “if you get more money than you expected, you’ll make an even better quality product?”

“Well, that’s it,” said Devvo. “That’s it. And it means I get the books cheaper in print which means I can make more of a profit, which is what everyone’s after really, innit?”

“You’re going to sell the physical copies at gigs?” I asked.

“I’m going to sell ‘em at gigs, sell ‘em online. People like to buy stuff, John. I’ve done three gigs in the past two weeks and I’ve sold about sixty T-shirts. I did one gig in Barrow-in-Furness and I got bored of selling T-shirts I was selling that many.”

“There’s nothing else to do in Barrow-in-Furness,” I pointed out. “When I was a TV researcher, I went to Barrow-in-Furness to talk to a man who was blind and wanted to parachute jump. It took forever to get there and, when I did, the weather was overcast, the houses were roughcast and the people were downcast. I think suicide may be an option people in Barrow-in-Furness take to improve their lives.”

“But they were the best people I ever met!” enthused Devvo. “It felt like I were doing a gig to loads of mates I’d just met. It were real good.”

It’s one of them Devvo books that fits in the gap in the toilet

It’s one of them Devvo books that fits in the gap in the toilet

“So who is the audience for your book?” I asked. “Where is the gap in the market?”

“It’s one of them books,” replied Devvo, “that fits in the gap where you think Ah, we don’t need a book there. Like in your toilet. You’re sat on the loo and you need a little toilet read. You’re there for five minutes and you think, Oh, I’ll have a little read of that! It’s just a dead good, dead funny book that people need to have. The main thing I’m excited about is having a copy for myself. I can have a copy of my book in my toilet and have a look at it and laugh at it. Anything else is a bonus, really.”

“Is this book,” I asked, “connected in any way to Bob Slayer’s increasing empire of books, comedy venues and drunken revels?”

“It’s published through the Heroes name,” said Devvo, “and I’m absolutely delighted to be part of Bob’s growing empire and just general, exciting stuff in life, really.

Devvo’s self-designed poster for Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival

Devvo self-made poster for Dave’s Leicester Comedy Festival

“This Friday, I’m playing the Leicester Comedy Festival with Bob – We’re doing Devvo’s Deal or No Dealer gameshow and Bob’s my glamorous assistant and then I think we’re doing the same show at the Bath Comedy Festival together.”

“So Devvo’s on the rise?” I asked. “What can you do after being an internet sensation, a stage sensation and potentially a publishing sensation?”

“I’m starting to become a businessman,” he replied. “When people talk of Devvo in his early years, he’s just stupid, swearing and this, that and other. People don’t allow me to get older, but Devvo’s got better at business. So my plan is to start an empire selling T-shirts and books and all the things people don’t need but need. Filling those gaps.”

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