Tag Archives: free festival

Edinburgh Fringe: Why the Counting House is now free from Ballooning fees

The Gilded Balloon’s Counting House The signposted entrance on the left on the left is not the entrance

Gilded Balloon’s Counting House last year. The prominently signposted entrance on the left is not actually the entrance!

It was recently announced that The Counting House venue is reverting to the Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, after it was last year poached by pay venue The Gilded Balloon.

I blogged about this in February last year under the title Gilded Balloon venue’s deal excretes on the spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe and, in August, under the title The Edinburgh Fringe venue that doesn’t know where its own entrance is.

The successful poaching expedition by the Gilded Balloon last year ousted the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show and the Grouchy Club comedy industry chat shows from their traditional venue of many years.

I thought I would ask Laughing Horse Free Festival boss Alex Petty about it and tracked him down in Thailand, on his way to Australia for the comedy festivals out there.

Well, “tracked him down” is a slight exaggeration. I FaceTimed him in his hotel in Thailand.

“Which festivals are you going off to?” I asked.

A selfie by Alex Petty in Thailand

A selfie taken by Alex Petty in Thailand

“Perth Fringe World, then the Adelaide Fringe and the Melbourne Comedy Festival,” he told me. “The Australian festivals are basically like a three-month long Edinburgh. I get back to the UK at the end of April or beginning of May, then it’s straight down to the Brighton Fringe. It’s non-stop on Fringes and Festivals these days.”

“Are you looking at any other ones?” I asked.

“We have an eye on doing maybe either New Zealand or Sydney… and we are looking at Glasgow and Leicester in the UK.”

After these polite starters, I asked about The Counting House.

The Gilded Balloon (where acts pay to perform and audiences pay to watch) had billed their newly-acquired Counting House venue as Pay-What-You-Want – free for audiences to enter and they can (if they like) pay at the end plus they can guarantee themselves a seat by buying a ticket in advance. But, whereas under the Free Festival, performers did not pay to hire the venue, the Gilded Balloon charged performers a hire fee and various other fees which meant the venue was free for audiences but relatively expensive for performers.

This cynical dog’s dinner got – it seems to me – the reception it deserved.

“My understanding,” I said to Alex Petty, “is that the bar did not take as much money under the Gilded Balloon at last year’s Fringe as it had at previous Fringes under the Free Festival. And the Gilded Balloon did not take as much money from the shows as they expected.”

“I don’t know the numbers,” replied Alex, “but I think it was pretty obvious to anyone going there that the venue was a lot quieter than expected. And a lot of the performers were saying that. The Counting House very kindly said they would like us to go back and offered it to us for this year.

“I think,” he continued, “that the Gilded Balloon, with the whole Pay-What-You-Want thing, tried to ride on the coat-tails of Bob Slayer (who created the concept), but it wasn’t really Pay-What-You-Want. People who went in told me that audiences were turning up expecting shows to be free and the Gilded Balloon staff were trying to get people to buy tickets in advance. In the end, the Gilded was trying to sell tickets up-front and there were not the same numbers of people hanging around that there had been in previous years.”

(L-R) The Peartree courtyard, Counting House and Blind Poet in Edinburgh

(L-R) The Peartree courtyard, Counting House and Blind Poet

The Counting House is part of a triple venue – three pubs next to each other all with the same owners – The Blind Poet downstairs, The Counting House upstairs and The Peartree downstairs with a courtyard.

“The venue is being renovated, isn’t it?” I asked.

“They’ve just started now,” Alex explained. “It sounds like what was The Blind Poet is going to become the back end of the Peartree bar and become a performance space like it was before but letting you walk through into the Peartree courtyard. That will also give people access up the inside stairs into the Counting House as well.  So, in the Counting House, there will be the Lounge and the Ballroom and, upstairs from them, the Attic and the Loft.”

I asked: “Is Brian going to be back sitting outside on a stool by a barrel?”

The pub’s manager Brian had tended to sit on the pavement outside the entrance, giving information to audiences and interested passers-by. This was missing last year with a swarm of (in my view) officious and often ill-informed people in Gilded Balloon tee-shirts. On one occasion, the Gilded Balloon ‘helper’ on the pavement thought the entrance to The Blind Poet was actually the (entirely separate) entrance to the Counting House.

“Brian was very keen to have us back,” said Alex. “He had put so much work into things the year before (2015) and it really pushed the venue on and we had had so many plans for last year (2016) which did not happen when the Gilded Balloon took it over.

“We are going to try to sort out a slightly better place for him to sit in the Edinburgh ‘summer’ weather. I think, for a lot of people, Brian and his barrel were two of the mainstays of the Fringe a couple of years ago.

“It was such a shame to lose it but I completely understand what the owners did. It was a business decision.”

“I’m glad it’s back,” I said.

“So am I,” said Alex.

The increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show will be held 11.00pm-01.00am in the Ballroom of The Counting House on Friday 25th August. And The Grouchy Club will be in The Lounge live every afternoon for the second half of the Fringe.

The Blind Poet and Counting House with The Peartree on West Nicholson Street, as seen on Google StreetView

The Blind Poet and Counting House with The Peartree’s courtyard wall beyond (Google Street View)

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Gilded Balloon venue’s deal excretes on the spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe

Like Malcolm, a unique one-off

Publicity for the 2012 Hardee annual show

We hope to stage the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show this year, as usual, on the final Friday of the Edinburgh Fringe – 26th August – but not in its normal venue of the Counting House Ballroom.

This is because, today, The Gilded Balloon (a pay-to-enter venue) has ‘poached’ The Counting House venue(s) – including the Pear Tree and Blind Poet – from the Laughing Horse Free Festival and so we are looking for a new venue in which to host both the increasingly prestigious (but now homeless) Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards and for the daily Grouchy Club.

I am saddened that the Gilded Balloon has taken this decision to poach three free venues. In a blog chat with me in 2012, Gilded Balloon venue runner Karen Koren said:

Karen Loren inside the Gilded Balloon

Karen Loren inside Gilded Balloon venue

“I did have another venue called The Counting House at the beginning of the 1990s. I named it The Counting House because that’s where they counted the money above the Pear Tree pub and that was around the time I gave up my full-time position as the PA to the Norwegian Consul-General in Edinburgh.”

But that link with The Counting House was over twenty years ago.

It in no way mitigates this new cynical and amoral move – that the Gilded Balloon has intentionally ‘stolen’ three existing venues painstakingly built-up over the last nine years by the Laughing Horse Free Festival – rather than find and build-up a profile for a new venue of its own.

It is a cynical and amoral move that is in no way in the spirit of the Fringe. And it echoes last year’s unforgivably venal and vicious move by the PBH Free Fringe in knowingly financially fucking-over acts in the Cowgatehead venue dispute. (Copious blogs about it last year.)

Wreaths on the hearse at Malcolm Hardee's funeral

Relevant wreath at Mr Hardee’s funeral

Ironically, when the shit hit the fans of Cowgatehead last year, it was the Laughing Horse Free Festival, Bob Slayers’ Heroes venues, Just The Tonic and The Pleasance pay venue who helped out the suddenly homeless acts.

Now The Gilded Balloon has shat on the Laughing Horse’s Free Festival and the acts already booked into the Counting House, the Pear Tree and the Blind Poet.

This cynical move is all the sadder because the first Malcolm Hardee Awards were presented at the Gilded Balloon, its owner Karen Koren staged a Malcolm tribute show at the Gilded Balloon in the year of his death and, at her own cost, she produced a Malcolm tribute video in the year of his death (2005).

As far as I am aware, the Gilded Balloon’s tenure during the Edinburgh Fringe at its Teviot building is still renewed on a year-by-year basis, so what they have done logically means that they could have no objection if other operators put in higher bids for the Teviot building at the 2017, 2018 etc Fringes.

Once you start shitting on people and fucking-over the spirit of the Fringe, the consequences can be incalculable.

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Bad signs at the Edinburgh Fringe while I bristle and Lewis Schaffer kisses me

Lewis Schaffer bestowed his blessings on me yesterday

Lewis Schaffer bestowed his blessings on me

I used to have a beard for 25 years, then cut it off. I think I am going to grow one again but have not yet figured how I can explain this as anything other than laziness.

And I may spend one day without wearing my spectacles.

A couple of hours after I posted yesterday’s blog mentioning Lewis Schaffer, I inevitably bumped into him. He kissed me on the head and launched into his new schtick where he tries to persuade anyone wearing glasses to stop wearing them because it is simply a conspiracy by opticians to sell unnecessary spectacles and the eyes will re-adjust by themselves.

This is partly true, of course. Only partly. But I was always very long-sighted and maybe do only need specs for close-up reading. I might give it a try for a day.

The Rule of Three obliges me to do a third thing but, short of donating my stomach and man-boobs to Oxfam, I don’t yet know what that might be.

Edinburgh Fringe fever may have set in, as it does every year around the halfway point of the festival.

This morning, I received a long e-mail from Sean Thoburn comparing Lewis Schaffer to the dwarf planet Pluto and expounding a theory in which each of the planets orbiting the Sun can be compared to comedians orbiting Edinburgh in August while “reviewers are like one of those Voyager satellites sent up to send back pictures of undiscovered worlds and maybe comets represent those US comics who make a brief appearance at a particular Fringe and take years to return and get far more attention than their fleeting appearances deserve.”

The e-mail was sent at 09.12am, so I doubt if drink or drugs can be blamed.

It can only be Fringe fever.

Ceci n'est pas une affiche Édimbourg

A previous year’s poster for the toilet run

Yesterday, Paul Ricketts was supposed to be doing his long-planned toilet crawl of Edinburgh – Now Wash Your Hands – Again – in which comedy was to be performed in the toilets at each of the Big Four venues at the Fringe, starting with the Pleasance Courtyard venue. I have asked Paul for a first-hand report of what happened. I could not go because his 3.30pm start time clashed with my Grouchy Club show (3.45pm-4.45pm at the Counting House).

On Day 3 of The Grouchy Club yesterday, audience figures rose again to those of Day One with half the audience being normal Fringe-going punters. This is interesting because the show has only been promoted through social media. There are no posters, no flyers and it does not appear in the main Fringe Programme. It only appears in the Free Festival programme and on the What’s On Where posters in the venue itself. So people appear to be returning to the true spirit of the Fringe and randomly going to shows simply because of the time slot, not because they have any idea what the show actually is.

The What’s On Where posters and signage in The Counting House is fairly good, which is not standard at the Fringe.

The Cowgatehead venue – fought over and proudly won by the PBH Free Fringe – is a disaster. The tiny doorway onto the street is barely visible and not even clearly identified as the Cowgatehead. Once inside, there is a vast bar and music area unrelated to the Free Fringe rooms and you have to spot that you have to double back, go down steps and then turn corners and go up stairs to get to the upper storeys which have venue spaces called things like UP2L. Even if you get vaguely near the rooms, the pieces of paper with their identification numbers/letters tend to be on the outside of the doors of the rooms so that, near performance times when doors are left open, they are hidden from sight.

The seagulls in Edinburgh are not small

Seagulls in the streets are more visible than shows in venues

This policy of putting names on the outside of doors which, when open, are completely invisible seems also to have been followed by C Venues at their Nova building – and probably in their other buildings, as C Venues have always been notable for appallingly bad or non-existent signage within their buildings. There are giant bleedin’ signs outside proclaiming what the venue is. Good. But, once inside, you have to guess, explore and try to find someone who knows which floor or room a show is in. There ARE some small notices, but hidden on walls amid an overwhelming visual patchwork of brightly-coloured show posters.

There should be a prize (perhaps there will be) for worst signage at the Fringe. Just the Tonic might win. As of last night, there appear to be no signs of any kind to any performance rooms in their Mash House venue. And the interior of their Caves venues – particularly for the shows they admirably ‘saved’ from the Cowgatehead debacle – are utterly incomprehensible. I half expect to find a Minotaur in there.

Yes. You need signs to get people inside a building from the street.

But… Surprise! Surprise! You also need to have clear signs to which shows are in which rooms inside the venue. Otherwise punters will be pissed-off with both the guilty venue and the innocent act and, after a shit user experience, the punters may well only go to the venue once.

There also appeared to be no signage inside the Frankenstein’s venue yesterday, where comedy magician Stu Turner was trying out his interesting Haven’t a Clue! format in which six comics play a version of charades in which you can speak.

Later, Sara Mason got a good audience, despite being in the Mash House venue, for her show Burt Lancaster Pierced My Hymen (When I Was 11) – one of the few Fringe shows to live up to an OTT title.

Luca Cupani has the good fortune to perform his show Still Falling on Bob Slayer’s double decker BlundaBus – you can hardly miss a double-decker bus painted in bright colours and it only has one top deck.

Visibility is everything in Edinburgh. Something performers understand but venue runners too often think only applies to the exterior not the interior of their venues.

Life-size poster of Tanyalee Davis by the BlundaBus

Visibility is everything at Edinburgh Fringe – A life-size poster of Tanyalee Davis by the BlundaBus

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Performers at ‘free’ Edinburgh Fringe venues could lose estimated £77,000

Cowgate_Edinburgh

Along these mean streets performers must go – including the Cowgate in  Edinburgh

My first blog about the ongoing ‘free’ venue chaos at the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe was posted over a week ago.

Now, NOT changing the subject…

I think, as a generalisation, most religions tend to be a good thing – most religions are amiable – but most organised religions are a bad thing. ‘Organisation’ inevitably means politicking and power corrupting originally admirable ideals.

As I say, I am remaining on-subject here.

The elevator explanation of the current chaos is that the PBH Free Fringe was created by Peter Buckley Hill (PBH) as an altruistic alternative to the increasingly commercialised and (for acts) expensive traditional Fringe where the acts pay to hire venues and audiences pay in advance of seeing the show.

The Free Fringe used the centuries-old model of busking and took it indoors. The acts do not pay to perform in a space. The audience sees their shows for free and decides, on exit, how much to pay, if anything.

PBH then joined forces with Laughing Horse promoter Alex Petty. There was soon a schism and Laughing Horse formed the Free Festival as either complementary or a rival, depending on your concept of the ‘ownership’ of the model of indoor busking.

Years trundled by and there was another schism. More of the PBH helpers – described by some as his “right hand men” – split off and last year formed The Freestival.

PBH had previously seen Alex Petty and the Free Festival as (my words) The Great Satan. Now Freestival became The Great Satan. It is a bit like the schisms in Christianity or Islam. I think calling PBH “the ISIS of free comedy” might be going a tiny bit too far, unless people start being beheaded in The Royal Mile. But at least ISIS take hostages and the Sunni/Shia aggro is not a bad analogy.

This year, as last year, there was a tussle over which organisation had rights to programme the Cowgatehead venue, owned and run in labyrinthine ways by three men from the same family, all called Kenny Waugh.

Last year, the Freestival ran shows in the bottom half of the Cowgatehead building; the Free Fringe ran shows in the top half.

This year (as far as anyone publicly knew until after the deadline to be listed in the main Fringe Programme was past – it is published tomorrow) the Freestival had rights from one or more of the Kenny Waughs to programme acts at Cowgatehead.

Then, out of nowhere, PBH suddenly announced (I think only on Facebook) that he owned rights to programme Cowgatehead although, as far as I know, no acts had, at that point, ever been approached or accepted to perform there.

The Freestival were (like almost everyone else, I think) surprised but eventually suggested a compromise which was that PBH should book acts into six rooms in the top half of the building, as they did last year. And Freestival would book acts into the bottom half of the building, as they did last year. Freestival would run nine rooms by building extra ones, as they did last year.

Freestival suggested a meeting to take place yesterday between them, PBH, a Kenny Waugh and (added into the equation later) the Fringe Office and Freestival’s sponsors.

This compromise would mean that PBH got the six rooms he proposed in the Cowgatehead venue. Freestival would get the nine venues they proposed there. And no acts would be adversely affected.

Any alternative would severely affect all acts who had – months ago with no squeak of any kind from PBH – booked into Cowgatehead with Freestival, paid the Fringe Office for a listing in the main Programme, written shows over the last six or more months and booked accommodation (with deposits) as well as having posters and flyers designed and, if they were abnormally efficient, printed.

Yesterday, Freestival issued a statement (I have not corrected the spelling):


Today’s meeting with PBH, the licensee (of Cowgatehead) and representatives of the Fringe office will now not take place. The Licencee agreed to travel to London and take part in compromise talks with PBH and ourselves. He, along with ourselves invited PBH to that meeting but despite multiple requests and invites from us, the licensee and the Fringe society and also our Sponsor flying to London to meet with Peter, Peter has refused to attend or to open a constructive dialogue. 

As a result the licensee will now not attend the planned meeting. We are very saddened by PBH’s complete intransigence and the subsequent devastation this will now cause to many peoples Edinburgh program. We will be releasing a full statement soon with any further details we can obtain and will be continuing to work with the Fringe office on a solution. 

While we haven’t given up on a solution if PBH can be persuaded to enter into discussions we must, for now, assume the Cowgatehead is no longer our primary venue. We also believe that PBH has taken control of St.Johns – Victoria Street and Probably the Tron Kirk although we have as yet had no official notification of this. 

We are so very sorry that after everyone’s hard work since the last Fringe all our efforts and energies regarding these venues have been wasted. We have secured a number of alternative spaces in order to accommodate those acts not moving over to PBH’s ethos, we hope to have the complete number of new spaces required signed up by the end of this week. We will be contacting all acts involved shortly and making a statement once that is done.


It does not matter who is right and who is wrong here. There was a compromise on the table which would have meant no act lost money, no act lost their advertised venue space and no act lost shows.

In a posting on PBH’s Facebook page on 25th May, performer Ray Davis wrote:


Some 170 odd performers are booked into a performance space, with the considerable personal investment they would have made (these are “free spaces” yet accommodation for the month is typically £600-£1000 for a room in a shared house, almost £400 to be in the Fringe Programme, advertising, flyers, pre-booked transportation, etc.). 

The venue was offered by an organisation called “Freestival” and only after the festival programme deadline had passed (£400 remember?) did PBH claim that these bookings were null and void as he had right to the venue. 

PBH has held out what I believe he thinks is an olive branch in so much as he’ll consider acts transferring over “where he can” but they have to sign an exclusivity deal to do so, breaking links with any other organisation at the Fringe – so if they have another show elsewhere… can’t do it. If they’ve been invited to participate in a showcase… can’t do it. Bit like going into McDonalds and having to sign to agree not to buy (or eat) fast food from anywhere else for all of August.


To avoid accepting or even discussing the compromise in pursuit of personal revenge over people PBH regards as (my words) renegades from the true Free Fringe religion and a personal one-sided vendetta knowing for certain – for certain – that this will without any doubt at all result in mental anguish, financial damage and career damage to the performers you claim to champion is behaviour so self-centred and uncaring that is likely to mean that, even if PBH were to win this self-perceived battle, he would be likely to disastrously lose the self-declared war. Because all credibility and all past positive actions are likely to be wiped out by this act of sheer short-sighted selfish vindictiveness.

The PBH position is to refuse to even discuss a compromise where the Cowgatehead venue would accommodate a suggested 15 performance rooms. The PBH Free Fringe would prefer to accommodate 6 performance spaces featuring so-far un-booked acts simply to bugger-up the Freestival which had already booked acts into 9 rooms which a Kenny Waugh had told them they had the right to do.

PBH has said he might book some of the pre-booked acts into ‘his’ rooms but maybe at different times to those advertised (and paid for) in the main Fringe Programme. And all acts would have to sign his draconian 3,600 word contract which says the acts cannot appear elsewhere.

The Free Fringe is the only Fringe operator with this extraordinary restriction of trade preventing performers from performing.

Around 150-170 acts who have been writing, rehearsing and paying for their presumed hour-long, month-long Edinburgh shows for the last six or nine months now face cancellation of their shows, loss of earnings, loss of payments made, loss of deposits on accommodation and more. Even if they can find an alternative venue or are ‘given’ a room by PBH, their Programme listings will be wrong and paid-for posters/flyers will have to be changed.

It does not matter who is right and who is wrong here. There was a compromise on the table which would have meant no act lost any money, no act lost their advertised venue space and no act lost shows.

The reason acts are going to be damaged – and they definitely are; they already have been – is solely because that compromise was not even discussed by PBH.

There is a show at the Bloomsbury Theatre on Tuesday 30th June to raise money for the PBH Free Fringe. Tickets cost £15 or £12.50 concessions plus a £2.50 booking fee. The acts advertised include Alistair Barrie, Nick Helm, Robin Ince, Stewart Lee and Howard Read. It would be interesting to know if these same acts are going to organise any gig to raise money for their far less well-off fellow performers damaged by PBH’s scorched earth actions.

I asked various people for estimates of how much acts are likely to lose. One reply came from Ian Fox, performer and author of the book How to Produce, Perform and Write an Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Show. He told me:


I am not a Freestival act, but I would estimate the £150 Freestival fee, and £295 for a discounted Fringe Programme entry. It is a bit early to have paid for posters and flyers, but there could be advertising fees if they had a quarter-page advert in the Fringe Programme (around £1,500 says John), or bought space on a Fringe type website for £50. 

If they get a new slot, they could still make use of accommodation and transport costs. Otherwise, the deposit on a flat could be anything from £300 to £500 and a rail ticket costs £75 approximately, unless they’re flying in from somewhere… So £1,000 is a feasible number, for worst case scenario.

Those shows in Cowgatehead 7,8,9 (the Freestival’s extra venues in addition to the Free Fringe’s six) which are automatically lost, based on 11 shows per room if they started at noon and went till midnight with a 15 minute turnaround between shows… £11,000 per room, £33,000 total. Add into that The Tron Kirk and St Johns and that’s another £22,000. 

Then factor in the 6 remaining rooms at Cowgatehead… Some of the shows will have been moved over (from Freestival to Free Fringe) but say a third of them were not – that is another £22,000… So £22,000 + £33,000 + £22,000, means potentially acts have forgone up to £77,000.

Bearing in mind the amount of money potentially lost from a last-minute decision to switch a provider and break a verbal agreement… which I think puts them in an actionable position, as their actions have directly caused others financial loss… Who in their right mind refuses to turn up to a meeting?


Ray Davis, in his posting on the PBH Facebook page on 25th May wrote:


PBH’s Free Fringe is promoted as a collective, a freely run not for profit organisation,  yet this smacks of the worst sort of bloody nosed business practice. Audiences of course won’t know nor give a shit.

Individual acts have only a small voice.

If PBH is a volunteer then this sort of who-hah won’t cost him financially. But in the longer term it could of course cost him the years of good will and hard work he’s put in to build a Free Fringe model.


Yesterday, to my knowledge, at least three performers cancelled the London previews for their Edinburgh shows. Presumably because they believe they will not be able to stage their prepared shows because of all the shenanigans.

Yesterday, too, an act who has performed on the Free Fringe for several years – and who has a show there this year – told me he had been thinking of cancelling his show because he felt uncomfortable being associated with the “stench” (his words) of the current Free Fringe. He said he had, however, decided not to cancel because of the cost.

It is a pity many acts will not be given this choice.

And still the saga continues because, this morning, I was told off-the-record of the existence of an e-mail which will further muddy the waters.

We live in interesting times.

And so the labyrinth stretches onwards.

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Venue chaos at the Edinburgh Fringe (yet again). What have they said so far?

The Cowgate acts programmed by Freestival and potentially by the chaos

Acts programmed by Freestival and potentially affected by the chaos.

There has been a bit of chaos in the last few days about who has the right to programme shows at a couple of venues at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. As there has been so much verbiage flying around, it may be worth just putting the key parts together.

Just for the record – and because it will remain interesting to read in the future, looking back – below are the main to-and-froings so far.

The background to this is that Peter Buckley Hill (known as PBH) started Free Fringe shows in which performers pay nothing to hire their venues and audiences pay no entry fee. Instead, on a voluntary basis, members of the audience can donate money on the way out, having seen the show. In effect, it is the long-established system of street busking moved indoors.

PBH’s Free Fringe then combined with Alex Petty’s Laughing Horse outfit to run the Free Fringe. But that soon fell apart due to ‘creative differences’.

Alex Petty then formed the Free Festival as a rival to the Free Fringe (the view of PBH) or as a complement to it (Alex’s view). The same format of ‘indoor busking’ with no entry fee applied.

The Free Festival then became, in PBH’s eyes, The Great Satan (my phrase).

This (in my view) one-sided feud went on until last year, when a group of Free Fringe organisers also broke away from PBH over ‘creative differences’ to form The Freestival which was another rival to the Free Fringe (the view of PBH) or a complement to it (Alex Petty and the new Freestival people’s view). The same format of ‘indoor busking’ with no entry fee applied.

The Freestival then became, in PBH’s eyes The Great Satan (my phrase).

The final deadline for shows to be included in this year’s official Fringe Programme was 8th April. the Programme itself is published on 4th June (next week).

Now read on…

On Thursday last week, Peter Buckley Hill posted this on the Chortle comedy industry website’s Fringe Forum:


COWGATEHEAD 2015.
READ THIS IF YOU THINK YOU HAVE A SHOW

This post is addressed to all shows who believe they have a Fringe slot in Cowgatehead organised by Freestival.

I regret to have to tell you that Freestival never had permission in 2015 to book shows into Cowgatehead. The slot you think you have is not real.

We have a confirmation from both the owner and the licensee of Cowgatehead. Freestival’s bookings never had their approval, and these bookings are null and void.

I appreciate this will come as a shock to many of you. You will have proceeded on the basis that you had a confirmed performance slot. But you do not.

Even if you have paid Freestival, even if you have paid to be in the Fringe Programme, you do not have a slot.

Your first reaction will be not to believe this message. But it is true.

The licensee has recently approached us, the Free Fringe, to book this space, and has explicitly stated that Freestival has no right to make such bookings. We, The Free Fringe, are now authorised to book all performance spaces at Cowgatehead. No bookings other than those made by us are valid, and none will be honoured, whatever the circumstances.

I appreciate that many of you will be taken aback by this, and most of you will have acted in good faith in applying to Freestival. You are not to be blamed. Freestival, however, is to be blamed for taking bookings into a space which they were not entitled to book.

You could, of course, pretend this is not happening and turn up in August expecting to do a show. But you will not be able to.

The Free Fringe will entertain applications from you. You will have to accept the Free Fringe Ethos and Conditions.

These conditions stipulate that you should not be an applicant to any other provider of free-admission shows. This means that you should dissociate from Freestival forthwith.

By applying to the Free Fringe, there is a chance that your slot, or something close to it, may be given back to you. It depends on your application itself and the speed with which you make it.

We will look upon such applications as sympathetically as we can. You will need to mention the slot you thought you had and the length of the run you thought you had.

I have no doubt that Freestival, having been caught doing something they should never have done, will attempt to spin the situation in any way they think might exonerate them. But at the end of the day, they cannot deliver the slot they have promised you, and they have never been able to deliver that slot.

We are also informed that bookings at St John’s are equally invalid, but in that case we have no power to rectify this. Such shows are also welcome to apply to the Free Fringe, but we cannot give you space at St John’s. That is all the information we have about St John’s.

We deplore the actions of Freestival. To run free shows, thus emancipating performers at a Fringe in which many organisations seek to exploit performers, one must be honest. It is difficult enough even if one is fully honest. But to promise you something that they cannot deliver, and to charge you for it, is in our eyes deplorable.

We do not know who you are. But we do know that (according to Freestival’s web site) 171 shows have been promised space by them. The overwhelming majority of these applications are invalid. We urge you to spread this post so that all such shows can be reached.

No doubt they will call this venue poaching on our part. It is not. They never had the venue for 2015. Nothing has been poached. We, the Free Fringe, were contacted by the licensee and asked to programme Cowgatehead for 2015, as the sole programmers. If you thought otherwise, you have been deceived. We will help to the extent we can, giving weight also to our own unallocated applicants.

Free shows need to be honest. Even so, mistakes happen and are difficult enough. I regret that some of you have been the victims of what appears to be dishonesty on the part of Freestival.


That same day, Chortle ran a news item.
I have edited the below to remove repetition:


CHAOS AT THE FRINGE

It’s fast becoming a Fringe tradition – and today the annual row between rival free Edinburgh show promoters flared up in earnest.

The dispute centres on the Cowgatehead performance spaces, which newcomers Freestival operated last year. They have again been programming the space for 2015, with many comedy shows now locked into the official programme.

However Free Fringe founder Peter Buckley Hill has today claimed Freestival had no permission to book shows into the venues, saying that his organisation has the deal to programme the space.

The news would throw dozens of shows into chaos, as it comes after the programme has gone to press. Acts lined up to appear in Cowgatehead include Adam Vincent, Birthday Girls, Christian Steel, Katia Kvinge and Alison Thea-Skot.

However Freestival say the have ‘no idea’ why Buckley Hill – universally known as PBH – had made his statement and reassured acts that their slots were secure.

Alex Petty of Laughing Horse said: ‘Hoping this is bullshit, as whatever games that are be being played here, it only affects performers who will have already paid a considerable sum to be in Edinburgh already.

’However, If any performer has lost a performance space as part of this, and they need to find somewhere, I have gained three additional spaces today, at the Jekyll & Hyde & Meadow Bar, both of which I wasn’t expecting to be running this year.’

Online, the consensus among comedians was that if the PBH Free Fringe was running Cowgatehead, they should honour all the slots offered by Freestival so as not to punish acts who had made considerable outlay to be there.

The Cowgatehead venue was at the centre of a similar row last year, when PBH again claimed that Freestival had no right to run shows there – although in the end they did.

Confusion reigns as the site is effectively controlled by three generations of the Waugh family – all called Kenny. PBH said it was Kenny II promised him the use of the space in 2014, and again this year.

Last year’s deal with PBH fell through after an email was sent from Waugh Taverns Ltd, of which Kenny I is director, which stated that the venue would be programmed by Freestival and stating: ‘Last year we worked with Mr Peter Hill, due to irreconcilable differences we regret we will not be renewing our agreement with him for this coming year.’

Chortle has not yet been able to contact Kenny II about this year’s dispute.

But until it is resolved, at least 90 shows have been thrown into limbo. Currently 67 shows are programmed into Cowgatehead and 23 into St John’s.


Yesterday, Saturday, the Freestival issued a press release:


Performers in 150 Edinburgh Fringe shows fear they have been left without venues after Peter Buckley Hill, ex Fringe Society director and principal controller of  ‘The Free Fringe Ltd’ claimed that an Edinburgh venue manager is planning to switch the management of his spaces to the Free Fringe from another Fringe promoter without warning.

The performers have already paid £360 a piece to register their shows in the Fringe Programme, have designed promotional materials and many have also booked and paid for accommodation in August.

In a statement on Facebook and other public forums, Mr Buckley Hill, announced he had, on 21st May,  signed a contract with the Licensee of Freestival’s Cowgatehead venue, which has already been fully programmed with the consent of the licensee and owner. The statement also sought to imply Freestival did not have the use of the St Johns venue. The licensee of that venue has since refuted this, stating that it remains a Freestival venue.

Freestival organisers, Jools Constant, Alex Marion and Dan Adams say:

“This has devastated people who are hoping to perform at the 2015 Fringe. We have spent the last two days dealing with distraught phone calls from people who fear their shows will not be able to go ahead.

Our greatest concern is the acts, who have put their trust in us and have already invested time, energy and money in bringing shows to the Fringe. We are appalled that their shows have been thrown into doubt by this senseless and unwarranted action. If the situation cannot be resolved and it is true that the licensee has reneged on his agreement with us, we will do our utmost to work with Peter Buckley Hill to ensure that the performers are disrupted as little as possible. We will do our best to ease their transition to PBH or another provider if they wish.

We are taking advice from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society and hope they can help us find a way to intervene and find definitive answers to a number of outstanding questions including:

How is this able to happen after acts have paid to register and advertise with the Fringe Brochure?

Why would PBH agree to sign the deal so late in the year without first speaking with us, in full knowledge of the commitments already made by ourselves and the performers?

What has prompted the licensee to switch over to PBH after Freestival has been dealing constantly with both him and the building owners regarding the venue since the end of the 2014 Fringe? This included booking performers into the venue at the request of the licensee (and of the only other party originally bidding for the venue’s lease earlier in the year), ongoing discussions about building new rooms to complement those we built in July last year and about improvements to facilities, all with no indication that any other provider was in the running.

Why, when the Licensee has a full 9 room programme in place, would he switch to PBH and a smaller offering of only 6 rooms with smaller capacity?

Why did PBH wrongly include St John’s in his statement, adding needlessly to the number of acts suffering distress?

As no confirmation of the switch has been received by us from the licensee or PBH despite our attempts to obtain clarification, we are not in a position to answer these questions or even to confirm the truth of PBH’s statement.

The welfare of our acts and their shows is our first and only priority. If an act wishes to move to The Free Fringe to keep their allocated slot at Cowgatehead, anything Freestival can do to assist the moving process will be done. As a contingency against the possible loss of the Cowgatehead venue, we are sourcing alternative premises to mitigate any damage that may be caused. We are also in discussions with other promoters to ensure alternative spaces should the news be true and PBH refuses to house affected acts, although we hope PBH will reconsider and agree to transfer the show programme in its entirety. Alex Petty of Laughing Horse has kindly reached out to us and we thank him for his proactive and constructive approach in an uncertain and difficult time. Any of the Cowgatehead performers affected by this who wish to join another organisation will receive a without prejudice Freestival subscription refund.

We firmly refute all allegations of dishonesty or misconduct contained within the PBH statement and in follow up comments from individuals and related parties.

Freestival will not engage in further discussion regarding these; a public social media court is not the correct forum for such matters, given how important it is to ensure our performers interests and commitments are safe guarded and respected. We are hugely sad – given Peter Buckley Hill’s long standing commitment to supporting fringe performers – that he should choose to cast so much doubt over our acts so publicly.

We reiterate our commitment to a fair multi promoter Fringe that works for the good of performers and audiences – those performers who know us understand this and we thank all those who have expressed public support for us in this uncertain distressing time. We will be contacting all the acts affected by this situation on email with proposed alternatives and information updates over the next 48 hours.”


On Friday, Chortle editor Steve Bennett penned an opinion piece:


CAN WE END THIS BRUTAL FRINGE FREE-FOR-ALL

Free shows have been THE success story of the Edinburgh Fringe.

It has transformed the festival, opening it up to more performances and audiences than ever before, built on the excellent, simple principle of no risk on either side. If as a punter you hate the show, leave having paid nothing, if you like it, you pay what it’s worth. And as a comedian, you don’t need to commit thousands for your performance space.

Yet despite the shared basic principles, the main players in the game seem riven by bitter factional in-fighting. It’s often said that in politics the left spend more time fighting themselves than fighting the right, and it’s the same here.

The latest flashpoint over the Cowgatehead venues shows how deep those divisions are. Both Peter Buckley Hill, the founder of the entire movement and still kingpin of the Free Fringe faction, and upstarts Freestival believe they have rights to programme the spaces, right in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town.

Freestival had already put together a full programme for the venue, with acts paying up to £393 to get listed in the official Fringe brochure – more if they took an advert.

Now, after that has gone to print, PBH has publicly told all the comedians who were happy in the knowledge their space had been secured that their deals are worthless, as his Free Fringe will be programming shows there. Freestival cry bullshit.

No doubt both sides sincerely believe they are right. The building is owned by three generations of the same family who don’t always seem to be on the same page, to say the least. But the way this has become a conflict – part of a wider, antagonistic land-grab for as many venues as possible – has caused huge anxiety for the nearly 70 performers already, allegedly, booked into Cowgatehead.

The movement that was supposed to let them concentrate on their show and relieve some of the stresses of Edinburgh has done the exact opposite.

There are only two possibilities here.

One, that PBH is wrong, and that Freestival have the right to the Room – in which case this is needless scaremongering, and will have done severe damage to his reputation as one of the good guys.

The second is that he is right and they don’t. In which case PBH should honour every booking that Freestival made so as not to mess up a single performer. He has said his organisation ‘will look upon such applications as sympathetically as we can’ but also, less encouragingly only that ‘there is a chance that your slot, or something close to it, may be given back to you’.

Performers who want to be part of the PBH Free Fringe have to sign up to a 3,600-word ‘conditions and ethos’ statement – a key part of which is that if you apply to the Free Fringe you cannot apply to any rival. This is the only operator – including the supposedly evil paid venues – to impose this draconian condition on applicants.

PBH stressed this clause in his Facebook post, putting comedians in an impossible situation. They cannot hedge their bets and apply to PBH in case he’s right, while keeping their Freestival slots open. He’s forcing them to quit Freestival and go with him in a situation, frankly, where no one knows for sure what’s happening.

The only thing that’s clear is that this is unclear. The two fringe organisations, and the owners of the site,  are using the divisions on either side for some power games that the performers should not be troubled by. PBH should at least allow performers to apply to both organisations and guarantee their slots should the Freestival deal be built on sand, as he believes. If he’s right, he will be their saviour and none of the comedians will trust Freestival again… he need not use the prohibitive, anti-competitive stick of the contract to win them over.

Differences between the free organisations are minor and, when it comes to the greater good, should be put aside, even – maybe especially – on such a troublesome venue to lock down.

Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly put their decades-old differences aside to publish a joint venues programme. How much more powerful would the free movement be if they could issue a similar comprehensive brochure advertising all their offerings? But until they can put their sectarian feuds to one side, it’ll never happen.


In response to that Chortle piece, the Freestival issued this:


To answer both your questions:

(1) Are you conceding that PBH will be running Cowgatehead? – we are not, for the simple reason that neither the licensee nor PBH have contacted us regarding this, or responded to our attempts to communicate with them. As things stand the only information available is PBH’s statement. We have asked him to end speculation by producing a contract. So far we have received no response. However we are putting in place contingency plans to protect our acts as best as possible, including offering to work with PBH to place our performers in the slots they have legitimately been offered and accepted. We have also acted to ensure that any acts who cannot, or do not want to, move to PBH  are taken care of, by opening discussions with Alex Petty, who has been hugely constructive in his support, and by starting to source alternative venues. Bear in mind it’s only May – last year we sourced 2 new venues with less than 48 hours to go and got audiences into them. We have no doubt we can find quality alternative venues.

(2)  Do you have any written deal with the venue? – we do not. What we do have is a good faith agreement based on the following facts:

– Acting on our behalf our sponsors secured an agreement with the building owners that we would provide entertainment in Cowgatehead, regardless of who had the license to provide bars

– there were 2 parties bidding to be licensees, including the current operator. We had verbal agreements with both parties that we would provide entertainment at Cowgatehead, and had been requested by both to provide a programme. We then entered into discussions with both, not about whether we would provide a programme, but the particulars of how a programme that had already been agreed would be provided, including disposition of stages, installation of toilets and improvements to access and signage. In other words, we had oral agreements with not just one but 4 parties (owners, sponsors and both potential licensees). It’s worth pointing out that under Scottish Law an oral agreement constitutes a contract.

– the issue of who would be the licensee was not resolved until a little over 2 weeks ago, long after the deadline for brochure entries and even longer after all parties involved had assured us we would be providing a programme of events in Cowgatehead.

– 3 days after the licensee signed a deal with the building owners we sent a draft agreement to the licensee, which we assumed would be discussed, amended and signed.

– On 21st May PBH posted his statement. Up until this point no other potential provider had ever been mentioned and PBH had programmed no acts into the venue.

– In light of all this we have no doubt that we have acted appropriately and in good faith throughout this process and were justified in doing so in legal, moral and practical terms.

Now we have a question for you:

(3) Why do you keep describing this as in fighting between us and PBH?

There is no fight. We are not, and never have, fought. What there has been, consistently, since the moment we suggested working with PBH to improve the Free Fringe, is attacks, by PBH and his team, against us. Let’s be absolutely clear, we have never openly criticised PBH or the Free Fringe, we have never engaged with the attacks against us and we have never sought hostility. In fact we have put our admiration of Peter’s pioneering work in founding the Free Fringe on record, and we have welcomed, indeed encouraged, Free Fringe acts to share Freestival stages whenever they wished (although some preferred not to appear in the publicity for fear of reprisals).

Not only that, in January we were offered 2 PBH venues, Whistlebinkies and the Globe, but we turned them down because we believe in a healthy free sector and we don’t want to damage Peter’s offering. Beyond that we have done all this because frankly we are not interested in somebody else’s vendetta. We are only interested in providing the best experience possible for our acts and audiences and for that reason, because now he has caused unforgivable anxiety and distress for the acts we have worked so closely with for months, just for today, we are going to break that rule.

Peter’s behaviour in this matter has been reprehensible. He cannot pretend that he did not know his actions would lead to at best deep distress and at worst the destruction of dreams for dozens of performers, exactly the people who he has always claimed to champion. He cannot claim that his actions have been in anyone’s best interests – he has acted purely in pursuance of an imagined feud with us, people who have never set out to do anything to him. He must know that he doesn’t have enough acts to fill even the down sized 6 room venue he is planning, and that he is in danger of throwing acts onto the street so that his spite, selfishness and thoughtless cruelty can play itself out in empty rooms.

The truth is, as anyone but his most ardent supporters (who by the way have verged on the libellous in their social media comments – we are considering taking legal advice) must realise, that Peter should have said no. He should have said, in the interests of the acts, “I won’t do this – look me up next year”. But he didn’t because he could not resist the opportunity to attack us, and he didn’t care about the collateral damage. After all, they’re just people, with dreams and as the Free Fringe ethos states: “Abandon your dreams. It’s not going to happen.”

Of course, the same ethos says repeatedly: “Don’t be a dick”. Clearly a case of do as I say, not as I do.

That’s it. We will return now to what we have always done – looking after our acts.


In my view, the key sentence in that last statement is:

“It’s worth pointing out that under Scottish Law an oral agreement constitutes a contract.”

If the Cowgatehead people made any verbal agreement with the Freestival, it would invalidate any subsequent agreement with PBH. 

As far as I am aware, the Free Fringe has, as yet, programmed no shows into the Cowgatehead venue.

The magician Stu Turner has made a parody video which is not irrelevant to all this the chaos. It is on YouTube.

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A daily club for comedians at the Edinburgh Fringe in August this year

Yesterday’s quickly-made logo

Yesterday’s quickly-cobbled-together maybe temporary logo

Next Thursday, the Edinburgh Fringe Programme is published.

I have talked to several people in the last few months who said they are not going to list their shows in the Programme this year (largely because of the cost). I have told them they are barking mad.

If you stage a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, it HAS to be in the Programme to get noticed amidst the hundreds of other shows and thousands of other performers.

So imagine my surprise, dear reader, when – yesterday – I arranged to put on a daily show at the Fringe which will NOT be listed in the published Programme.

Back in July 2011, I blogged about the vague idea of setting up a club for comedians at the Edinburgh Fringe catering (as I possibly unwisely phrased it) “not for the VIP top-of-the-billers but for the ordinary riff-raff of comedy”.

Although I did not name him in the blog, I had talked with New York promoter Calvin Wynter about setting up this club and calling it The Gaucho Club or The Grouchy Club – a club for ordinary scum whom London’s Groucho Club would never want to have as members.

It came to nothing because there seemed to be too much work involved in setting it up and running it throughout the Fringe.

But, at the weekend just past, Alex Petty of the Laughing Horse Free Festival had some shows fall through, so some spots became available.

Last year, I hosted five chat shows at the Fringe and I had thought of doing another week of chat shows this year but with no guests as such. The guests – the ‘stars’ – would be the audience.

I strongly believe that, if you go up at random to any person in any bus queue anywhere in the country and start talking to them, they will have the most extraordinarily fascinating tales of things which have happened to them.

Everyone is interesting.

So I thought of having a chat show this year where I simply interviewed the audience.

When the Free Festival said they had some drop-outs, though, I suggested that we could revive the idea of The Grouchy Club – somewhere that comedians could come to drink and gossip. The big venues tend to have their own VIP rooms for performers and press. But there is no general venue where comedians can come in general and bitch about what an awful time they are having at the Fringe.

So, every day, from 2nd to 24th August, at 3.45pm-4.45pm in the Lounge of The Counting House in Edinburgh, doyenne of Edinburgh Fringe comedy reviewers Kate Copstick and I will host an hour long event called The Grouchy Club.

There is even a quickly-cobbled-together-yesterday one-page website plugging it – www.grouchyclub.co.uk

The pitch is:


Kate Copstick (doyenne of Fringe comedy critics) and blogger John Fleming (“The Boswell of the Alternative Comedy scene” – Chortle) host an hour-long chatty club to which all Fringe comedians are invited with any and all bitchy, bizarre and odd anecdotes about the Fringe.

The object is to get even the shortest of publicity mentions in either Copstick’s iconic Sunday newspaper column or John’s increasingly-prestigious daily blog. If members of the public come along with Fringe stories too, fine. Everyone is a star if they have a good story.

Basically, it’s a true storytellers’ schmoozathon with comedians trying to out-do each other to publicise themselves and their shows.

We would have called it The Harpo Club, except no-one would have spoken.

It is The Grouchy Club – you don’t have to be a member to join.


Whether anyone will come along, I do not know. It is the Edinburgh Fringe. Who knows anything about anything?

But it will be a place where performers – mostly comedians, I guess – can come along in a desperate bid to get noticed by Copstick or to get mentioned in my increasingly prestigious daily blog. They can chat, bitch, self-publicise to their hearts’ content and – staying this side of libel – anything they say may be quoted. It is part one-hour social, part schmooze, part (I suspect) one-hour piss-up.

If random members of the public come along, we may revert to my original idea of a chat show in which the audience are the stars.

If no-one at all comes along, then I know Copstick is capable of bitching to me in an entertaining way for a full hour every day for 23 days.

As I mentioned, I have told several people in the last few months that they are barking mad if they stage an event at the Edinburgh Fringe without putting it in the Programme.

We will see if I was right.

The moral, of course, is:

ALWAYS TAKE MY EXCELLENT ADVICE – AND DO WHAT I TELL YOU TO DO, NOT WHAT I DO.

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The Edinburgh Fringe, Malcolm Hardee and the anniversary of the Great Leader

Statue of the Great Leader in Pyongyang

My blog four days ago on the Edinburgh Free Fringe’s unusual, some might say neo-Stalinist, restrictions on its performers did nothing to free the block on one of the long-term members of The Greatest Show on Legs performing at a planned reunion show at the Laughing Horse Free Festival’s Hive venue this August.

Free Fringe originator Peter Buckley Hill is quoted on the Chortle comedy website as saying: “We have done the fairest and the best thing in the 65-year history of the Fringe for performers.  Without us, they’d still be losing thousands of pounds. Let anybody who wants to cast a stone reflect on what they themselves have done to help performers at the Fringe.”

But now, just two days before the final Edinburgh Fringe Programme deadline, I can exclusively reveal (as the best hacks say) that the Greatest Show on Legs performance will go ahead at The Hive with long-time members Martin Soan and Martin ‘Sir Ralph’ Clarke plus – filling in for the unavailable third member – special guests on each of the three planned nights.

The Greatest Show on Legs will be performing at The Hive in Edinburgh on 23rd, 24th and 25th of August which (not coincidentally) means they can also appear during the two-hour Malcolm Hardee Awards Show in the ballroom of The Counting House on 24th August. This year, that show is being put together and hosted by the extraordinary Miss Behave, star of La Soirée and the Olivier Award winning La Clique.

The stand-in guest performers with the Greatest Show on Legs have not been arranged let alone confirmed yet – bloody hell, the booking was only arranged yesterday – but  past stand-in guests for their naked balloon dance have included comedian Simon Munnery, German variety artiste Otto Kuhnle (himself a Malcolm Hardee Award winner) and TV presenter Keith Chegwin.

Me? I am off to North Korea this morning to join in the heartfelt celebrations on 15th April for the 100th birthday of the late Great Leader and Eternal President Kim Il-sung.

When I was last in North Korea, in 1986, the great man himself was still alive. I sadly was not there during the rule of his son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, but I look forward to the rule of the new Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.

North Korea is a fascinating country. But an unfortunate side-effect of my visit is that I will be uncontactable while there and will not be blogging again until 22nd April, when I get back to the UK.

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