Tag Archives: PBH

A revolution at the Edinburgh Fringe. New Freestival organisers explain what to expect from them and their sponsors

The Festival Fringe is not part of the Edinburgh International Festival

The Fringe is not part of the Edinburgh International Festival

The Edinburgh Fringe is a thing of Byzantine beauty organised by no-one and, within that non-organisation are lots of people organising things. 

I organise the annual highly-coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards at the Fringe. Last year they were the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards. This year, they are the highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards and my blog has taken over the mantle of being increasingly prestigious. Say it often enough and, with luck, people will start believing it.

If I were to attempt to simplify the organisation of the Edinburgh Fringe’s non-organisation, there are venues where you pay in advance (pay venues) and there are ‘free’ venues where you pay nothing to enter but, if you want, you can donate money on the way out (a bit like indoor busking).

There were, until this year, three free organisers:

PBH’s Free Fringe started it all, organised by highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award nominee Peter Buckley Hill.

Around ten years ago, there was then a split in the Free Fringe ranks and the Free Festival began, organised by Alex Petty of Laughing Horse, in one of whose venues I stage the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show.

Emerging from the Free Festival in the last couple of years has been the Heroes of Fringe Pay What You Want venues run by highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winner Bob Slayer. At his venues, you can either walk in for free or pay for a ticket in advance to guarantee a seat.

Then, back in December, I blogged about another rift in the Free Fringe which has now spawned the Freestival, organised by a hydra-headed committee of performers all of whom, I imagine, aspire to win a highly coveted Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award.

If you need any more background, I suggest you either take counselling or settle down, take Valium and read the blog I wrote last December about the genesis of the new Freestival group.

On the Freestival website (soon to be re-designed) there are eleven members of “the current committee and helpers” listed.

Last night, four of them – Dan Adams, Sean Brightman, Al Cowie and Alex Marion – explained more to me.

Last night (from left): Sean Brightman, Dan Adams, Alex Marion, Al Cowie

Last night in London (from left) four elevenths of Freestival: Sean Brightman, Dan Adams, Alex Marion and Al Cowie

As they are part of a hydra-headed collective speaking collectively – and, frankly, because I can’t be bothered to differentiate between the four voices on my sound recording – I shall quote what the four of them individually said as coming from a mythical single beast called The Freestival.

“You had a big bust-up with Peter Buckley Hill,” I started. “You suggested ways in which you thought the Free Fringe could be improved.”

“An innocent mistake,” said the Freestival. “In hindsight, we should probably not have done that but, then, we would have ended up doing shows somewhere else.”

“So you would have broken away anyway?”

“We might have gone with Laughing Horse,” said the Freestival, “or Heroes of the Fringe without the hassle.

“With the Free Fringe, it’s PBH’s name on it and however much he’s set up committees in the past, it’s pretty well established it’s always him. With Laughing Horse, it’s Alex and he gets other people on board to help, but it’s him and he works very very hard. Bob Slayer, same thing: he’s keeping it very small – very wise – and he’s going great guns with it but, again, it’s just him.

“We set the Freestival up as a committee and the thing that differentiates us from any of the other free groups is we have an accountant. Plus, should any issues happen, we’ve got some flexibility in the system, because what we’ve done is looked round at who has the expertise in various different areas, so that we can call on them and genuinely use them. None of us knew about accountancy, so we’ve got in a fantastic accountant performer – Gemma Beagley.

“Essentially, we want to bring in the money from outside that will allow us to put on really good free Fringe sh…”

“You can’t use those two words together,” said the Freestival, interrupting itself.

“Free Fringe?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied the Freestival, “apparently it’s illegal for us to use the two words together.

“It’s difficult to describe without using those words,” continued the Freestival. “But essentially what we want a festival full of acts we believe in so we can promote them to the public with genuine honesty. With all due respect, all of the other free organisations are pretty much open to anyone.”

Random visual plug for my Fringe show

A random plug for Bob Slayer

(Before I get a complaint from Big Bob Slayer, I should point out that, keeping things small, he is very choosy about the acts he allows to perform in his venues.)

“What we have,” continued the hydra-headed Freestival, “is the manpower to select the acts we really want to put on. It’s like running a comedy club where we put on the best acts available to us on the night. So, when people go to a Freestival show, they will know it’s going to be a good show in a good venue. We want all of our venues to be a pleasure to go to. In Edinburgh, for performers and audiences, that’s not always the case. There was one in a toilet last year.”

“There seemed to be some doubt,” I said, “that you had The Tron as one of your venues.”

“We do have The Tron,” said the Freestival. “And The Cowgatehead, which is opposite the Underbelly. Last year it was called The Cowshed.”

“They were both PBH venues last year,” I said.

“Yes. The reason they’re coming with us this year,” said the Freestival, “is that they are directly linked to our sponsor. We do have a sponsor – La Favorita, a chain of Pizza restaurants, a local Edinburgh business. They’re a restaurant group (the Vittoria Group) with a small chain of pizza delivery restaurants. They had a concession outside the Tron Church at last year’s Fringe.”

The new Freestival 2014 logo from sponsors La Favorita

The new Freestival 2014 logo from sponsors La Favorita

“How many venues have you got,” I asked, “and how many rooms within those venues?”

“We’re currently working on getting around twelve venues,” replied the Freestival.

“Each with multiple rooms?” I asked.

“There might be more spaces, but we’re working towards a 12-venue plan. We’ve got the Cowgatehead, the Tron, St James, which is a brand new venue near the Grassmarket. Inside that, we’ve got two floors with a main room for about 150 people and we’re going to put two rooms on the top floor, each of which will be 60-80. It’s going to be built to our spec.”

“Why are you different from the other free venue organisers?” I asked.

“We want people,” said the Freestival, “to be astounded by how good our venues are. And we want to publicise all of our shows. It’s not enough to just say They’re in our brochure, so that’s our responsibility to them discharged. If both the acts AND we publicise those shows, then all of us benefit.”

“Is that where the sponsor’s money is going?” I asked.

“The sponsor,” said the Freestival, “is paying for the brochures, the publicity costs, the new website and the setting-up of the venues. The acts are spending six months preparing the best show they can create and we don’t think they should have to set up the venue themselves.”

“So,” I asked, “will each of your venues have a venue manager and a sound person?”

“Yes,” said the Freestival, “though there might be a couple of venues that share sound people.”

“Are the sound people free?” I asked.

“There is a small up-front sub,” said the Freestival, “which is on our website. It is £80.”

“What was PBH charging last year?” I asked.

“£3 per each individual day’s performance,” said the Freestival, “and/or you had to organise as many benefits shows as you could for the Free Fringe. If anyone thinks they can find a venue in Edinburgh in August, fully set-up with publicity and technical support as part of the package, for less than £80 over three weeks, they’re welcome to go and take it. What the sponsor’s money allows us to provide is quality venues. And soundproofing wherever possible.”

“Perhaps,” I said, “the sponsor could soundproof the walls with pizzas. You could have the first edible Fringe venues.”

“How we have approached sponsorship,” explained the Freestival, “is How will it benefit what we want to do? NOT How will it benefit the sponsor? The sponsor gets concession stands selling pizzas at a couple of the venues and outside The Tron, exactly as they had last year. They want to get their name seen everywhere because they want to grow as a business and this does that for them.

A random pizza, like the Fringe, full of ingredients

A random pizza, like the Fringe, full of different ingredients

“Having an accountant and sponsor on board informs the decision-making process, but we have control over any artistic decision. There will be nothing about this does or does not fit the sponsor’s brand. None of that at all. What the sponsor wants is to be part of something which will be good. They have no control over the creative side of things. They are just a conduit to provide us with the ability to stage some really good shows.”

“What about the antagonism from PBH over the split?” I said.

“He wants to shout, he wants to scream at us,” said the Freestival, “but really we’re not here to undermine him. We’re just here because we think there’s another way of doing things that can achieve a better set of results.

“Every year, the Free Fringe grows, every year there’s more venues, more shows and inevitably what that means is that there’s less control over the quality of the venues. What we want to do is keep small, keep to a limited number of venues, keep to acts we believe in, that we can publicise with our whole heart, that we can inter-act with and put them in venues they are happy to play in and the public want to spend time in.

“We have made a conscious effort to make relationships with other parts of the Fringe and the comedy industry in general. Hils Jago of Amused Moose will be running Logan Murray’s comedy courses in our venues.

“Whilst we are another free entity up in Edinburgh,” said the Freestival, “I truly believe there’s room for many more free entities up there and many more different models. All of us really believe in our model but, if other people want to go with different models or to perform in our venues AND in other people’s venues, fantastic for them.”

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Has the Edinburgh Free Fringe split apart again? Is it comedy Christianity?

I once had to write an encyclopaedia entry on Christianity in (as far as I remember) 23 lines. This was a nightmare. Almost as soon as it started, Christianity started to splinter apart into sects, sub-sects and competing sub-sub-sects.

Peter Buckley Hill started it all in Edinburgh

Peter Buckley Hill  started it all in Edinburgh

It is becoming a bit that way with the ‘free’ shows at the annual Edinburgh Fringe – which was, itself, an offshoot of the continuing Edinburgh International Festival.

In Fringe terms, a ‘free’ show is one at which the audience pays nothing to go in but can, if they like, donate money on the way out.

As far as organising free shows at the Edinburgh Fringe is concerned, first there was the Free Fringe conceived by Peter Buckley Hill (affectionately called PBH).

Then, splitting from that, was the Free Festival. So, for several years now, we have had the rival or complementary (depending on your viewpoint) PBH Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

This year, Bob Slayer’s Heroes of Fringe operation started promoting the idea of Pay What You Want shows where you can get free entry to shows or – to guarantee a seat – you can buy a £5 ticket in advance. Bob’s Heroes venues, though separate, amicably co-existed with the Free Festival and were listed in their programme.

Then, a couple of months ago, I blogged about what seemed to be a split within the Free Fringe. PBH’s reaction to his critics from within and what he perceived to be their ‘ultimatum’ was:

Rather than have people trying to take over and change the principles, I will cancel the whole event and wind up the Free Fringe Ltd… I presume the people behind this ultimatum will now want to form their own organisation and start charging for membership so they can pay themselves for their own work, just as they propose in the ultimatum. And in order to do that they’ll capture as many Free Fringe venues as they can. If I consider it worthwhile, I may decide to continue the Free Fringe with the venues that are left to us.  But I do not have to… I’ll carry on if there’s support for the real principles of the Free Fringe. Venues may be difficult, as I already said they would be.  If there is insufficient support, then I shall wind the Company up.

On Tuesday this week, unknown to me, Ian Fox – author of the book How To Produce, Perform and Write an Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Show – asked on the Facebook Comedy Forum:

What was the outcome of all the disagreement that John Fleming was writing about in October?

Peter Buckley Hill replied:

The important thing is that the Free Fringe has been accepting applications since November 1st and is going ahead at full strength, as if anybody would seriously doubt that, especially after the success of 2013. The ethos and conditions have not changed in principle.

and staunch Free Fringe supporter Kate Smurthwaite replied:

I don’t think there was an outcome. I don’t even know if anyone’s actually left (though of course many people leave and join the Free Fringe every year). And I’d hardly call it a disagreement. Free Fringe members are welcome to come and go and express opinions as they like. I don’t know why anyone bothers to write about it.

The Free Festival (not to be confused with the Freestival) broke away from the Free Fringe

The Laughing Horse Free Festival (not to be confused with the new Freestival) broke away from the original PBH Free Fringe

As of yesterday, though, the non-disagreement appears to have given birth to yet another free show operation currently possibly called the Freestival (not to be confused with the FreeFestival).

A single page website headed Project Free has appeared, following an e-mail yesterday which was not sent to me but which I have seen. It said:

You may have heard that there has been a problem within the ranks of PBH’s Free Fringe. It is true and we have been forced to start a new organisation and we would like you to be a part of it.

Briefly, PBH’s executive board, of which I was a member, collectively wrote a private email to him suggesting changes to improve the organisation. His response was to go public and call us all cunts and black list us. The Free Fringe is a collective where everyone is expected to chip in. In reality, it has been like a building site where there are 20 people standing around drinking tea watching one guy with a shovel. We are the people with the shovels. Our group includes the man who gets all the venues, the fund raisers, the brochure designer, the venue programmers etc. 

Having been forced out of the organisation we loved we decided to start a new one. We would like you to join us. We have most of the best central venues on Cowgate, Nidry St, Blair St and will have the Tron Kirk, the big church at the corner of the Royal Mile and North/South Bridge, as our main hub.

When I saw this e-mail, I asked Peter Buckley Hill if he would like to comment in a response which would be unedited by me.

He replied:

There can be no “rival Free Fringe organisation”; the name Free Fringe belongs to The Free Fringe Ltd.  Whatever any other organisations may wish to call themselves, they are not The Free Fringe.

Someone loyal to (but not a spokesperson for) the PBH Free Fringe (and NB not PBH himself) suggested to me that the breakaway group from the Free Fringe did not actually have agreement to use the venues.

The new Freestival or Project Free’s ‘Mission Statement’ includes these words:

The possible

New breakaway group’s ‘Mission Statement’

We operate an open door policy to all groups and performers. We are happy to have our performers appearing on other Fringe platforms… A non-refundable show registration fee of approximately £80 may be necessary, depending on sponsorship, to pay for equipment and professional services, such as advertising and marketing. Shows will be free to enter using a bucket and/or Paypal for donations with other possible advanced paid reservation options still under review…

Sponsorship and support from local companies will pay for a quality brochure print which is distributed to every house in Edinburgh and handed out at train stations and bus stations during the fringe. Acts will be able to advertise their own shows in the brochure. A dedicated communications officer and an efficiently managed, regularly updated social media presence will both be on hand to publicise your shows and further the brand. The brand will be extensively marketed around Edinburgh and in the press before and during the Festival. We are also investigating potential partnerships with external PR companies to get performers discounts on PR management and production.

The Festival Fringe is not part of the Edinburgh International Festival

Festival Fringe – not part of Edinburgh International Festival

Some of this seems a little ambitious for a free shows promoter but it does seem likely there will now be four organisations offering free shows at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe.

This morning, I woke up to a message from PBH – sent at 3.43am – saying:

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. We have responded to our members and applicants via our Facebook page.

This message was posted on the Free Fringe’s Facebook page overnight:

The Free Fringe, popularly known as PBH’s Free Fringe, remains the largest single entity at The Edinburgh Fringe and has so far had over 200 applications from performers for 2014. We have already secured our key venues for next year, including – despite what their email states – the Tron Kirk. Our committee and programming team are looking forward to 2014 and we are looking forward to some brilliant new venues, and performers joining

As should be expected with an organisation of our size, there are those within it who think it should be run differently. They are welcome to that view, and no-one has been barred from the organisation following the ultimatum sent to us by the breakaway group, despite what they claim. If people wish to leave and start their own organisation that again is not a problem, although of course we would expect them to find new venues of their own.

We live in interesting times.

That could either be a good thing, offering more choice to punters keen to see a wide variety of shows – or it could be a Chinese curse on already confused Fringe-goers.

* * * * *

Since posting this blog, someone has asked me if I have any connection with the PBH Free Fringe.

In the past I have staged other people’s shows under the PBH Free Fringe banner. The last was in 2010.

My own annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Shows were initially staged at the Gilded Balloon pay venue but, for the last few years, have been part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

My 2011 chat shows were part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

My 2013 chat shows came under Bob Slayer’s Heroes of Fringe outfit.

As I understand it, under PBH Free Fringe rules, because I have staged shows in the Laughing Horse Free Festival (and will do so again in 2014) I am banned from staging shows at the PBH Free Fringe.

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Comedians’ crowdfunding, books and ‘missing’ Edinburgh Fringe free shows

Enterprising early example of crowdfunding

Enterprising early example of crowdfunding

This year, several performers crowdfunded their shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Yesterday, I was in Brighton for the launch of registrations for the Brighton Fringe festival.

The crowdfunding site Zequs are saying that they will give £500 each to the first ten people who raise £1,000 for their shows via the Zequs site.

And, in a reassuring marketing wheeze, they cleverly point out that crowdfunding is not new – the plinth for the Statue of Liberty was financed by crowdfunding.

Crowdfunded anarchic autobiography

The crowdfunded anarchic autobiography

It certainly seems to be on the rise.

Last Saturday, I was at the launch of comedian Phil Kay’s crowdfunded book The Wholly Viable at the Soho Theatre, despite the fact I seem to remember there were two launch gigs for it at the Edinburgh Fringe back in August.

Still, it is being promoted by publicity maelstrom Bob Slayer.

Bob is also crowdfunding a new “children’s book for adults” with illustrations by Malcolm Hardee Pound of Flesh Award winner Rich Rose. The online Kickstarter appeal seems suitably non-sober.

Bob Slayer appeals - not very soberly - in a Kickstarter videoStill, it was being promoted by publicity maelstrom Bob Slayer.

Bob Slayer appeals – not very soberly – in a Kickstarter video

His book is called The Happy Drunk and he aims to raise £666 (I wonder where that number came from?) and, at the time of writing, he has already raised £481 with 12 days still to go.

The Happy Drunk is sub-titled Bob Slayer: The Baby Years and Bob’s pitch is: “Got kids? Here’s how to start them on the booze!”… “I don’t know why this was rejected by my publisher,” he says. “You can receive rewards of exclusive artwork, a caricature, a show in your own home, a magical mystery tour… even your very own baby… all of which will help make this project happen…”

CalPolIsEvil

The original title of Bob’s book

The book was originally titled Calpol Is Evil, but Bob surprisingly changed the title.

Meanwhile, fellow comedy performer and Edinburgh Fringe regular Ian Fox has updated his book How to Produce, Perform and Write an Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Show.

Now updated both online & as print book

Now updated both online & as print book

The book, says Ian, “shares eleven years experience of producing shows at the Fringe for the price of a café latte, without the social awkwardness of having to sit with the author in a coffee shop – highlighting the author’s personal experiences of half-full houses, flatmates gone bad, hostel horror stories, campsite calamities, and general comedy cock-ups.”

“Why update it?” I asked Ian yesterday. “Surely advice about putting on a show at the Edinburgh Fringe two years ago is much the same as today?”

“The principles are the same,” he told me. “but some of the information has changed. Things like the price of ads in the Fringe Programme and the PBH Free Fringe have a voluntary contribution for their shows.”

“Ah, that’” I said, is one of the advantages of eBooks and publishing on demand: you can update facts immediately for new purchasers of the book.”

“And,” said Ian, “everything new which I’ve added, I have put online. Both the Kindle and the on-demand printed version have an address in them which tells you where you can find the updates on-line. It would be a bit unfair if you had to pay for small updates.”

“What’s the main difference,” I asked, “between 2003, when you first produced a show, and 2013?”

Michael McIntyre beaten for Perrier Best Newcomer Award

Oddly, Michael McIntyre was beaten for Perrier Best Newcomer Award in 2003 by Gary Le Strange

“The number of free shows,” replied Ian. “There weren’t any in 2003 and there were 814 last year… Well, 814 official ones, because a lot of the PBH Free Fringe ones aren’t actually listed in the Fringe Programme. The Laughing Horse Free Festival insists all its shows are listed in the official Fringe Programme, but the Free Fringe doesn’t.

“I got the 814 figure by searching the official Fringe site for free comedy shows, but the Chortle and the British Comedy Guide websites actually listed over 1,000 shows: so those extra ones obviously listed themselves on those websites but didn’t pay to list themselves in the Fringe Programme.”

“So,” I asked Ian, “if I ‘m a performer thinking of going to the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time next year, why should I buy your book?”

“It will probably save you £300 or £400,” replied Ian. “The secret to making money at the Fringe is knowing how to not spend money unnecessarily. One Fringe publication was offering – for £100 – to put your ad on a webpage that got 10,000 impressions. But I remember from 2011 – the year of ‘Cockgate’ – when I took all those photographs and put them on my blog site… I thought I’d put an advert for my show down the side of the page…. I did… I got 14,000 hits on that page on the first day and I got two clicks on the ad… and one of them turned out to be Ashley Frieze, who I was sharing a flat with.”

“OK,” I said. “Let’s say I’m going to perform at the Fringe for the third time next year. Why should I buy your book?”

Ian Fox in Edinburgh during the Fringe

Ian Fox – now over a decade at the Edinburgh Fringe

“I probably can teach you some stuff, but there’s also loads of stories in there and some of the history you might not know, people’s failures. It’s not just a technical guide; there’s loads of anecdotes. There was one year when me and Ashley were putting free tickets for our shows in the Half Price Hut and people were getting them, even though the tickets were free. It’s just an extra outlet, another way of advertising a show – our show came up on the LED board outside the Half Price Hut – Shows starting in the next hour… There’s loads of tips like that in the book.”

“Do you know what show you’re doing yourself next year?”

“Sort of. I read that blog of yours about the more interesting shows being less straight-stand-up. I’m definitely going in that direction: that it’s not totally straight stand-up.”

“You could do burlesque,” I suggested. “Stripping in a sequin dress. I’d pay to see it.”

“I’m definitely not doing that,” laughed Ian, “though I once did a video with Mick Ferry. He used to do a show in Manchester called Mick Ferry’s Space Cadets and, every month, the audience used to set him a challenge and, because they’d had a burlesque dancer on in a particular show, they said he had to be a male burlesque dancer. I used to make videos of his challenges – shoot them on the Monday for the gig on the Tuesday. They’re on YouTube and on the videos page of my website.”

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Edinburgh Fringe magnifies comedian Malcolm Hardee’s testicles and objects to Charlie Chuck’s English grammar

Charlie Chuck- What the duck is the Edinburgh Fringe doing?

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

Now, make no mistake, I love the Edinburgh Fringe. One thing I like about it is its freewheeling, hands-off nature. Anyone can perform at the Fringe; the Fringe Office itself merely acts as a central not-really-controlling-anything hub. They charge you to put your 40 word listing and perhaps an ad in the Fringe Programme. But it is very relaxed and freewheeling.

In theory.

Except for the fact that they appear to have thrown away the spirit of the Fringe and gone in for mindless bureaucratic stupidity this year. Two examples:

1. THE GREATEST SHOW ON LEGS

This admirably anarchic, occasionally naked-balloon-dancing troupe have already had problems, with the PBH Free Fringe refusing to allow one of their members appearing in a show on the PBH Free Fringe to appear as part of the Greatest Show on Legs in the Laughing Horse Free Festival. (It’s complicated – I blogged previously about it.)

But the Greatest Show on Legs ARE now performing (with special guests standing-in for the missing member – yes, I said the missing member) at Bob Slayer’s Alternative Fringe venue The Hive (administered as part of the Laughing Horse Free Fringe). When I left for China three weeks ago, they were going to be performing for three days in the final week (and on the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show). Now they will be performing for five days in the final week (and on the Malcolm Hardee Awards Show).

So they paid for their entry in the Fringe Programme, which includes a tiny photo. The words were:

Famed naked balloon dancers, The Legs return to Edinburgh with extraordinarily eccentric comedy sketches and surprise guests. “Surreal and anarchic comedy” (Huffington Post), “Anarchic high point” (Guardian), “Manic and riotous” (Chortle)

The photo (which I have reproduced here at the size it would have appeared in the Fringe Programme) is on the left. I say “would have appeared” because the Fringe refused to run the photo, saying:

The man on the left of image, is not fully covered by his balloon. As this is a universal publication – one that is read by adults and children – we need to be sure that every image included is suitable. We therefore require you to either use a different image, or photo shop the existing one to ensure that the balloon is covering the entire area.

This was news to me as the photo has been run elsewhere, at a more visible size, before.

But, indeed, when I viewed the original image at full-size, I could vaguely see something and, indeed, if I looked at it at 300% original size, I could see what I think is the shape of the bottom of the late Malcolm Hardee’s testicles. I suppose I should be more certain as, with most comedy-goers of a certain age, I saw them often enough.

Bob Slayer tells me: “I said to them (the Fringe) if they really had to Photoshop, then to do a very subtle blurring but don’t add anything to the image.”

He also asked to see the Photoshopped result, but never did until a couple of days ago, after the Fringe Office was chased-up. They had changed the photo to what you see on the left… with an entirely new third balloon plonked over the offending vague shape. A ridiculous piece of over-kill, not part of the Greatest Show on Legs’ act and, as far as I can figure, it would be completely impossible to actually perform the act with this third balloon. Ironically, the Photoshopped picture is a load of bollocks.

So, a couple of days ago, the new picture you see on the left was submitted, although it is quite difficult to find colour photos of the Greatest Show on Legs with the late Malcolm Hardee (who is obviously a marketing point). Watch this space in case this one is rejected too. The Fringe appears to have gone control-freak mad. Which brings us to:

2. CHARLIE CHUCK

Cirque du Charlie Chuck is the new Edinburgh Fringe show from a man whose act goes far beyond utter nonsense. The words submitted for the Fringe Programme were:

Vic and Bob’s sidekick, Fringe legend Charlie Chuck, back with cabaret, organ-playing, drum-smashing mixed-up magic, with burlesque bits of French songs and lady assistant. ‘Masterpiece of oddity’ (Scotsman). More scary, more weird. Plus a latex suit.

The response from the Fringe was:

Thank you for your recent registration for the Fringe Programme. I have taken a look at your form, and the copy for the Programme is over the word limit, as some words were missing, as per below:

Vic and Bob’s sidekick, Fringe legend Charlie Chuck, IS back with cabaret, organ-playing, drum-smashing AND mixed-up magic, with burlesque bits of French songs and A lady assistant. ‘Masterpiece of oddity’ (Scotsman). More scary, more weird. Plus a latex suit.

These words are required to be added to make sure the copy is in our house style.

Warm regards,

Katie McKenna
Programme Production Assistant

Note the phrase “These words are required to be added”. Not “suggested”… “required”.

It is worth mentioning at this point that Charlie Chuck was paying almost £400 (OK, it was £393.60p) to have these words put in the Fringe Programme to advertise and promote his show. I can’t imagine The Times or the Daily Telegraph or the equally respectable Guardian objecting to the grammar in a paid-for ad in their hallowed pages.

The Fringe also mounts ‘roadshows’ advising performers how to publicise their shows. One of their annual gems of wisdom is that the Fringe Programme entry is the most important and effective piece of publicity for your show and every word used should count in marketing your show. “Cut out every unnecessary word” is the Fringe’s advice. No mention of adding in an unnecessary “is” or “and” or “a” or of having to use fully-grammatical sentences.

It is also worth mentioning that Charlie Chuck is secondarily listed under “Absurdist” by the Fringe Programme and his shows often start with the words:

“Ay and beway, flippin de bow-wow. Donkey. Woof-bark. Donkey. Woof-bark. Donkey. Woof-bark. Donkey. Woof-bark. Woof-bark.”

And that is one of the more coherent parts of his act.

I think he could justifiably argue that being forced to write a fully-grammatically-correct Fringe Programme listing would be professionally damaging to his career.

When the Fringe was pushed on this mindless idiocy, the reply came:

It seems your show copy was over the 40 word limit when you resubmitted.

(It actually was not over the limit at all and it was resubmitted via the Fringe computer which does not allow over-length entries to be submitted.)

We do attempt to make the copy grammatically correct. Looking at your show copy, I woud (sic) suggest that the first sentence needs a verb, which on (sic) of our team has put in. I don’t see the ‘and’ you refer to in the proof sent. I think ‘and a lady assistant’ reads fine. However, it largely up to you, (sic) as long as your copy adheres to the style guide found on edfringe.com, is grammatically correct and within the 40 word limit (including your show title) it can be run.

Martin Chester
Publications Manager

At the time I write this, the Fringe appears to have accepted an entry from Charlie Chuck which reads:

CIRQUE DU CHARLIE CHUCK
Vic and Bob’s sidekick, Fringe legend Charlie Chuck’s back with mixed magic, cabaret, organ-playing, drum-smashing, burlesque bits, French songs and lady assistant. ‘Masterpiece of oddity’
(Scotsman). More scary, more weird. Plus unexpected latex suit.

Let us hope they do not refuse to run the almost £400 paid-for ad on the basis that the last two sentences are not, in fact sentences. But, it seems, this year at the Edinburgh Fringe mindless bureaucratic stupidity rules.

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Edinburgh’s PBH Free Fringe restricts performers’ freedom to put on a show

The Greatest Show on Legs performing in their prime (Photograph by Matthew Hardy)

At the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008, the much-respected comedian Peter Buckley Hill was nominated for a Malcolm Hardee Award for his creation and sustenance of the PBH Free Fringe.

Last week, I blogged that the late Malcolm Hardee’s friend Martin Soan was likely to revive their act The Greatest Show on Legs at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe for a one-week run. The show was to involve two other former GSOL performers. Last night, I went with my eternally-un-named friend (who is not in the comedy business) to see Malcolm Hardee Award winning Lewis Schaffer’s ongoing London comedy show Free Until Famous.

I heard there that the planned Greatest Show On Legs’ performances in Edinburgh have, in all probability, been scuppered by Peter Buckley Hill (oft known as PBH).

In my blog in January this year, Peter wrote that the PBH Free Fringe “is a model for the liberation of performers from the chains imposed on them by others”.

“This guy Peter Buckley Hill,” Lewis Schaffer explained to my eternally-un-named friend late last night, “originated the idea of a festival where people are charged nothing to get in, but donate money at the door at the end of the show. It’s basically indoor busking. He didn’t invent anything new, he just put it into a room. It’s a great idea. And a promoter called Alex Petty did the same thing and called his shows the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

“And that,” Lewis explained, “is a good thing, because it means more free shows for more free comics, rather than just having one guy to go to. It’s like somebody opening up a food centre giving food to starving people and somebody says, Good idea – I’ll do the same thing across town. You wouldn’t say, Oh, this guy’s being evil because he’s copied the idea of doing a free food bank! The Fringe idea is indoor busking. But Peter Buckley Hill thinks Alex Petty is doing an evil thing.”

“There are all sorts of stories,” I explained to my eternally-un-named friend. “Some are probably untrue and urban myths but it’s like a one-sided vendetta. If any PBH Free Fringe act applies to perform or does perform at a Laughing Horse Free Festival venue, PBH bans them from appearing on the Free Fringe again. If he knows you have applied to both the Free Fringe and the Free Festival for a venue, you are barred from performing at the Free Fringe venue because you have had the audacity to approach the Free Festival. The legend goes that, if you appear at a Free Festival venue, PBH un-friends you on Facebook, though we still seem to be Facebook Friends. I have a nasty feeling this may change.”

In the case of the Greatest Show on Legs, one of the performers (who does not want to be named) is booked to appear in a show on the PBH Free Fringe this year. The Greatest Show on Legs had been invited to perform at Bob Slayer’s venue The Hive, which comes under the umbrella of the Laughing Horse Free Festival. When this was mentioned to PBH, it turned out (no surprise) he had a problem with it, but said there would be no problem if the Greatest Show on Legs performed, instead, at a PBH Free Fringe venue.

The rule of thumb is… If you apply to or perform at a Laughing Horse Free Festival venue, you are barred from the PBH Free Fringe. The reverse is not the case. The Laughing Horse Free Festival puts no restrictions on performers applying to both free events, nor on people who have performed for the PBH Free Fringe.

There was a story at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe about a PBH Free Fringe venue which was next to a Laughing Horse Free Festival venue in the same narrow street. The latter venue was a little tucked-away and less-well signposted at the front. If any punter or passer-by asked anyone flyering outside the PBH Free Fringe venue, the flyerer had to say they had never heard of the Laughing Horse Free Fringe venue and did not know where it was. I can only presume this was an urban myth and was a totally untrue story, but I heard it repeated widely. Such stories are fertilised by the one-sided vendetta.

“It is outrageous,” Martin Soan told me last night. “PBH seems to believe that, if anyone performs anywhere else, then they’re not allowed to perform at his places. It could destroy young people’s careers because it can come across as intimidating or bullying though, of course, I am sure it’s not intended that way. Imagine if you’re a young act, just starting out. We never believed there was a career for us when we started. But nowadays there is a career path in it. Suddenly someone turns round and says: Ah, you’re not going to perform here if you go off and do a show somewhere else. That is detrimental to people’s careers. It’s restriction of trade. Not a good way of nursing young talent; it is restricting talent’s ability to perform where they want.”

“It’s also preventing an actual show from happening?” said my eternally un-named friend.

“You could have someone else in the show,” I suggested to Martin.

“Yes, but that’s not the point, is it?” he replied.

“Someone Martin wanted in the show and who wanted to appear in the show has been intimidated into not appearing in the show,” my eternally un-named friend said.

“You’ve hit the nail on the head,” said Martin.

“And the show will probably not happen because of that?” I asked.

“It’s just nuts,” Martin said. “I’m not going to lose sleep over it. But what I’m angry about is this PBH character. Who does he think he is? He said, No, you can’t go and perform at The Hive because it’s part of the Free Festival, but the Legs can perform on the Free Fringe. So he was prepared to poach an act. He was just being bloody obstinate and horrible, if you ask me.”

“Would you perform as part of the Free Fringe?” I asked.

“Not now. No I fucking well would not now. On principle. I have banned and barred myself from performing on the Free Fringe. I don’t know what the distinction is between barred and banned but I have done both to myself.”

“If,” I suggested, “if one of the Big Four venues told someone who was doing a show for them that they could not go and perform as a member of a comedy team at a Free Fringe venue because performing at a free venue would undermine the box office for their performance at the Big Four paid venue, I could see that they might have a point. But PBH would be outraged and up-in-arms about the restrictive practices of the dictatorial Big venue throttling freedom of performance.

“In this case – and lots of other cases – what you have is the PBH Free Fringe saying anyone who dares to perform at the other free festival in town is barred from performing at the PBH Free Fringe. While claiming that free performance shows are somehow liberating to the performer. It’s like Communism coming along and saying We will give people freedom and you end up with a dictatorship by the one-Party state.”

“It’s like The Bridge on the River Kwai,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Alec Guinness did a good thing by keeping the men occupied to build the bridge. He saved the lives of his own men. He was a good man. But, somewhere along the line, he forgot what his purpose was. He fell in love with the bridge and forgot about the men and about the War. At the end of the film, he’d forgotten what the purpose of the bridge was. And it’s the same with Peter Buckley Hill. He’s forgotten what the purpose of the Free Fringe was: to widen the opportunities for performers. The Free Fringe is not for him; it’s for other people and the more people who put on more free shows, the better it is for Comedy.”

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The Edinburgh Fringe? – “It is called show business and not show charity”

In yesterday’s blog, I wrote about two types of show at the Edinburgh Fringe.

In normal ‘paid’ shows, the audience pays for its tickets before seeing the show and reviewers and talent scouts for the media/showbiz industry mostly get free tickets because they potentially may publicise the show or further the performers’ careers.

At ‘free’ shows, people do not buy tickets in advance, but are encouraged to pay on exit and reviewers/talent scouts may be scowled-at if they do not pay. In yesterday’s blog, I suggested the fact that ‘industry’ people ironically do not pay for ‘paid’ shows but may be expected to pay for ‘free’ shows might discourage reviewers and talent scouts from attending free shows. They would, in effect, be paying to promote the shows/further the performers’ careers.

I quoted Peter Buckley Hill, organiser of the PBH Free Fringe in Edinburgh, as saying: “This is not something that concerns me greatly… Our performers are strongly advised to concentrate on entertaining the people in front of them, whoever they are, and not to entertain unrealistic dreams of discovery and sudden fame… What happens at paid shows is nothing to me either.  But in my view, both (the employers of) reviewers and competition judges should pay for their show tickets.”

There has been some reaction from other Fringe veterans to yesterday’s blog.

Kate Copstick, doyenne of Fringe comedy reviewers, ITV Show Me The Funny judge and a Malcolm Hardee Awards judge, Facebooked me: “Shame on you, you skinflint Fleming. I make a POINT of seeing as many free shows as I can and, yes, they are the only ones I end up paying for but, to coin a literary term, SO THE FUCK WHAT ? It is the right thing to do. If we don’t review goodly numbers of free shows then we are saying that money WILL buy you reviews. Not mine it won’t.”

American comedian Lewis Schaffer has used the Fringe’s ‘free’ show model in his twice-weekly Free Until Famous shows which re-start in London’s Soho tomorrow and in a mini-tour of UK arts centres which I blogged about recently. He says:

“Whether or not to let reviewers in for free is such a minor point and one easily addressed: give the promoters and industry people ‘get out of show free’ passes to drop in the performers’ jars. Simple. If a performer doesn’t want to accept them, he can post a notice at the entrance.

“Acts are willing to lose massive amounts of money just to be seen by entertainment industry people in Edinburgh. That’s always been the main benefit of putting on shows at the Big Four venues. Industry people are corralled, cuddled and coddled at the Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly. Is it worth it? Well, for many shows, yes.

“Why shouldn’t the free venues do the same?”

Alex Petty, who organises the Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Edinburgh Fringe (separately from PBH’s Free Fringe) says:

“I like the idea of tokens. It would be good to come up with a zero maintenance solution to this.”

Bob Slayer, who ran the Hive venue as part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival last year and who, this year, will be running his Alternative Edinburgh Fringe at the Hive with a mixture of ‘free’ shows in the afternoon and and ‘paid’ shows in the evening says:

“As a promoter I think, if this really is a problem, the free shows should look at a low-maintenance way to address it. Personally, I only really know one of the reviewers that ‘does’ my Fringe shows – Kate Copstick from The Scotsman – and she always drops in a fiver and buys me copious amounts of Jagermeister. I think the other reviewers may have heard how expensive it is to review me and sneak in quietly.

“Copstick is one of the good people. But the question is Do you only want to be reviewed by good people?? I am more than happy for evil, tight-fisted people to enjoy and review my show too. (I fear they might be my target audience.) So this year, instead of paying for PR I will offer a bottle of whisky and/or a hand-job to anyone who reviews my nonsense. And, just to keep this creatively pure, I will give extra for bad reviews.

“However, I think your blog has opened up some wider and bigger questions beyond reviewers.

“I cannot agree with your statement that, at the Fringe, performers (quite rightly) assume they will not make any profit. This is the biggest single problem at the Fringe today.

“Two million tickets are sold at the Edinburgh Fringe every year, so someone is making money. A lot of money. This myth that performers should expect to lose money has been very successfully spread by the people who are making the cash in order to protect their annual golden goose. If there is not enough money left for performers – after venues, PR people, poster people, publications, marketing services etc have taken their cut – then the obvious solution is that we cannot afford all these services and we should re-structure everything so that all the money doesn’t disappear into these people’s pockets.

“That is what we are aiming to do with the Alternative Fringe – paid shows with no rent/guarantee or other hidden costs, plus low ticket pricing and efficient marketing so that the performer earns from the first ticket sold.

“I also find myself totally agreeing with PBH and have very little to add when he says performers should concentrate on entertaining the people in front of them, whoever they are, and not to entertain unrealistic dreams of discovery and sudden fame. The former leads to satisfaction in a job well done; the latter to frustration and the sort of nervous breakdown behaviour often associated with Fringe performers.

“However, as admirable as PBH’s non-profit stance is, this is still a business model that needs to be sustained and it is hardly wise to ignore the industry and reviewers altogether. Performers want to be able to keep performing and/or build a career.

“Reviews, along with word-of-mouth, recommendations, online activity, marketing etc, can all help them put bums-on-seats. But it is a question of balance and priorities. Find and develop an audience and the industry will come – Kunt and the Gang proved last year that, if you create a buzz amongst ‘normal’ people, then the industry and press will follow, no matter how inappropriate your act or name is!”

Lewis Schaffer adds:

“Someone in Edinburgh is certainly making money out of the free shows. It is the pub owner who sells alcohol to the punters coming in droves for free entertainment. The ‘free’ shows hinge on punters drinking. How British is that!?

“No punters drinking mean no shows, no PBH Free Fringe, no Laughing Horse Free Festival, no Lewis Schaffer is Free until Famous, 18th Year, Again, at the Counting House this August.

“Peter Buckley Hill provides entertainment that draws punters to the pubs, which makes Peter Buckley Hill a promoter for pubs in Edinburgh.

“I don’t have an axe to grind with the dude. His existence doesn’t hurt or harm what I do enough for it to matter. I am just a participant doing a free show. Though it does hurt me a little when he calls what he does a charity and holds benefits and makes free shows seem like charity cases, which my show isn’t. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me any more than is necessary!

“All performers at the free festivals are just alcohol salesmen, really. If PBH wants to sell himself as some saviour of entertainers or some charity for lost performers, that is one thing. The truth is something else.

“Everyone involved has a business model: the acts who want a venue at the lowest cost, the pubs who want drinkers in their pubs, the promoters who need money to conduct their businesses and live (… Oh, PBH isn’t doing it for the money? But the Free Fringe needs money to operate. And PBH has a ‘business plan’ to have his needs met as the saviour of entertainers and the liberator of worker artists.)

“The Fringe is part of show business. It is called show business and not show charity.”

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Exclusively revealed here: plans for an Alternative Edinburgh Fringe in 2012

(A version of this blog was published later the same day by the Huffington Post)

The Edinburgh Fringe does not happen until August, but performers – and especially comedians – start planning for it now – in late-December.

The big problem, of course, is the cost. I have reckoned for the last few years that, to stage a professionally-promoted show at the Fringe, costs a performer around £7,000 to £8,000 and you have to assume a 100% loss.

I may be out-of-date, though.

Comedy whirlwind Bob Slayer, formerly in the music business, reckons it now costs £12,000+ to run a show over the Fringe’s three-and-a-half weeks in a ‘paid’ venue. That means the performer pays to hire the venue and the audience pay to see the show.

This week, on the Chortle comedy industry website, he wrote about the opportunities for building a comedy career in a new way.

Now he has gone further.

“The Edinburgh Fringe is a wonderful thing,” he tells me, “but few punters realise the extent to which it is bankrolled by the performers themselves. The vast majority of so-called ‘promoters’ at the Fringe rent rooms to performers just like a landlord. And they sell marketing packages like an agency. What they do not do is take the same financial risks that a real promoter does.”

It is even worse than that. The major venues, in effect, force performers to pay around £500 to be included in their own printed programmes on top of the £295-£393 all performers pay to be included in the main Fringe programme. And then there are unavoidable PR and ticket-handling costs.

“By passing the actual financial risk on to the performer, they are effectively making the performer act as the promoter with a limited upside,” says Bob. “In the music industry this would be called Pay-To-Play and something that you only really find at the lowest level. What performers need at the Fringe is the opportunity to put on shows without risking ridiculous amounts of money.”

For this reason, the last few years has seen a gigantic increase in the number of free Fringe shows, with the PBH Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

The performers do not pay any money to hire a free venue and the audience do not pay for tickets. At the end of the show, they can give as much or as little (or no) money to the performer as they feel the show has been worth. In effect, it is like busking.

American comic Lewis Schaffer – as I mentioned in a recent blog – has brought this ‘free’ performance concept to London with his Free Until Famous show – it is now the longest-running one-man comedy show in the West End and he is taking this free show on a mini-tour of UK arts centres in 2012.

“The huge growth of free shows,” says Bob Slayer, “highlights the increasing demand for an alternative to shelling out so much money to put on a Fringe show. These shows are becoming the place where acts can grow an audience without getting into debt. But there remains a huge gap between the free and paid shows.”

That gap is mainly the gigantic advance cost of paying venue hire. The traditional paid-for Fringe venues charge the performers to hire their venues and also take a percentage of the box office returns (usually split 60/40 in the artist’s favour). The free venues, on the other hand, charge no rental fee and take no percentage of the voluntary donations that punters put in the performer’s bucket.

A couple of years ago, there was hope that the so-called ‘£5 Fringe’ could bridge the gigantic gap between traditional and free venues, but it could not be made to work economically.

Bob reckons he has another model, though, halfway between the free and paid models.

“If a venue did not charge performers rent, had a fair deal based on a profit split, did not waste money on poster sites and set reasonable ticket prices, it could succeed. That is why, during the 2012 Fringe, my Heroes of Alternative Comedy company is linking up with Laughing Horse (who run the Free Festival) at The Hive venue in Edinburgh. We will co-promote paid shows that do not charge artists rent to hire their venues.

“I will be booking four paid shows in the prime evening slots (hourly 6pm to 10pm) in the main room of The Hive.

“They will run alongside free shows during the day and in the second room. All income from the first ticket sold will be split 70/30 in the artist’s favour. As well as shows running throughout the three-and-a-half weeks of the Fringe, we can also accommodate second shows and shorter runs of one or two weeks.”

At The Hive, both the free and the paid shows will run under the banner of The Alternative Fringe, with listings in both the main Fringe Programme and the Free Festival programme.

It is an interesting idea and might, indeed work.

Performers will have a box office income related to the number of people they can attract with a guaranteed payment per-bum-on-seat. But they will not have to pay the standard up-front costs at all: in particular, no venue hire and no enforced publicity charges.

There is also a problem, of course, with rapacious agent/management companies. I was told a story this week about an Edinburgh Fringe show several years ago which took £33,000 at the box office. I believe the pre-arranged box office deal was the standard 60/40 split in the performer’s favour. After deductions – and several months later – the performer received a cheque for £400 as his split of the profits.

But that, as they say, is another story.

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American comedian Lewis Schaffer – always infuriating, sometimes inventive

London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer can be utterly infuriating to work with.

I know. I have worked with him.

If you can call it work.

But, after a tsunami of indecision and self-doubt, he will occasionally come up with brilliant ideas.

And, equally often, he will talk rubbish.

I had him on the phone a few weeks ago – after he had played a gig in some provincial theatre – saying he felt embarrassed to charge people for tickets to come and see his comedy shows.

“I feel like a con-man,” he told me. “What if they don’t like my show? What if they don’t like me? I will have ripped them off. You don’t pay up-front in a restaurant. You pay after you’ve eaten the meal and know what it was like. In no other area of life do you pay before you know what you are getting.”

“Lewis,” I said, exasperated. “In almost every area of life people pay up-front. It is called shopping.”

He ignored me. Today he has issued a press release saying:

“It bothers me to ask for money before a punter knows what they’re getting. Just because my show has been recommended by newspapers or because I look great in a suit or come from New York doesn’t mean they’ll like what I do. If they do like it, THEN they’ll give me what they think it’s worth.

“I hate disappointing people. I’ve disappointed my parents. I’ve disappointed my ex-wife and my kids. I’ve let America and the Jews down. I don’t want to disappoint any more people than I have to.”

Pure Lewis Schaffer.

Now for a major explanatory detour. Stick with me, dear reader.

I know I am going to get at least one complaint about this.

Hello PBH.

Rising comedians are almost obliged to go to the Edinburgh Fringe every year. It is the biggest arts festival – and therefore the biggest showcase – in the world.

Once upon a time, going to the Edinburgh Fringe every August was relatively simple to understand.

Each performer paid their venue an inordinately large amount of money up-front to hire the performance space; an average of around only six people per day paid to see the show; and the performer lost a shedload of money but gained that vital 0.0001% chance of being talent-spotted and/or getting an agent or radio series or TV series and becoming a temporary millionaire.

In their dreams.

Oh, I forgot to mention the cost of accommodation in Edinburgh – possibly £1,000 for a one-bedroom flat and £2,000 or so for a two-bedroom flat – plus the cost of flyers, posters, transport and lots of other sundries.

The main problem, though, was and is the cost of venues. There is a fee to hire the place and then the venue takes around 40% of the box office earnings plus VAT plus you may be forced to pay around £500 for a listing in the big venues’ brochure as well as the £300-ish cost of appearing in the main Fringe programme. And over a thousand quid for a quarter page ad in the main Fringe programme. Plus the cost of getting it designed and formatted.

One year, the very successful and very funny comic Tim Vine paid for a single giant poster – we are talking vast here – which said, simply, that he was NOT appearing at the Fringe.

It must have cost him a fortune but it was the talk of the Fringe and probably cost him less than the cost of travelling to, staying in and performing at Edinburgh – and it certainly got him just as much publicity and attention as he would have got if he had put on a 28-day show. Meanwhile, for the 28 days of the Fringe, he could perform elsewhere for better money.

The Edinburgh Fringe experience for a performer has been described as standing in a cold shower for three weeks while tearing up £20 and £50 notes. Sadly, I have forgotten which comic said that: a reflection on the uncertain benefit of writing good gags.

This losing-shedloads-of-money-at-the-Fringe equation was changed in 1997 when Peter Buckley Hill (the PBH mentioned above) put on his show Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians in a venue without being charged a venue fee: the pub venue was happy enough to receive the extra drink sales generated by audiences at his show. He also did not charge any admission fee to the audience: they only paid whatever they liked at the end if they had enjoyed the show.

The idea of free shows at the Fringe really took off around 2005/2006 by which time PBH and comedy promoter Laughing Horse were jointly promoting lots of shows by various performers.

Inevitably, the two fell out so, from 2007, there have been two sets of free shows at Edinburgh in August: the PBH Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival, both of them under the over-all umbrella of the vast Edinburgh Fringe.

The format for both of these two freebie empires is that the performers do not pay to hire their venues… the audiences do not pay up-front to see the shows… and there is a bucket of some kind at the end so you can give your appreciation by paying whatever you think the show was worth.

Lewis Schaffer had successful years at paid venues on the Fringe in 2000 and 2008 and still lost money. At the Fringe, “successful” means breaking even or losing only a small amount of money.

Since then, Lewis Schaffer (he is always called ‘Lewis Schaffer’, never ‘Lewis’) has performed as part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival, usually doing two shows each day – and filling his rooms.

He brought this idea – basically PBH’s original Free Fringe idea – to London in 2009, performing a twice-per-week (sometimes thrice-per-week) show Lewis Schaffer is Free Until Famous at the Source Below club in Soho. He now claims – and I think he has to be right – that it is the longest-running solo comedy show in London.

And it is free. You only pay only if you like the show and, at the end, you throw however much you want to (or nothing) into a bucket.

Now Lewis Schaffer has, in a suitably ramshackle way, organised his own mini-tour by persuading arts centres around the country (so far only in England) to give him venues for free and to stage The Lewis Schaffer is Free Until Famous Tour.

He says: “Lee Mack suggested I take my show on tour. I know: You don’t think Lee Mack knows me, but he does. You can ask him. On the other hand… just wish me luck.”

I do. Though who knows if it will work?

“Look,” he says, “I think that only I could pull this off. Better known comics don’t have to and worse comics wouldn’t get the gigs and surely couldn’t get the money. No-one gives money for a bad time, no matter how much the comic begs. Who else would have the nerve to ask a British audience for money? Only an American would have the chutzpah.”

Obviously – if you know Lewis – at the time of writing this blog, he has not actually put his tour details on his website. But the upcoming shows – the first is only four days away – are:

10 December 2011 – The Nook, Northampton

27 January 2012 – The Plough Art Centre, Great Torrington

4  February 2012 – The Bromsgrove Artrix

20 April 2012 – Colchester Arts Centre

27 April 2012 – Cambridge Junction

21 July 2012    The Belgrade, Coventry

Now, if only he could get some self-confidence…

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Elfin comedian Laura Lexx gets bigger ideas after meeting the real Santa Claus

At the University of Kent, you can study Stand-Up Comedy. My natural tendency would be to think this is a right load of old wank if it were not for the fact they seem to have produced some rather good rising comedy performers.

There is (in alphabetical order) Tiernan Douieb, Jimmy McGhie, The Noise Next Door and Pappy’s.

And then, out of alphabetical order, there is elfin Laura Lexx. I call her ‘elfin’ because she actually did for a period literally work as an elf in Lapland as part of the Father Christmas industry. I have seen the photos. She is low on height but high on energy. Which is just as well – not just for elfing around in Lapland.

All the way through July, Laura is promoting a month of London previews for other people’s Edinburgh Fringe shows at the Glassblower in Soho, with a line-up which includes Bridget Christie, Phil Nichol and Paul Sinha.

Then she takes off her promoter hat and she’s off to Edinburgh for the Fringe where she’s in both the Comedy and the Theatre sections – performing, producing, writing and directing.

She’s performing daily as part of the improvised comedy game show Quiz in My Pants at the Opium venue

She’s performing and directing the cast in her own straight play Ink (about the 7/7 London terrorist bombings and the media) at the Kiwi Bar.

And she has also done the very neat trick of spotting a new way to finance Edinburgh Fringe shows via wedidthis.org where people who want to support the Arts in a positive way can donate money to the month’s chosen projects. If you reach your target within the month, you get the money donated. If you don’t reach your target, the promised donations made so far are not collected.

At the time of writing this blog, she has another fortnight to raise £175 to cover some of her Edinburgh costs. The donations page is here.

I wonder if anyone would fork out money to cover my modest and artistically-vital publicity costs for Malcolm Hardee Week at the Fringe.

Or maybe I should get work after the Fringe as a Father Christmas clone in Lapland. I would need a wig, I could grow the beard, but I would need no padding.

Oh, to be an elf…

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Answers to nine common questions asked by innocent first-time performers at the Edinburgh Fringe

Next Wednesday is the deadline for the reduced-rate entries in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Programme. Until next Wednesday, the cost is £295.20p. After that, it goes up to £393.60p. So, in a spirit of altruism and pomposity, I thought I’d give my personal opinion on nine Things You Need to Know About the Edinburgh Fringe…

1. HOW MUCH DOES ACCOMMODATION COST?

You know the phrase “an arm and a leg”?

If you think you can get anything as cheap as that, you are having an idle fantasy or you are taking hallucinogenic drugs far stronger than you should if you want to stand upright on a stage.

And, if you haven’t been up, you have no idea. The Edinburgh Fringe is unimaginably large and sprawling. It is the biggest arts festival in the world; Edinburgh is a relatively small city. Last year, there were 21,148 performers in Edinburgh simply for the Fringe. That is just performers. Then you have the back-stage, administrative, media and service industry people and the audiences themselves.

Last year, there were 40,254 performances of 2,453 shows in 259 venues. And that’s just the Fringe. Simultaneously, you have the separate official Edinburgh Festival, the Military Tattoo, the Art Festival, the Book Festival and the Television Festival. Any one of those would be a major event on its own in any other city. In Edinburgh, they are happening simultaneously. Plus there are endless other events and street theatre on a massive scale. And just normal meandering tourists. Last year, at the Fringe alone, there were around two million bums-on-seats for shows. No-one knows exact figures for sure because of the increasingly large PBH Free Fringe and Laughing Horse Free Festival numbers.

It is a simple case of Thatcherite market-led supply and demand. The demand for accommodation is enormous; the supply is severely limited.

Someone I know who is friends with an estate agent in Edinburgh was told – this is true – that one rule of thumb they use for calculating rental rates for flats during the Fringe is to ask the owner: “How much is your annual mortgage?” That then becomes a fair amount to charge someone for the month of August.

I had relatives and friends in Edinburgh until three years ago. Now I have to pay. It’s horrendous.

The phrase to bear in mind with everything connected to the Edinburgh Fringe is “like lambs to the slaughter”.

But, like the mud at Glastonbury, it is addictive.

2. SHALL I GO UP FOR JUST ONE WEEK?

No.

The first (half) week is dead and tickets are half-price or two-for-one. You will get low audiences and even less money. If you do get audiences, they will fall off a cliff on the first Tuesday, when the half-price deals end.

The second week is usually almost equally dead.

The third week perks up a little.

The final week is buzzing.

But, if you have not been there since the very beginning and only go up for the last week, you will have generated no word of mouth about your show, no momentum and no review quotes to put on your posters and flyers. And you will be wiped off the face of Edinburgh awareness by a tsunami of other shows which have all these things.

That is if you even get a review, which is highly unlikely.

Whenever a foolhardy Fringe virgin asks my advice, I also tell him/her:

“You have to go up for three consecutive years”

The first year, you will be lost and ignored. The second year you will, with luck, know how to play the system. The third year, reviewers and audience will think you are a regular and you may get noticed.

I know one act who has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe three times. Great act. Wonderful. Got 4-star reviews every time. But, because he/she could not afford to go up every year, there was no momentum building from year to year. He/she, in effect, had to start from scratch each year as an unknown.

Remember that it is not just audiences but reviewers who have a high turnover. The punter and reviewer who saw your show two years ago is probably not in town/ not reviewing this year.

3. CAN I RELAX ON THE PUBLICITY FRONT BECAUSE MY VENUE’S PRESS OFFICE AND THE FRINGE’S PRESS OFFICE WILL HANDLE ALL MY MEDIA PUBLICITY?

You have no idea how it works.

No they won’t.

The venue’s press office is not there to specifically publicise your show. They publicise the venue and act as a central contact point. They will try to be even-handed, but they have lots of other shows. They cannot do constant hands-on publicity for you.

Same thing with the Fringe Office. They are a central contact point. Keep them informed. But they are too busy to do the impossible and publicise your show. Last year, they were dealing with 40,254 performances of 2,453 shows in 259 venues. And with 21,148 self-obsessed and wildly disorganised – possibly mentally unstable – performers. This year, the numbers will probably be higher.

The Samaritans are the ones to ask for help in Edinburgh.

4. DOES MY VENUE’S STAFF KNOW WHAT THEY ARE DOING?

No.

Trust me.

No.

Most only arrived a week ago, some are Australian and the ones who are not have little experience of anything outside their friends’ kitchens. They probably had no sleep last night and are certainly only at the Fringe to drink, take drugs and, with luck, get laid by well-proportioned members of the opposite sex. Or, in some cases, the same sex.

Trust me.

With help and advice, they could organise a piss-up at the Fringe but not in a brewery.

5. HOW MUCH MONEY MIGHT I MAKE?

Are you mad?

You have to assume a 100% loss on your investment. Even if people make a profit, they usually calculate that by ignoring accommodation costs and the amount of money they would have made anyway if they had not gone up to Edinburgh.

6. I HAVE A PROMOTER AND/OR PRO AGENT. HE WILL LOOK AFTER MY INTERESTS, RIGHT?

He might do. And you might win the EuroLottery. Or he might try to screw you rigid.

One thing to look out for is an agent/manager/promoter’s expenses.

One performer I know went up with a well-known promoter who was looking after seven shows that year. He quite reasonably deducted the cost of his own accommodation and transport. But, instead of dividing the total costs by seven and spreading that cost between all seven shows, he deducted 100% of the cost from each show’s profits, thus getting back 700% of his total costs.

Another thing to look out for is agents, promoters or managers who take their percentage off the gross, not off net receipts. They should be taking their percentage off the genuine profit – the net receipts after deduction of genuine overheads and expenses. If they take their percentage off the gross receipts before deduction of overheads and expenses, you are being severely disadvantaged.

Alright. They are fucking you.

If your show makes £100 but costs £90 to stage, then the profit is £10. If the promoter/agent takes 10% of that net profit, then he gets £1 and you get £9.

If your show makes £100 and the promoter/agent takes 10% off that gross profit and the show cost £90 to put on, then he gets £10 and you get zero.

And, in both those examples, the show made exactly the same amount of money.

And let’s not even get into the games which can be played with the point at which they add in or deduct VAT.

7. IT’S MY FIRST EDINBURGH. WILL I GET FINANCIALLY SCREWED BY UNSCRUPULOUS PEOPLE?

Yes.

8. WILL IT RAIN?

Yes.

9. SHOULD I GO BACK AGAIN NEXT YEAR?

Yes.

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