Tonight, I stage the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show – starting slightly late in The Counting House, one of the venues provided by the Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Edinburgh Fringe.
I am old enough to remember Swinging London and the Summer of Love. I helped out briefly at The Free Bookshop – it was a garage in Earl’s Court – where people donated the books they had read and other people could come along, take them away, read them and, if they wanted to, bring them back.
I even went barefoot for a brief time, but grit and dog turds on suburban London pavements proved to be a deterrent to long-term foot liberation.
Later, I was Film Section Editor – I wrote reviews and gossip about movies – for a re-incarnation of iconic hippie newspaper International Times (latterly called simply it after The Times threatened legal action on the basis people might confuse the two).
So I am no stranger to the concept of “Let’s make it free, man” which has now changed the face of the Edinburgh Fringe.
There are currently four free organisations at the Fringe: the original PBH Free Fringe… the breakaway Free Festival… Bob Slayer’s Pay What You Want model which is separate from but happily co-exists with the Free Festival… and the Freestival, this year’s new breakaway from PBH. I understand that, next year, there may even be a fifth free organisation.
My first involvement with the free organisations at the Edinburgh Fringe was in 2008, when I helped stage a comedy show for a performer.
The performer wanted to go with the PBH Free Fringe, so I staged my other show with the Free Festival to keep a foot in both camps. If the performer had wanted to go with the Free Festival, I would have staged the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards shows with PBH.
In 2011, I staged some chat shows with the Free Festival.
In 2013, I staged some chat shows with Bob Slayer’s Pay What You Want operation.
And this year’s Grouchy Club chat-with-the-audience shows are with the Free Festival.
The ‘free’ show model is that the audience pays nothing in advance. They can pay whatever they want (or nothing) on leaving. It is like indoor busking.
With the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award Shows, I take no profit and cover none of my costs. 100% of any and all money donated goes to Kate Copstick’s admirable Mama Biashara charity in Kenya.
On my Grouchy Club shows, no money is collected. The shows are totally free. This is because I am old enough to know how to stage 23 hour-long shows for a total cost of £60.
I love Edinburgh.
My favourite places in the world are Edinburgh, Prague and Luang Prabang in Laos. I feel more at home in Edinburgh than anywhere else. Which is strange, as I have never had a home here.
When I was a kid, after my parents moved to London, my family used to go to Scotland every August for our summer holidays – we stayed (for free, obviously) with relations in Wigtownshire where both my parents grew up, and in Edinburgh, where my father had an aunt. After I left college, I started going to the Edinburgh Film Festival (then in August; now in June). And, around 1985, I started going to the Edinburgh Fringe. So I have been going to Edinburgh in August for most of my life, possibly since I was an embryo.
And, perhaps excepting two years, for free.
When I was accredited at the Film Festival, I happily sat in press screenings in darkened rooms from 10.00am to 10.00pm.
When I came to the Fringe, it was usually scouting talent for TV companies, publishers or whatever.
I started the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards in 2007 partly because I thought Malcolm (who drowned in 2005) deserved to be remembered, definitely because I wanted to see new comedy talent and partly because it was a good way to get free tickets to every comedy show in Edinburgh for ten years. (I had trophies made in advance for 2007-2017.)
In 2007, shows were mostly pay-to-see at a rapidly escalating rate. If a show costs £10 and you see 6-8 shows per day for perhaps 28 days, that adds up. Well, at that rate, 6 shows per day actually adds up to £1,680.
It is said that the Free Fringe was started by PBH (Peter Buckley Hill) with one show in 1996. But it took a few years to get momentum going and it was probably just before I started the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards that the Free Fringe started having a serious impact.
In 2008, PBH himself was nominated for the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality for starting the Free Fringe (the award eventually went to comic Ed Aczel) and, in 2009, PBH won the panel prize from the Perrier Award (which, that year, was calling itself the Edinburgh Comedy Awards).
This year, PBH has again been nominated for one of the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards – as the Act Least Likely to Make a Million Quid because (the nomination says) “unlike most acts, Peter has heroically never aspired to make any money from the Fringe and has staunchly defended his free model.”
Peter has said he declines to be nominated: “I did not seek it and do not want it.”
Well, you can’t really turn down a nomination. You can turn down an award, if it were to be offered (which it has not been yet, at the time of writing) or send a Native American Indian along, like Marlon Brando did at the Oscars. There is, luckily, a community of Native American Indians in nearby Glasgow, left behind from when Buffalo Bill performed his Wild West show there in the early 20th century…
I have no idea if Peter will win this, one of the three increasing prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards. We decide this afternoon and announce the full awards at midnight tonight, during the Counting House show.
But he deserves an Award. He has changed the face of the Fringe.
Most of the shows I saw at the Fringe this year were free shows.
All three of the nominees for the main Comic Originality Award were performing free shows.
For the Cunning Stunt Award, two of the nominees were flyerers and the other one was performing a free show.
In the Act Most Likely To category, both the nominees were linked to free shows.
That reflects a major change in the Fringe.
In her podcast last week, my comedy chum Janey Godley, who has always very successfully performed in pay venues at the Fringe, revealed that, next year, she will be performing in a free venue. I know that she and her husband go through Fringe revenues with a fine tooth comb. This is not a minor change. If someone with Janey’s profile in Edinburgh is prepared to move from the pay model to the free model, others will move.