The last time Mark Borkowski – legendary UK PR guru and master of the publicity stunt – appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe as a performer was 15 years ago with his Sons of Barnum show. This year, he’s back for five days (17th-21st August at Assembly, George Square) with an autobiographical show: False Teeth in a Pork Pie: How to Unleash Your Inner Crazy.
So I talked to him via Zoom at his home in Gloucestershire.
JOHN: What is the “inner crazy”?
MARK: It’s about not suppressing the idea that something is a totally loopy thing to do. We are told now there are so many rules you can’t break that we don’t even start looking at really disruptive thoughts which might change our lives.
JOHN: Why are you crazily taking another show to Edinburgh?
MARK: It’s 40 years of the Assembly and it was really important to me. Back then, it was about building a network. I slept on a journalist’s floor – Nigel Reynolds. And it was because everybody went to the Fringe. Every arts journalist of any repute went there and I saw the importance of making a network. That’s what my show this year is about, really. It has lessons for people to think about serendipity and adventure.
We don’t talk enough about how important it is to connect. Everything is promoted through technology now. Zoom. WhatsApp.
In this show I felt I could remind people about the importance of the physical moment of bumping into somebody in Edinburgh and making a relationship.
I will NEVER have a bad word to say about Edinburgh because Edinburgh is different. We are all this inner chimp inside of us: the caveman. We are all fired-up by feeding, fucking and fighting that Steve Peters, in The Chimp Paradox, wrote about. We’ve gotta make the effort.
So I thought Forty years! It would be an interesting point to juxtapose 40 years ago when I publicised and produced a show and lost a lot of money and saw failure… and learning from all that failure.
JOHN: So it’s good to fail at the Edinburgh Fringe?
MARK: Learning from failure in Edinburgh is a fantastic lesson. You learn about money; you learn about what’s good and bad; you see other things that are good; you learn from other people; and it’s a massive classroom. If you allow it to be. Reminding people about the elemental power of Edinburgh is partly why I wanted to go again.
I’ve been stuck, because of Covid, not enjoying culture for two years. So I wanna get that huge fix again. I want to be reminded that there are lunatics in Edinburgh. There are crazy people doing stuff – and I don’t mean the over-promoted stuff. The big arena/massive venue stuff is not the real Edinburgh Fringe.
JOHN: What is?
MARK: Some sweaty, horrible place that probably doesn’t quite pass fire or safety regulations but you’ll probably see something bonkers there. The act might not become Michael McIntyre or find its way onto Britain’s Got Talent – well, maybe it will as a freak – but it’s something to remind ourselves and re-plug-in.
In many ways, I see this as an experiment. My last show 15 years ago – Sons of Barnum – was an experiment to see if I had a book, maybe inspired by you a bit. And this time I want to see if there’s room for an autobiography of lunatics or ‘disruptors’ I’ve met.
If people buy into that, then maybe I will set about writing a book about it as well.
Let’s see if a younger audience – and it WILL be a younger audience in Edinburgh this year – will they buy into my mantra. If they do buy into my mantra, then there’s a hope I can do more. I am using Edinburgh as an experiment and that is what the Fringe used to be about.
JOHN: Surely An Autobiography About a Bunch of Showbiz Lunatics must be a commercial book?
MARK: Well, you have to strike the right balance. Publishers want the juicy stuff and I wouldn’t ever give away stuff that was entrusted to me. There would be stuff they would want me to focus on that I’m not interested in talking about.
JOHN: You can’t libel dead people.
MARK: Yeah, but their families are still there and, if their families don’t know the stories, what right have I got to tell the story of someone who didn’t want it to be told? There’s responsibility in memory which you have as a professional. You were paid; you had a trusted relationship. Some people I fell out with, but that’s no reason to do anything. If you seek revenge, prepare to dig two graves.
JOHN: You could write a real tell-all book that’s only published after your death. You’ll be dead and all the relevant people will be dead.
MARK: But your motivation when you’re alive should remain when you’re in your grave.
JOHN: When you are running a successful PR company, presumably to make money you have to have boring clients despite the fact your passion is to have mad clients.
MARK: It’s a balance. I always had and always will have an ear open to somebody with a mad idea.
JOHN: Have you ever actually turned down a client because they were going to be too boring?
MARK: Oh, loads. In the early days, I did turn down half a million quid. I just felt it would dry me up.
JOHN: It says here you’re “the last of the old school publicists”. How are the new publicists different?
MARK: Influencers. Influencer relations. It’s more using tech. Young people just won’t pick up the phone.
- “Well, I texted him”…
- “Well, pick up the fucking phone and talk to them!”
People THINK they want to be a publicist, want to be a storyteller… but they just don’t pick up the phone!
JOHN: Surely they can FaceTime rather than pick up the audio phone?
MARK: Same difference. I’m talking about the fact they would rather deal with an issue in a 3-line text. That is bizarre to me.
The other day, a tech journalist said to me that he could never get to meet people but finally he met this PR person for coffee and, afterwards, she called him up and said:
“I really enjoyed that. Can I ask a favour?… Would you say you met two of my friends?… Our boss is pushing us to go out all the time to meet people. We don’t really want to do that. So, if you could just say you ‘met’ them, my boss will be off their backs.”
I thought how terribly sad that was. To have a metric, a box ticked. I’m not anti-tech, but I just think we’re losing something.
I’m sick and tired of people who rely on everything from apps. To be guided around a city, to date, to shag. They probably even use WhatsApp to get their drugs.
I think there is something important about the connection of meeting people.
JOHN: We are talking on Zoom. You are in the West Country; I am in London. Does this count as meeting me?
MARK: Yes and no. It’s the best thing we can do until we get back to the idea of me coming back to London five days a week… No, it’s not the same… But, if you can’t have a ten minute conversation about an issue, hearing the tone of voice and so on, what’s the point? What do you KNOW about that person from a text?
JOHN: PR is just advertising face-to-face…?
MARK: There was a horrible time in the 2000s where ad agencies did see PR as an extension of advertising.
JOHN: Isn’t it?
MARK: It’s a communication practice to be sure, but… PR is a many-headed hydra. You cut one off and there’s another one that grows on in a different way. PR is a subtler craft of using influencers and social media and building content and a network.
JOHN: What’s the point of paying for PR at the Edinburgh Fringe? Acts can do it themselves.
MARK: Well some people go up and have a punt and they’re not very professional. They don’t understand the story or how to run a stunt, so it just becomes a bit of a noise.
JOHN: Your show False Teeth in a Pork Pie is only on for five days…
MARK: A five-day experiment.
JOHN: And after that?
MARK: I genuinely don’t know. I’m following my own mantra: Just see what happens. If it works, maybe I’ll travel it around, come to London with it. There’s a smattering of names in it. The Marlon Brando moment with Tony Kaye… My madness in Swindon… How I escaped being arrested… Stuff about Charles Hawtrey when I had to look after him… and just the joy of bonkers people, really.
They think differently; they look at things differently. I would never have met them if I hadn’t started my venture partly in Edinburgh and trusted in getting lost.
Serendipity is that event or that person you just bump into. That’s the joy of the Edinburgh Fringe.