Tag Archives: The Scotsman

The Spirit of the Fringe is dead, dying or thriving

(This blog originally appeared in What’s On Stage)

Scots comedienne Janey Godley has been telling me and has blogged that she feels this year’s Edinburgh Fringe is different. That the spark has gone. That it has lost some of its character.

I told her it felt that way every year. Malcolm Hardee, the legendary godfather of alternative comedy and a Fringe legend, told me fifteen years ago that he felt the “supermarkets” of the big-time agents and comedy promoters had taken over from the ramshackle “corner shop” shows which he ran and which epitomised the spirit of the Fringe.
But, in the last few days, I have come round to agreeing with Janey Godley. The old Fringe is dying or is already dead. The big venues are now overly-large operations charging serious prices for mostly slick shows. The new McEwan Hall venue’s 2,000-seater is staging Cameron Mackintosh’s West End and Broadway hit Five Guys Named Moe in a production where The Scotsman rightly guessed the lighting rig alone cost more than most normal Fringe shows. It is straight West End transfer in a limited run. A Fringe show it ain’t.

The true spirit of the Fringe has transferred to the two competing Free festivals and to the Five Pound Fringe.

Bob Slayer’s gobsmackingly anarchic Punk Rock Chat Show (which had nothing to do with punk, rock or chat the evening I saw it but did involve a banana, nudity and an orifice) is the pure unadulterated spirit of the true Fringe and, with Lewis Schaffer now taking the erratically-billed 5.30pm performance of his improvised Free Until Famous show out of the venue and literally onto the streets, come rain or shine, we are living in a two-tiered Fringe world.

Punters can’t take the increasing financial risk of paying professional-level prices in the big venues on shows that might be rubbish. They sensibly lessen their financial risk by booking for shows by Names they have already watched on TV.

The spirit of the Fringe in which people accidentally discover new talent and rising stars in grim, sweaty rooms has now transferred to a second, lower tier of the Fringe.

It’s not all bad news, though.

Janey Godley herself straddles both Fringes, drawing big audiences in one of the Big Four venues on the reputation of her often highly improvised live shows despite not being one of the young Oxbridge males so beloved of BBC3 and Channel 4.

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Cunning Stunts, Chainsaw-Jugglers and 8-Month-Old Babies

(This blog originally appeared in What’s On Stage)

There’s been a distinct lack of publicity stunts in Edinburgh this year. The Fringe used to be full of bizarre events and admirably surreal attempts to steal a few column inches in The Scotsman. Where are the naked tractor rides, the motorcycle-riding chainsaw-jugglers and the men and women dressed as woodland creatures committing sex acts illegal in the majority of American states?

At the moment, front-runner for the annual Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award (for best Fringe publicity stunt) would seem to be Stewart Lee for his accidental promotion of the Frank Chickens who were not performing at the Fringe although, ironically, he was so successful in unintentionally raising their profile that they then made a one-off appearance (the first in 25 years) on his own Stewbilee book-promotion show.

People are at least starting to try now.

Always pro-active New York promoter Cal Wynter phoned me up to tell me Manos The Greek is going to offer to re-finance the ruined Greek economy.

Meanwhile, I bumped into Gill Smith, the 2008 recipient of (and, indeed, inspiration for) the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award.

In 2008, she sent me an e-mail nominating herself for the main Malcolm Hardee Award on the basis that she could then justifiably put on her posters MALCOLM HARDEE AWARD NOMINEE (because she had nominated herself). She reckoned Malcolm would have approved. I agreed he would.

So we gave her a Cunning Stunt Award for best publicity stunt of the Fringe on the basis that, if we didn’t give her a Malcolm Hardee Award of some kind, she’d give herself one, thus diminishing our credibility.

This year, Gill is up here performing with her 8-month old daughter who does not take part in the stage show itself but who collects the money afterwards at Gill’s Free Festival show OCD: The Next Generation. Very difficult not to give money to an 8-month old smiling up at you expectantly.

The fact Gill is a new-ish mum is attracting other new-ish mums with small kids to her show and she reckons there might be some mileage in trying to get publicity on the basis that her show has had the largest number of audience members simultaneously breast-feeding.

Her husband has meanwhile been amusing himself by trying to (often successfully) persuade people that the baby long-pictured on the Gilded Balloon’s So You Think You’re Funny posters grew up to become the young woman bending over on the Spank! posters. Given that the Gilded Balloon is celebrating its 25th birthday this year, it is credible though deeply untrue.

Something of which Malcolm Hardee would have certainly approved: “credible though deeply untrue”.

The 2010 Malcolm Hardee Awards are announced next Friday 27th August during Shaggers.

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Lewis Schaffer (never call him just Lewis) at some time or other

(This blog originally appeared in What’s On Stage)

Even I’m getting confused, but Lewis Schaffer is an American comic who has lived in Nunhead (Peckham) for ten years and, although he now knows what proper football is, he still can’t spell the English language properly let alone get the time of day correct.

Lewis Schaffer (never call him just Lewis) originally messed-up his Fringe Programme listing because he submitted his Free Until Famous With Lewis Schaffer show as starting at 17.30 when, in fact, it was 7.30 at the Counting House. He claimed he got confused by the Fringe listings being in British military time.

So he was actually performing his show at 7.30 at The Counting House, but he was listed as 5.30.

Then he got some good news and some bad news.

The good news was that a 5.30 slot became available at The Counting House, so he has been performing his show at 5.30 AND at 7.30 daily at the Counting House. The bad news was that the 5.30 slot was only available until last Saturday.

Then – more good news – another 5.30 slot became available immediately at the Blind Poet venue right next door to The Counting House… or so he thought… and he sent out a press release yesterday announcing it. But when he arrived yesterday for the first of these new 5.30 shows – more bad news – he found the room was crowded with punters watching a big screen football match. A big misunderstanding had occurred. The bar lady was not sympathetic. This is not uncommon with Lewis Schaffer (never call him just Lewis).

And an audience had turned up to see him, not the football. Not because they’d read the incorrect billing at the Blind Poet but because they’d read the incorrect billing in the Fringe Programme.

So – more good news – the man Scotsman critic Kate Copstick called “the superstar of free comics” took his audience round the corner to an empty square behind the Pleasance Dome venue and performed his show al fresco with his audience sitting on a wall. He was heckled by a passing skateboarder. Being heckled by a passing skateboarder in the middle of your stage show not common, even at the Fringe.

So, as far as listings go… from now on… at the moment… his one and only show is 1930-2030 daily at The Counting House although he told me last night that he may do more street performances when people turn up – as they will – at 1730.

Who knows what will happen next? I certainly don’t.

Knowing Lewis Schaffer (never call him just Lewis) even slightly is never dull. His life is much like his shows: he has a tendency to make a lot of it up as he goes along and he gets a tad distracted. Me? I am merely a bemused observer.

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The Tunnel, the all-star line-up and the dead godfather

(This blog originally appeared in What’s On Stage)

I am sponsoring the Malcolm Hardee Awards until 2017. This year’s are presented on Friday 27th August. But, in the meantime, every day at the Fringe, there is the Aaaaaaaargh! Malcolm Hardee Documentary event. Nothing to do with me except I gave the director around 20 hours of audio tape recorded when Malcolm and I were writing his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake.

“This film is beautiful, evocative and in an odd way profound. Brilliant.” (Arthur Smith)

“This is great.” (Stewart Lee)

It was The Independent on Sunday‘s No 1 Fringe comedy favourite and The Scotsman‘s ‘Best of the Festival Pick of the Day’ but I hadn’t seen the whole hour-long event until yesterday. It is an event, rather than a film. Yesterday, it was introduced by comedian Bob Slayer. Future screenings will be introduced by the likes of Simon Munnery and Arthur Smith.

The screening includes a 32-minute documentary The Tunnel (about Malcolm’s most notorious comedy club) followed by a trailer for the still-in-production docmentary Malcolm Hardee: All The Away From Over There… followed by about 16 minutes of clips from MH:ATWFOT.

Interestingly both documentaries are rather wistful, with Malcolm Hardee: All The Way From Over There in particular mixing both laughs and sadness – like all great comedy. The list of those appearing in even these early clips is extraordinary:

Keith Allen, Jo Brand, Charlie Cbuck, Jim Davidson, Harry Enfield, Boy George, The Greatest Show on Legs, Ricky Grover, Rich Hall, John Hegley, Lennie Henry, Jools Holland, Phil Kay, Mark Lamarr, Norman Lovett, Chris Lynam, Bernard Manning, Paul Merton, Simon Munnery, Mike Myers, Vic Reeves

I am not involved in the production of this documentary but, holy shitteroonie, it looks like it could be a fittingly extraordinary tribute to the extraordinary and much-missed ‘godfather of British Alternative Comedy’ Malcolm Hardee.

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Janey Godley – the greatest British improviser of her generation

(This blog originally appeared in What’s On Stage)

The Daily Telegraph called Scottish comedienne Janey Godley “the most outspoken female stand-up in Britain… The most ribald and refreshing comedy talent to have risen from the slums of Glasgow since Billy Connolly.”

The Scotsman called her “Scotland’s funniest woman… the Godmother of Scottish Comedy” and talked of her “effortless stream-of-consciousness riffs that Virginia Woolf might have written.”

I’m not sure about the Virgina Woolf comparison. In my opinion, Virginia Woolf wasn’t that good.

But what Janey doesn’t get recognised for is being one of the best comedy improvisors of her generation – because people don’t realise that she has never – and I mean never even roughly – scripted any of her hour-long comedy shows.

At the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe, she performed a show called Caught In The Act of Being Myself. This got, reportedly, 12 visits from Perrier Award panel members and, after a big bust-up of opinion among the panel, her performance was disqualified from consideration because they decided she was ad-libbing a totally different show every night so, technically, the Fringe run was not the performance of a specific single show.

This year she has almost outdone herself. She didn’t know what the content of her comedy show The Godley Hour was even when she walked on stage on the first night yesterday; not even when she was halfway through. She told her first night audience: “I’m hearing this for the first time too.”

Today, she told me three of the previously untold stories she included in that first night show and which she will try to include every night in the full run of the show – and they were cracking crack-up and fall-down-clutching-your-stomach and kicking-your legs-in-the-air anecdotes.

There was a national newspaper critic in the first night audience. I will await the newspaper review with interest.

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Of comedy awards, bra warmers and the death of Malcolm Hardee

(This blog originally appeared in What’s On Stage)

Time Life Books called John Ward “possibly the best English eccentric inventor living today”. Yesterday I went up to Lincolnshire to see him at his home (an enormous, rambling bungalow within someone else’s farmyard). I was up there to take delivery of his latest creations – the newly-designed Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award and the new-this-year Malcolm Hardee ‘Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid’ Award. They join his Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality trophies. All will continue to be awarded annually until 2017.

John’s other creations include his surprisingly overlooked invention the electric bra warmer, as well as the one-man personal barbeque, the mobile church font and my personal favourite – a small rubber nautical mine which you leave in your cup of tea so no-one else will steal it.

He still fondly remembers a curry which the late lamented Malcolm Hardee cooked for him in my kitchen. It was, I think, the only occasion known to me when Malcolm did not drop curry down the front of his shirt, something I am eternally grateful for. Malcolm once had a meal with comedian Charlie Chuck at the end of which, instead of asking for a doggie bag, he spooned the uneaten parts of his curry into the top pocket of his white suit.

His famed Edinburgh Fringe exploits included writing a glowing review of his own show and conning The Scotsman into printing it under the byline of their own comedy critic…  and riding a tractor (naked) through the middle of American performance artist Eric Bogosian’s show.

Malcolm, oft-called the “godfather of British alternative comedy” talent-spotted, encouraged and advised Keith Allen, Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair, Harry Enfield, Harry Hill, Paul Merton, Al Murray, Vic Reeves, Jerry Sadowitz, Jim Tavare, Johnny Vegas and many other comedians early in their career.

He drowned in Greenland Dock, Rotherhithe, in 2005. At the Coroner’s Court, Police Constable Martin Spirito said that, when they pulled Malcolm from the water, he “had a bottle of beer clenched in his right hand”. Even in  death, he had a sense of his priorities.

Five years gone but not forgotten by the comedians he helped.

The Malcolm Hardee Awards this year are going to be presented on Friday 27th August during Nik Coppin‘s nightly show Shaggers, part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Three Sisters in Cowgate. I feel Malcolm would have approved of the title of the show. Judges include Tim Arthur of Time Out and Dominic Maxwell of The Times plus The Scotsman‘s Kate Copstick and Jay Richardson.

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