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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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