It was recently announced that The Counting House venue is reverting to the Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, after it was last year poached by pay venue The Gilded Balloon.
I blogged about this in February last year under the title Gilded Balloon venue’s deal excretes on the spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe and, in August, under the title The Edinburgh Fringe venue that doesn’t know where its own entrance is.
The successful poaching expedition by the Gilded Balloon last year ousted the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show and the Grouchy Club comedy industry chat shows from their traditional venue of many years.
I thought I would ask Laughing Horse Free Festival boss Alex Petty about it and tracked him down in Thailand, on his way to Australia for the comedy festivals out there.
Well, “tracked him down” is a slight exaggeration. I FaceTimed him in his hotel in Thailand.
“Which festivals are you going off to?” I asked.
“Perth Fringe World, then the Adelaide Fringe and the Melbourne Comedy Festival,” he told me. “The Australian festivals are basically like a three-month long Edinburgh. I get back to the UK at the end of April or beginning of May, then it’s straight down to the Brighton Fringe. It’s non-stop on Fringes and Festivals these days.”
“Are you looking at any other ones?” I asked.
“We have an eye on doing maybe either New Zealand or Sydney… and we are looking at Glasgow and Leicester in the UK.”
After these polite starters, I asked about The Counting House.
The Gilded Balloon (where acts pay to perform and audiences pay to watch) had billed their newly-acquired Counting House venue as Pay-What-You-Want – free for audiences to enter and they can (if they like) pay at the end plus they can guarantee themselves a seat by buying a ticket in advance. But, whereas under the Free Festival, performers did not pay to hire the venue, the Gilded Balloon charged performers a hire fee and various other fees which meant the venue was free for audiences but relatively expensive for performers.
This cynical dog’s dinner got – it seems to me – the reception it deserved.
“My understanding,” I said to Alex Petty, “is that the bar did not take as much money under the Gilded Balloon at last year’s Fringe as it had at previous Fringes under the Free Festival. And the Gilded Balloon did not take as much money from the shows as they expected.”
“I don’t know the numbers,” replied Alex, “but I think it was pretty obvious to anyone going there that the venue was a lot quieter than expected. And a lot of the performers were saying that. The Counting House very kindly said they would like us to go back and offered it to us for this year.
“I think,” he continued, “that the Gilded Balloon, with the whole Pay-What-You-Want thing, tried to ride on the coat-tails of Bob Slayer (who created the concept), but it wasn’t really Pay-What-You-Want. People who went in told me that audiences were turning up expecting shows to be free and the Gilded Balloon staff were trying to get people to buy tickets in advance. In the end, the Gilded was trying to sell tickets up-front and there were not the same numbers of people hanging around that there had been in previous years.”
The Counting House is part of a triple venue – three pubs next to each other all with the same owners – The Blind Poet downstairs, The Counting House upstairs and The Peartree downstairs with a courtyard.
“The venue is being renovated, isn’t it?” I asked.
“They’ve just started now,” Alex explained. “It sounds like what was The Blind Poet is going to become the back end of the Peartree bar and become a performance space like it was before but letting you walk through into the Peartree courtyard. That will also give people access up the inside stairs into the Counting House as well. So, in the Counting House, there will be the Lounge and the Ballroom and, upstairs from them, the Attic and the Loft.”
I asked: “Is Brian going to be back sitting outside on a stool by a barrel?”
The pub’s manager Brian had tended to sit on the pavement outside the entrance, giving information to audiences and interested passers-by. This was missing last year with a swarm of (in my view) officious and often ill-informed people in Gilded Balloon tee-shirts. On one occasion, the Gilded Balloon ‘helper’ on the pavement thought the entrance to The Blind Poet was actually the (entirely separate) entrance to the Counting House.
“Brian was very keen to have us back,” said Alex. “He had put so much work into things the year before (2015) and it really pushed the venue on and we had had so many plans for last year (2016) which did not happen when the Gilded Balloon took it over.
“We are going to try to sort out a slightly better place for him to sit in the Edinburgh ‘summer’ weather. I think, for a lot of people, Brian and his barrel were two of the mainstays of the Fringe a couple of years ago.
“It was such a shame to lose it but I completely understand what the owners did. It was a business decision.”
“I’m glad it’s back,” I said.
“So am I,” said Alex.
The increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show will be held 11.00pm-01.00am in the Ballroom of The Counting House on Friday 25th August. And The Grouchy Club will be in The Lounge live every afternoon for the second half of the Fringe.