Tag Archives: venue

Edinburgh Fringe: Why the Counting House is now free from Ballooning fees

The Gilded Balloon’s Counting House The signposted entrance on the left on the left is not the entrance

Gilded Balloon’s Counting House last year. The prominently signposted entrance on the left is not actually the entrance!

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.

A selfie by Alex Petty in Thailand

A selfie taken by Alex Petty in Thailand

“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.”

(L-R) The Peartree courtyard, Counting House and Blind Poet in Edinburgh

(L-R) The Peartree courtyard, Counting House and Blind Poet

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.

The Blind Poet and Counting House with The Peartree on West Nicholson Street, as seen on Google StreetView

The Blind Poet and Counting House with The Peartree’s courtyard wall beyond (Google Street View)

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Edinburgh Fringe venue calls me a liar

FringeLogo_Red[1]Beyond people being two-faced, there is one thing guaranteed to get up my nose. Someone calling me a liar.

That last one happened yesterday.

In my blog yesterday morning, I wrote:

“I was told The Stand venue at the Edinburgh Fringe will not issue any tickets to any Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award judges this year – although it has done that without any problem for the past six years – both via the main Fringe Office and via The Stand’s own Press Office.”

In response, I got a message from Tommy Sheppard, owner of The Stand, saying:

“No-one in our press office has ever said that there’s a blanket ban on Malcolm Hardee award judges coming to our shows… try not to tell lies about us – it doesn’t help anyone.”

Well, I never said anyone in The Stand’s Press office had told me anything.

What I had done was the same as I had done since 2007 without any problem. I applied for tickets to the shows I wanted to see by sending the standard form to the Fringe’s Arts Industry office, where I am accredited as “John Fleming, Malcolm Hardee Awards”.

The Fringe Office either issue tickets reserved for Arts Industry accreditees or they ask the venue who normally ask the relevant act if it is OK.

For most of the shows I asked about, I was given tickets yesterday. Four requests were “pending” – which I presume means that the acts or their PR people are being asked if it is OK to give tickets.

The single ticket I asked for at The Stand was ‘Declined’ with the written explanation:

“On request of the venue, there is no complimentary ticket allocation for Fringe Award Judges. Tickets can be purchased for this show subject to availability.”

Call me unable to understand the English language, but this seems to me to say there is a blanket ban on Malcolm Hardee award judges coming to shows at The Stand in the standard way that has happened without problem over the last six years. Perhaps there was ongoing incompetence at The Stand over the last six years? Who knows?

In the last six years, I saw several shows at The Stand using an Arts Industry pass issued to the Malcolm Hardee Awards. Mostly I applied for tickets through the Fringe Office (which is standard procedure) though occasionally I got tickets direct from The Stand’s press office showing the Arts Industry Pass bearing the words “Malcolm Hardee Awards” as identification.

EdFringe2011PassB

The Malcolm Hardee Awards Show pass

EdFringe2011PassA

…acceptable to the venue in years past

For example, in one week in 2011, I saw four shows at The Stand, using printed tickets issued to me as a representative of the Malcolm Hardee Awards. Admittedly, on one of those four occasions, I was refused admittance to the venue.

When I arrived at The Stand (after rushing across town) with the printed ticket issued to the Malcolm Hardee Awards and collected by me from the Press Office, I was told at the door: “Oh, we’ve sold all the seats,” and I was turned away.

I was told by a journalist that this had also happened to him at another Stand show. Having been given a press ticket, he was turned away at the door because all the seats had been, in the meantime, sold to paying punters. As a result, he did not review the show.

The Stand has, for several years, claimed it ‘does not believe’ in competitions – that you cannot judge between comedians. Who can say one act is better than or even comparable with another? So they have refused to give tickets to judges for what used to be called the Perrier Award.

Yesterday, Tommy Sheppard of The Stand told me: “If a act wants to get you in on a comp they can. All you have to do is have the courtesy to ask – which of course you can do through us – just contact Dave or Sarah. It would be nice if you would pay for your ticket – since at The Stand that money goes to the acts.”

This seems a little simplified.

At any of the normal pay-to-enter venues, if you buy a ticket, the money goes to the acts… and to the venue. I am unaware of any change at The Stand which means that 100% of all box office receipts goes to the act. If that has suddenly become the case, then presumably The Stand must be making 100% of its money by venue hire to the acts and by bar sales.

I presume that, in fact, The Stand takes a cut of the door take.

So, if a journalist enters the venue on a press pass, The Stand loses that profit on the ticket (but there is a high chance of a resultant review publicising the show). If an awards judge enters the venue on a pass, only one act/show out of all those seen can win an award, so there is much less likelihood of The Stand getting publicity for itself and the show.

Someone defending The Stand on my Facebook page yesterday wrote:

“As I understand it, they don’t approve of competitions so it would make sense that they wouldn’t give away free tickets to someone running a competition, as it makes more sense for them to have those tickets paid for and the money in the pockets of the venue and the acts… It is a point of principle. But why give away a ticket to something that you don’t agree with when you can sell it instead.”

I replied:

“From what you say, then, it’s a money thing, not a point of principle. They don’t mind the act ‘losing’ money but not them…”

Venues allow acts a certain number of complementary tickets which they can give away to friends/contacts.

There are also normally a certain number of press and industry tickets held back until the last moment. If they are not taken up, they are sold to paying customers. In the case of The Stand, they allow press tickets but have an alleged (except for the last six years, it seems) ban on giving tickets to Awards judges. However, they do not tell the acts that judges want tickets (I have been told this by an act) and simply tell the judges they cannot have any: that they have to pay.

As my Facebook friend said: “it would make sense that they wouldn’t give away free tickets to someone running a competition, as it makes more sense for them to have those tickets paid for and the money in the pockets of the venue… It seems that if someone wants to buy a ticket then they are welcomed as a paying customer. If that person then wants to include the acts they’ve seen in a competition, it’s up to them. If an act wins a competition it’s up to the act if they choose to accept it. I don’t see where there is a loss of principle, they just don’t want to give away tickets for free for something they don’t agree with. In terms of losing career advancement… acts don’t have to play The Stand if they don’t want to.”

That seems to put it more clearly.

It is good to see capitalism at work.

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Good-bad comedy and bad-bad comedy on TV and at the Edinburgh Fringe

(This was also published by Indian news site WSN)

Malcolm Hardee presents Pull The Plug!

Malcolm Hardee presents Gong Show rip-off Pull The Plug!

To rip-off American politician Donald Rumsfeld’s quote about known knowns and unknown unknowns… In comedy, there are good acts who think they are good and are good, there are bad acts who think they are good but are bad and there are bad acts who think they are bad but are good.

I am, myself, a great lover of good-bad acts and variable acts wh0 can rotate from genius to urinal on a 2p piece. In fact, you can often learn more from watching a bad-bad act than from watching a good act. Good-bad acts are to be encouraged and treasured.

When the late Malcolm Hardee and I worked at Noel Gay Television in 1990/1991, producing entertainment shows in the UK for what was then BSB, a producer called Cecil Korer came to Noel Gay suggesting a TV series called The Cockroach Show – a rip-off of infamous US TV ‘talent’ programme The Gong Show.

I loved (and love) The Gong Show which I always thought was misunderstood by people who had never seen it. People who had never seen it thought it involved bad acts. But, in fact, it involved knowingly bizarre acts: an entirely different thing. They were good-bad acts.

Unless my memory deceives me, I remember one very overweight lady on The Gong Show, dressed as Marlene Dietrich from The Blue Angel, trying and failing to get up onto a high stool while singing Falling In Love Again. It was very funny. She had great timing.

Another act involved a man (and I think also a woman) who came on and juggled a doll. Except that, after about 15 seconds, viewers (and the open-mouthed judging panel) realised it was not a doll but a real flesh-and-blood child. The act was quickly gonged off.

If only Malcolm Hardee and I could have found such an act while we were at Noel Gay…

Instead, we had Cecil Korer who, I think, had actually been responsible for Channel 4 buying and screening The Gong Show in the UK and now (1990) had this idea to rip it off as The Cockroach Show.

Cecil had a good pedigree having been, at one time, involved in BBC TV’s glorious Good Old Days music hall show. He had also commissioned entertainment shows for Channel 4, including the almost indescribable Minipops.

This mostly seemed to involve pre-pubescent little girls singing, while bumping and grinding suggestively and thrusting their hips to raunchy pop music tracks. Cecil claimed he saw it as a cute talent-type show. Many saw it as toe-curlingly and unsettlingly sexist or worse. Today, the words “Jimmy Savile show” would not be too far off the mark.

Pull The Plug judges Ned Sherrin, Liz Kershaw and Jools Holland

Pull The Plug judges Ned Sherrin, Liz Kershaw, Jools Holland

Anyway, Malcolm and I co-produced two rip-off pilots for BSB with Cecil Korer credited as producer and us as associate producers but, in fact, one show Pull The Plug! included acts chosen by him and one The Flip Show had acts chosen by Malcolm and me.

The way Malcolm tells it in his autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake:

I went round the country auditioning acts with this old guy Cecil Korer and some glamorous girl he was taking round. Cecil was a TV bloke of the Old School. One of his proudest claims to fame was as producer of the appalling 1980s Channel 4 series Minipops. He liked young girls, did Cecil. Some of the acts we saw were indescribably bizarre. You had to be there. One old woman sang to backing tapes and danced about in a peculiar fashion. She tried her best to look glamorous but everything was wrong: she had no co-ordination, no glamour, nothing. Somehow, it was extremely funny and she should’ve got on the show.

In the end, we selected enough acts to do two pilots: The Flip Show, which had hand-held hooters instead of a gong, and Pull The Plug! where lights were turned off progressively until the act was in total darkness and had to stop. We recorded the shows in Gillingham with Jools Holland, Cardew Robinson and Ned Sherrin on the panel. The two pilots were not going to set the world alight, but I thought they were quite good. They never got taken up by BSB, though. We were never told exactly why.

In fact, that is not true. We were told.

We had been directed by BSB to make the two pilots “slightly tacky” and “a little cruel”. We mostly ignored the second suggestion but, when BSB eventually saw these pilots, they rejected them, with apologies, because they claimed they had had a “re-appraisal” of the BSB image and the two shows were “slightly tacky” and “a little cruel”.

There are some brief extracts from the shows in the Malcolm Hardee obituary video on YouTube.

One of the acts Cecil chose was, basically, a girl in her 20s dressed as a St Trinian’s schoolgirl doing quite a bit of jiggling. The acts Malcolm and I chose were more knowingly bizarre.

All this came to mind a couple of days ago, when the eternally entrepreneurial Bob Slayer sent me the pitch for his Hive venue at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

I think The Hive is a justification of my theory that it usually takes three consecutive years to get anywhere at the Fringe.

The first year, people are not necessarily even aware you exist.

The second year, they are aware you exist because you were there last year.

The third year, you seem an established fixture at the eternally ephemeral Fringe and have some profile.

Bob started running The Hive venue within the Free Festival two years ago.

He had an advantage in the first year that people vaguely knew of him as a solo act, though not as a venue-runner. He was also able to attract a big Fringe act – Phil Kay – to the venue.

Last year, he was getting treated even more seriously and the venue had a real buzz about it with Phil Kay and semi-breakthrough shows like Chris Dangerfield’s Sex Tourist and John Robertson‘s The Dark Room as well as the return to the Fringe of The Greatest Show on Legs. This year, I expect even more of a buzz around The Hive, so I was interested to see, as part of Bob’s pitch to acts who might want to appear at The Hive:

MY SHOW IS TERRIBLE SHOULD I STILL APPLY?
Is it really terrible? I mean so shockingly bad that we want to see it every day? If so yes apply and mark your application “Even worse than Bob Slayer’s show…”

“That was an interesting paragraph,” I said to Bob.

Bob Slayer at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe

Bob Slayer in The Hive at the 2011 Fringe:. This photo can never be printed too often.

“Ah,” he replied. “We are very oversubscribed this year so I have been doing all I can to put people off. But there is always room for a real proper stinker. I realise this ‘terrible’ show slot is very important. In the past, I have mostly found these shows by accident, but you can’t rely on that.

“In the year before I took over booking at The Hive, there was a one-woman play about sexual abuse. She was on before my show and hers ended with a graphic reconstruction which she would perform to her audience of only two or three people. She was always over-running and my audience would be waiting outside… So, when she went off-stage prior to her graphic end scene, I would usher my audience into the room, telling them the intro to my show was about to start.

“Her audience would then suddenly swell and they would cheer loudly as she was entered by the devil himself. It was a beautiful piece of theatre and a perfect set-up for my show.”

Good comedy?

Bad comedy?

It can often be the same thing.

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The Edinburgh Fringe: increasingly influential, surreal and assault-prone

The Greatest Show on Legs without masks (or clothes)

This morning, I got a phone call from the Daily Star newspaper, who had got wind of the fact the Greatest Show on Legs are going to perform their Naked Balloon Dance in Prince Harry masks at tonight’s increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show at the Edinburgh Fringe. Sadly, it came to nothing, even with a quote from Legs leader Martin Soan saying:

“Prince Harry is a mere beginner in flashing and cavorting with women in hotel rooms. We have been doing it since before he was a glint in his father (or mother)’s eye… It is a great British tradition and we stand proud and erect as true patriots in support of Harry. We cry Thank God for Harry, England and Saint George! What the Scots will make of it, we don’t know…”

Journalists can be quirky people but they can sometimes work under difficult circumstances.

Apparently, journalists who write about the rival Edinburgh Comedy Awards and call it the… erm… Edinburgh Comedy Awards are getting phoned to be told they have to now call them the Fosters Comedy Awards, although the official website still calls them the FOSTERS Edinburgh COMEDY AWARDS… Mind you, the Fosters website also talks of “32 years of discovering comedy genius” – a bit of a dodgy claim, given that they were sponsored by Perrier 1981-2005 and Intelligent Finance 2006-2008. Then, famously, impecunious American comic Lewis Schaffer offered to sponsor them for (if memory serves me) £99 and he was – some feel unjustly – spurned.

Fosters have sponsored the awards since only 2010.

Did I mention the Malcolm Hardee Show?

So, strictly speaking, the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards, established in 2007, have been running longer than the Fosters Comedy Awards, established 2010.

Far be it from me to try to get some cheap publicity.

However, following in the promotional wake of the aforementioned Fosters Comedy Awards, we have decided to precede the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards title with the phrase “the increasingly influential” and are thinking of starting an “Increasingly Influential” company to sponsor our awards for £1 per year and justify the title The Increasingly Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards beyond doubt.

Ian Fox before he was attacked in Edinburgh

On far more serious matters, yesterday I asked comedian-writer-photographer Ian Fox if he was coming to the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show tonight to take his increasingly influential photos. I got this reply:

Probably not to be honest. I didn’t have the greatest of nights last night. I was randomly punched by some guy walking past me on Candlemaker Row. Never made eye contact with him, never even took any notice of him. He was walking down the hill I was going up. He got level with me and hit me. I ended up at Edinburgh Royal and now have three stitches in the side of my nose and a very swollen face. Evidently he was wearing a ring. If I can take photos I will but I’m going have to take it easy for the next day or two. 

I just had the inconvenience of four hours with the dibble in Edinburgh Royal. And the doctor told me he practised his stitching on cat toys. He replaces the cat nip every few weeks apparently. 

Shortly after this, I bumped into flame-haired American temptress Laura Levites.

“What are you doing after Edinburgh?” I asked.

“I may be going to red headed convention in Holland,” she replied.

I asked for no more details, as this seemed enough information.

Paul B Edwards (left) and Lewis Schaffer, Cowgate yesterday

Then I bumped into comedians Paul B Edwards, David Whitney and Lewis Schaffer in the Cowgate. Paul B Edwards told me BBC Radio 2 had interviewed him about the Fringe because, he thought, he had been mentioned in my increasingly influential blog.

After David Whitney had left, I told Paul B Edwards and Lewis Schaffer about the attack on Ian Fox.

“Well,” Paul said, “I heard that, two nights ago, Kunt and The Gang mentioned Margaret Thatcher in his gig. He gets a lot of punks at his gigs and a drunk punk at the back started screaming on a Thatcher rant that no-one could understand. He approached the stage and kept approaching the stage and Kunt said I have three words for you – ‘Fuck off now’ but the guy didn’t and threw a punch at Kunt and even though Kunt and The Gang looks like quite a little guy on the stage, he’s quite useful and apparently he punched this guy out of the venue. That’s what I heard. He punched him out and out of the venue to cheers and applause, because his crowd don’t have a problem with violence when it’s justified.”

David Whitney in the Cowgate yesterday

The back story to this is that David Whitney got criticised a couple of years ago when he allegedly head-butted an audience member after being provoked. A writer from a newspaper was present and wrote an article about the incident which, other comedians have told me, hurt his career.

“Sometimes,” said Lewis Schaffer, “people forget audience members deserve a good head-bashing, whether they’re walking or in a wheelchair.”

Paul and I laughed for reasons I have not yet, but might yet, blog about.

“I said ‘wheelchair’, said Lewis Schaffer. I didn’t say ‘paralysed’. Some audience members are just twats and, if they’re going to destroy a show and if they’re going to step towards the comedian, then they’re gonna deserve it. I’ve never hit a punter in my entire life but I…”

“Yes you have,” I interrupted. “You hit that bloke who smashed your iPhone at the Gilded Balloon the other year.”

“He wasn’t a punter,” said Lewis Schaffer. “He was just a guy in the street. He smashed my iPhone! That wasn’t comedy-related!”

“You gonna cry now?” Paul laughed.

“No,” said Lewis Schaffer, “because now I’ve punched one guy…”

“You’ve got a taste for it?” I suggested.

“I’ve got a taste for it,” Lewis Schaffer agreed, laughing, “and all I want to do now is punch people in the face.”

These are the sort of conversations which happen during the Fringe and seldom elsewhere.

Shortly afterwards, I was due to meet Miss Behave, host of the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show. I was striding towards the appointed meeting place in Parliament Square when she passed me, speeding in the opposite direction.

“Hi, John!” she said, “Just got to pick up a sword. Back in a mo!”

The surreal soon becomes reality at the Fringe.

I went to the Gilded Balloon party last night after their So You Think You’re Funny talent show final. A banner proclaimed:

25 YEARS OF FOSTERS SO YOU THINK YOU’RE FUNNY

The Gilded Balloon venue – evacuated by fire fear last night

This was news to me. Those wacky brewers are at it again! I thought. How surreal a twisting of reality is that?. Then the fire alarm rang and the entire Gilded Balloon building was evacuated.

Exactly ten years ago, in 2002, the old Gilded Balloon building burnt down.

I texted my comedy chum Janey Godley:

STANDING IN THE RAIN. GILDED BALLOON EVACUATED. FIRE ALARM.

Immediately, a text came back:

I AM NOT THERE. I AM IN GLASGOW. I HAVE AN ALIBI.

The fire alarm turned out to be a false alarm.

What a waste of a good alibi.

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How not to run a comedy club – and Mr Nasty’s five nightmare comedy gigs

Mark Kelly amplifies tales of bad clubs

So I was talking to comedy scriptwriter and author Mark Kelly, who used to perform as a stand-up comic under the name Mr Nasty and this is what he told me:

__________

Gigs can go wrong for all sorts of reasons, sometimes because of human stupidity.

I once did a gig at a really big student venue in Central London with a brilliant new sound system. We did a sound check and it was really, really good.

I was on first and there were about 350 people in the audience.

I started off and it was absolutely fine, but I started losing people at the back. It was a bit odd: people turning away, talking and leaving, but it was only at the back. Then I started losing more of the people now left at the back.

You can lose an audience, but why would you start losing them sequentially?

I was going very well to the people down the front but completely lost the people at the back. I did about half an hour. By the time I finished, there was a semi-circle of people round the front – maybe only about 30 people – who really, really liked my act. Everyone else had given up.

It turned out the students running the venue had forgotten to switch the sound system on. There was no foldback, so I hadn’t twigged I wasn’t being amplified.

I remember turning up at a another gig at another student venue where they were really, really proud of their brand new sound system. They showed me the speakers – Yes, they look really new and good – and they showed me the microphone – Yes, that looks really good….

But there was nothing in-between.

I said: “Where’s the amp?”

And they just looked at me.

“Oh,” they asked. “Do we need something else?”

“Yes,” I said, “you can’t plug microphones into speakers. You need an amp.”

It was quite a big venue and I had to do it without a microphone.

But worse than that was a nightclub near King’s Cross in the 1980s, when comedy was becoming popular and a lot of places decided to start hosting comedy nights even though they weren’t necessarily physically suitable.

This was the opening night and, as it turned out, the closing night as well.

There were three acts and I had opted to go on first but was also compering.

When we turned up, there was no obvious performance space. They said they would clear a circle on the dance floor: they would put a microphone on the dance floor with a light on the microphone.

So the first problem was that we had to perform in the round, which isn’t ideal for comedy, particularly not with one microphone, because I had a guitar as well.

What happened was they ejected everyone off the dance floor – and the people dancing were not best pleased at this – then turned all the flashing disco lights off, put a microphone with stand in the middle of the dance floor and turned the light on to illuminate the performer at the microphone.

But, when they turned the light on, it also turned on the strobe light.

“Can you turn the strobe light off?” I asked.

It turned out they couldn’t, because the strobe was somehow connected to the only lighting which could be used in the centre of the dance floor.

So the choice was to perform in the dark or perform in the strobe light.

Faced with this and the desire to be paid, we decided to perform possibly shorter sets in the strobe light.

I was the first act and I had never performed comedy in the middle of a strobing light. Trying to get your timing right was not easy. I didn’t even make ten minutes. I got a blinding headache and everyone else just abandoned it.

The audience were at best bemused. They’d come for the disco; they hadn’t expected comedy anyway. The idea of some bloke standing there at a microphone with an acoustic guitar round his neck in a strobing light… They just stared at me…

A venue that was even more badly thought-out was a gig I played in Middlesbrough in the early 1990s.

I turned up at this pub which had been running comedy gigs for a few weeks and I was going to be headlining with a local act supporting.. The pub had bouncers outside and looked like a bit of a heavy pub, but not too bad.

I got the train up from London, got there early and wandered round the pub, but couldn’t find anything that looked like a stage area. It was a very big pub and there were lots of different alcoves where small groups of people could drink. Scattered around the pub were maybe 20 small CCTV-type screens which were showing the best bits of various comedy shows – big laugh, short clip stuff.

It turned out that they had one small alcove into which no more than half a dozen people could fit and they set up a microphone on a stand in this alcove with a camera in front of it.

In order to do the gig, you had to perform to the half dozen people in the alcove and to the camera. This was relayed round the pub on the small CCTV-type screens.

So the idea of the ‘live’ comedy performance was, essentially, just performing to a camera.

The local support act was on before me. So, suspecting what was going to happen, I walked round the pub when he was performing and, sure enough, no-one was taking the blindest bit of notice of him because they’d already had all the laughs they were going to get from the comedy clips.

He came on. The sound was terrible and the camera was not at the best of angles. No-one was taking any notice of him.

So I went on and had to do nearly an hour performing to, at most, five people I could actually see and I pretty much opted to perform to them and, if anyone watching on the screens decided to enjoy it, it was entirely up to them.

The idea that live comedy could possibly work in that situation was absurd.

Topping that venue in awfulness, though, was a gig I vaguely remember was somewhere just off the M25 orbital motorway around London and, in fact, it would actually have been easier performing on the M25 itself.

This was again in the early 1990s.

This guy had seen me somewhere, really liked what I did and booked me for the opening night of his comedy club.

He was on the phone to me for a long time and seemed very enthusiastic about comedy. He said he’d made quite a bit of money and had bought this pub. He had decided to re-design it himself because he wanted a ‘real’ comedy venue. He went on and on about how much thought he’d put into it. I was going to love it. I would absolutely love performing there, because it was a custom-built comedy venue.

Three of us – all fairly decent established acts – came out from London for the opening night and there were some teething problems in the sense he had forgotten to do any advertising.

There was actually no audience whatsoever expecting a comedy show. He literally went out into the street and tried to drag people in. However, the  pièce de résistance of the evening was his architectural design.

When the three of us walked in, we couldn’t quite spot the stage. It was a very large room with a very high ceiling. As my eyes ran up the wall, about 20 feet up, there was a very large enclave.

You had to go in a door at the side of the bar, up a rickety wooden staircase and into what the guy described as a stage area which had an inbuilt disco console which could not be moved. So, in the actual stage area, although it was quite deep, the actual width you could use was quite small.

The audience that night got to look up the nostrils of three comics who teetered on the edge of the 20ft high performance alcove trying not to fall out, trying to perform comedy halfway up a wall to an entirely bemused audience down below.

There was little applause. He had – literally – had to persuade people off the streets. They were all just standing around drinking and occasionally looking upwards.

My understanding is that was the opening and closing night of his comedy club.

The guy who ran it was very nice, very keen, genuinely loved comedy and had sunk all his money into this. He wanted it to work, but he obviously had not asked advice from any comics.

There’s a lesson there.

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Comic capers and calamities on the first day of the Adelaide Fringe Festival

Eric with “Tales of the Sea” - and now Adelaide

Two days ago, I got an e-mail from Bob Slayer – the day before his comedy show opened at the Adelaide Fringe:

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I am in Adelaide stopping at the house of a man called Matthew who I met on couchsurfing.org.

I have stopped at many random people’s homes in my life but never one I met through an online service that did not involve the prospect of sex. I once topped-and-tailed with singer-songwriter Beth Ditto – the big girl in The Gossip – in Portland, Oregon, when they supported Japanese band Electric Eel Shock, which I was managing. Did I tell you this recently? I also have an early demo I was sent by a band called the Arctic Monkeys who were, at the time, looking for a manager… Anyway I digress…

Matthew seems cool. He took me straight to the bottle shop and we bought beers. Jimbo came around to introduce Gary the Goat.

Oh! How I have missed Gary the Goat in the last few days!

Jimbo and he stayed in Port Kenny on the Eyre Peninsula with a girl while I went to visit an old tour manager friend of mine in McLaren Vale and ended up shoveling grapes and making wine for a couple of days. They paid me in my weight in wine.

I have lots of new things to talk about in tomorrow’s gigs like killing and eating the Australian national emblem but I might also pop into the hospital and see if I can visit strangers just to add their story to the mix.

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I got that e-mail from Bob two days ago. Then, yesterday, I received this e-mail from comedian Eric about his (Eric’s) show on the first day of the Adelaide Fringe.

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As last year, I am doing my show at the Tuxedo Cat venue. Last year it was ‘Adelaide Fringe venue of the year’. It is run by super cool Cass & Bryan who, every year, take over a derelict building and make it into something wonderful.

As with all refurbishment projects, it takes time to complete and, as Bryan & Cass are presented with just a shell every year, the build is coming from a long way back. Time is the old enemy and, when I ask about doing a technical rehearsal on the day of my first show, I am somewhat taken aback to be told that my room has not been built yet – but a blitz is about to take place that will turn three walls and a pile of old pallets into a performance space in time for my first show at 6.00pm.

I discover that there is no projector either. Last year I borrowed Dan Willis’ projector, so I drop him a quick text. He tells he now lives in Melbourne but has left his magic lantern with a mutual friend who lives in Adelaide. Our mutual friend Alex is at work and cannot leave. I go to his place of work (30 minute drive), pick up his keys, drive to his house (20 minute drive) pick up the projector, drive back to my house (20 minute drive) pick up my family (wife Helen and baby ‘Little E’), drive back to his place of work (30 minute drive) drop his keys back to him, then drive to the venue (30 minute drive).

I eventually emerge triumphant with projector and family at the venue. We park outside and unload everything we need for the show, which now includes pram, change bag, bottles and assorted toys.

I discover that the Blue Room where I am due to perform in an hour’s time is nowhere near ready and my heart sinks. Fifty minutes later, little has changed. There is no lighting, no sound, we have done no tech rehearsal at all. There seems little or no prospect of putting on a show. And the room is now filling with punters clutching their tickets.

I inform them that the room is not ready and invite them to return to the bar. No sooner have these people vacated than another wave of punters arrive. I give these people the same advice and, as the third wave arrive, I decide this is hopeless and locate the ushers and tell them the room is not ready and ask them to hold the audience in the bar until we are ready. I obtain the customary Australian “No worries, mate” response, return to the room and do what I can.

Five minutes later, there appears to have been a shift change with the ushers as the room again starts to fill with punters.

We finally kick off nearly half an hour late. I ask if any of the audience need to be anywhere before 7:30 and offer anyone who does their money back – No-one moves and we crack on with the show.

Ten minutes into the show, we lose all power. The light that we belatedly got onto the stage extinguishes. The projector’s whirring fan falls eerily silent and we lose both sound and picture, like a faulty TV.

Then the audience, who have been so tolerant up to now, really come into their own. Many of them take out their mobile phones and light the room up with their screens. It is a joy to behold… almost literally ‘people power’.

As we have gone completely off-piste and are unable to continue with the show, we just spend the next ten minutes chatting. Cass dashes about in the shadows trying to fix the problem which, as expected, she does and we finally get on with the show – a show that, to be fair, I have actually enjoyed… And so, it seems, have the audience. Much of the credit must go to them. I resolve to have all of them come to all of my gigs.

Comic Juliet Meyers is doing the show following mine and she is none too pleased that she is starting over half an hour late (and to be honest neither am I). I tell her the only upside is that she now gets to see me change out of my seafaring show garb and into my civvies.

As I drop my trousers, she tells me that my buttocks are “surprisingly pert”. I am not entirely sure how I should take this information but eventually conclude that the only explanation is that Ms Meyers has been imagining my buttocks for some time and now – faced with the actuality of my derrière – has found them to be more pert than she had imagined…

I then go off to find the family.

As usual, Little E is found feeding on her mum and, after I get myself and Helen some of the fabulous Vietnamese salad with dumplings from the food counter, we sit and eat in quiet contemplation, until a queue unexpectedly forms beside us.

Unbeknown to us, the ‘quiet’ corner that Helen had positioned herself in to feed Little E was in fact right next to the entrance to the Yellow Room venue and, for the next five minutes, we become a living exhibit entitled ‘Feeding the Family’ for the entertainment of the waiting crowd….

I then dash across to the Austral venue to perform in Nik Coppin’s show Shaggers.

On arrival, I see Bob Slayer making his way from the bar with four jugs of beer, two in each hand.

“Oh” I innocently think, “He is getting a big round in… He must be with a large group of people.”

Then I see him go and sit at a table alone and conclude he must actually be continuing his mission to outdrink Australia and, having done battle with Perth, it is now Adelaide’s turn…

The crowd at Shaggers are also lovely and everyone has a lovely time talking filth with them.

I am second on and, as I finish my stint onstage, I get a text to say Little E has finally fallen asleep and Helen has come to the venue collect me but there is a fight in progress outside the Austral and she is sheltering around the corner.

With the time approaching midnight and the car park I abandoned our car in closing at midnight, I have no choice but to brave the crowd and the fight and collect my girls. We all go home, having had one very long day.

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…That was a heavily shortened version of what happened in Eric’s hectic day. And that was only Day One of the Adelaide Fringe.

I feel we may hear more anarchic tales from Down Under.

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The Edinburgh Fringe? – “It is called show business and not show charity”

In yesterday’s blog, I wrote about two types of show at the Edinburgh Fringe.

In normal ‘paid’ shows, the audience pays for its tickets before seeing the show and reviewers and talent scouts for the media/showbiz industry mostly get free tickets because they potentially may publicise the show or further the performers’ careers.

At ‘free’ shows, people do not buy tickets in advance, but are encouraged to pay on exit and reviewers/talent scouts may be scowled-at if they do not pay. In yesterday’s blog, I suggested the fact that ‘industry’ people ironically do not pay for ‘paid’ shows but may be expected to pay for ‘free’ shows might discourage reviewers and talent scouts from attending free shows. They would, in effect, be paying to promote the shows/further the performers’ careers.

I quoted Peter Buckley Hill, organiser of the PBH Free Fringe in Edinburgh, as saying: “This is not something that concerns me greatly… Our performers are strongly advised to concentrate on entertaining the people in front of them, whoever they are, and not to entertain unrealistic dreams of discovery and sudden fame… What happens at paid shows is nothing to me either.  But in my view, both (the employers of) reviewers and competition judges should pay for their show tickets.”

There has been some reaction from other Fringe veterans to yesterday’s blog.

Kate Copstick, doyenne of Fringe comedy reviewers, ITV Show Me The Funny judge and a Malcolm Hardee Awards judge, Facebooked me: “Shame on you, you skinflint Fleming. I make a POINT of seeing as many free shows as I can and, yes, they are the only ones I end up paying for but, to coin a literary term, SO THE FUCK WHAT ? It is the right thing to do. If we don’t review goodly numbers of free shows then we are saying that money WILL buy you reviews. Not mine it won’t.”

American comedian Lewis Schaffer has used the Fringe’s ‘free’ show model in his twice-weekly Free Until Famous shows which re-start in London’s Soho tomorrow and in a mini-tour of UK arts centres which I blogged about recently. He says:

“Whether or not to let reviewers in for free is such a minor point and one easily addressed: give the promoters and industry people ‘get out of show free’ passes to drop in the performers’ jars. Simple. If a performer doesn’t want to accept them, he can post a notice at the entrance.

“Acts are willing to lose massive amounts of money just to be seen by entertainment industry people in Edinburgh. That’s always been the main benefit of putting on shows at the Big Four venues. Industry people are corralled, cuddled and coddled at the Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly. Is it worth it? Well, for many shows, yes.

“Why shouldn’t the free venues do the same?”

Alex Petty, who organises the Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Edinburgh Fringe (separately from PBH’s Free Fringe) says:

“I like the idea of tokens. It would be good to come up with a zero maintenance solution to this.”

Bob Slayer, who ran the Hive venue as part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival last year and who, this year, will be running his Alternative Edinburgh Fringe at the Hive with a mixture of ‘free’ shows in the afternoon and and ‘paid’ shows in the evening says:

“As a promoter I think, if this really is a problem, the free shows should look at a low-maintenance way to address it. Personally, I only really know one of the reviewers that ‘does’ my Fringe shows – Kate Copstick from The Scotsman – and she always drops in a fiver and buys me copious amounts of Jagermeister. I think the other reviewers may have heard how expensive it is to review me and sneak in quietly.

“Copstick is one of the good people. But the question is Do you only want to be reviewed by good people?? I am more than happy for evil, tight-fisted people to enjoy and review my show too. (I fear they might be my target audience.) So this year, instead of paying for PR I will offer a bottle of whisky and/or a hand-job to anyone who reviews my nonsense. And, just to keep this creatively pure, I will give extra for bad reviews.

“However, I think your blog has opened up some wider and bigger questions beyond reviewers.

“I cannot agree with your statement that, at the Fringe, performers (quite rightly) assume they will not make any profit. This is the biggest single problem at the Fringe today.

“Two million tickets are sold at the Edinburgh Fringe every year, so someone is making money. A lot of money. This myth that performers should expect to lose money has been very successfully spread by the people who are making the cash in order to protect their annual golden goose. If there is not enough money left for performers – after venues, PR people, poster people, publications, marketing services etc have taken their cut – then the obvious solution is that we cannot afford all these services and we should re-structure everything so that all the money doesn’t disappear into these people’s pockets.

“That is what we are aiming to do with the Alternative Fringe – paid shows with no rent/guarantee or other hidden costs, plus low ticket pricing and efficient marketing so that the performer earns from the first ticket sold.

“I also find myself totally agreeing with PBH and have very little to add when he says performers should concentrate on entertaining the people in front of them, whoever they are, and not to entertain unrealistic dreams of discovery and sudden fame. The former leads to satisfaction in a job well done; the latter to frustration and the sort of nervous breakdown behaviour often associated with Fringe performers.

“However, as admirable as PBH’s non-profit stance is, this is still a business model that needs to be sustained and it is hardly wise to ignore the industry and reviewers altogether. Performers want to be able to keep performing and/or build a career.

“Reviews, along with word-of-mouth, recommendations, online activity, marketing etc, can all help them put bums-on-seats. But it is a question of balance and priorities. Find and develop an audience and the industry will come – Kunt and the Gang proved last year that, if you create a buzz amongst ‘normal’ people, then the industry and press will follow, no matter how inappropriate your act or name is!”

Lewis Schaffer adds:

“Someone in Edinburgh is certainly making money out of the free shows. It is the pub owner who sells alcohol to the punters coming in droves for free entertainment. The ‘free’ shows hinge on punters drinking. How British is that!?

“No punters drinking mean no shows, no PBH Free Fringe, no Laughing Horse Free Festival, no Lewis Schaffer is Free until Famous, 18th Year, Again, at the Counting House this August.

“Peter Buckley Hill provides entertainment that draws punters to the pubs, which makes Peter Buckley Hill a promoter for pubs in Edinburgh.

“I don’t have an axe to grind with the dude. His existence doesn’t hurt or harm what I do enough for it to matter. I am just a participant doing a free show. Though it does hurt me a little when he calls what he does a charity and holds benefits and makes free shows seem like charity cases, which my show isn’t. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me any more than is necessary!

“All performers at the free festivals are just alcohol salesmen, really. If PBH wants to sell himself as some saviour of entertainers or some charity for lost performers, that is one thing. The truth is something else.

“Everyone involved has a business model: the acts who want a venue at the lowest cost, the pubs who want drinkers in their pubs, the promoters who need money to conduct their businesses and live (… Oh, PBH isn’t doing it for the money? But the Free Fringe needs money to operate. And PBH has a ‘business plan’ to have his needs met as the saviour of entertainers and the liberator of worker artists.)

“The Fringe is part of show business. It is called show business and not show charity.”

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