“The first time you performed at the Edinburgh Fringe was in the 1970s?” I asked Martin Soan when he came round to help me with something in my home.
“I first went up there in 1971,” he told me. “It was different then. I only remember one street performer.”
“What was he doing?” I asked.
“I’ll give you three guesses.”
“He was playing the bagpipes. There was a leaflet listing the Fringe shows. I think there were only about half a dozen shows. There was a room above a pub with the Cambridge Footlights in. There was an experimental dance piece. There was some sort of classic play.”
“Why did you go up in the first place?”
“Because I knew one of the dancers in the experimental dance piece.”
“The lure of sex.”
“Always. I went up there in 1971, but then I didn’t go up for another 12 or 15 years with The Greatest Show on Legs.”
“How has the Fringe changed?” I asked. “It’s just got commercialised, hasn’t it?”
‘Everybody knows how it’s changed,” said Martin. “That’s an old story.”
“You could make it up,” I said. “Did you know they used to sell fish in The Grassmarket? And whales. That’s why it’s the shape it is.”
“Is that right?” asked Martin.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s a little-known known fact about Edinburgh.”
“Whales?” asked Martin.
“Imagine the shape of The Grassmarket,” I told him. “That’s whale-sized and whale-shaped, isn’t it?… The Gaelic work for ‘whale’ is ‘graas’ – It’s from the Norwegian. Graas. So it became the Graasmarket, where people bought bits of whale.”
“It was always a showbiz area,” I explained. “They used to sing songs in The Grassmarket. Whale Meat Again. That first got popular there.”
“I don’t know,” said Martin. “It’s like asking someone if they’re a vegetarian, then giving them meat but secretly it’s made out of soya or something like that. It’s very weird.”
“It’s not post-modern,” I suggested. “It’s post-weird.”
“That’s the thing,” said Martin. “Where do we go now with comedy if the weird has become the norm? What can be slightly off-kilter from that? I like a good stand-up. I like a good variety act. I like a good weird act. But there’s lots of them now. There’s lots of weird acts.”
“Michael Brunström is weird in a good way,” I said. “I saw him the other day. He was dressed in a toga, impersonating the 1960s designer Mary Quant in what was supposed to be the true story of her whaling trip and it seemed to me that he was speaking in a slight German accent. It was weird. He is weird.”
“You can see the influences coming through now,” said Martin.
“Of Mary Quant?” I asked.
“No,” said Martin. “But it’s rippling through the comedy circuit. I have now seen three people wearing a saucepan on their head banging it with a stick.”
“Who started that?” I asked. “Spike Milligan?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” replied Martin. “But I think, on this round, the first person I saw do it was Cheekykita – maybe with a crash helmet on. Now there are loads of people banging their heads.”
“It could,” I said, “be Johnny Sorrow’s influence with the Bob Blackman Appreciation Society.”
“It is difficult to know where you go from weird,” said Martin.
“You must have a lot of original acts approaching you to appear at Pull The Other One,” I said. (Martin runs a monthly comedy variety show.)
“I’m trying to get back to true variety,” Martin told me. “I would love to put on stage people who don’t normally go on stage but who are brilliant performers. But it takes a lot of diplomacy. I really want to book – and have tried to book but failed – one of those guys who sells knives at stations.
“They sell kitchen equipment and stuff like that. They normally have one of those little Beyoncé mics and an assistant and they have a whole box of cucumbers, tomatoes and onions and their patter is: The time you waste finely-chopping onions, ladies! Just buy one of these Acme vegetable choppers. you take off the blades like this. You wash it like this. Then you get your onion. Bang! Bang! Bang! Finely chopped! Not only will I give you that and attachments for beautifully, artistically-sliced cucumbers but you can even core a cauliflower!
“I would love to get one of those guys up on stage during a show. If you just put them in a different situation, like a comedy club, they would ham it up even more. So I’m thinking about that.”
“And you could share the profit on knife sales,” I suggested.
“Yeah,” said Martin unenthusiastically.
“Or,” I suggested. “you could sell yourself to a shopping channel. They have all these embarrassed-looking out-of-work actors selling things for two hours in dull sets. Instead, they could have a surreal comedy show that sells things.”
“I am,” said Martin, “thinking opera singers and quartets at Pull The Other One.”
“I am,” I told him, “thinking opera singers on shopping channels selling vegetable cutters.”
“If,” he continued, “you think of your average comedy evening, one stand-up makes the audience laugh and the others don’t. I want to do shadow shows and UV theatre, but good ones.”
“I’m sure,” I said, “that audiences at comedy clubs are getting tired of five stand-up acts in a row and, if they’re young male acts, they’re all talking about wanking because that’s all they know. There should be a ban on wanking references in comedy clubs. And there could be an untapped audience for people selling kitchen knives.”
There is a video on YouTube of Bob Blackman singing Mule Train while hitting himself on the head with a metal tray.