Flying the Flag… for what, exactly?

Mary

I’m always a bit wary about getting involved in the politics of another country. In truth, I’m pretty wary about getting involved in the politics of my own country these days given the online echo chambers if you agree with someone or the vitriol and shouting-down if you don’t. Family across the road from us have no such qualms however. So much so they bypass the online and visibly nail their colours to the mast. The other week this translated as digging out their trusty Saltire flag and flying it from the battlements of their suburban semi-detached. I guess this action was in solidarity with their Catalan brethren, given that the flag-waving coincided with the day of the independence referendum held in Catalonia. Which made me think – I wonder if they know anyone from that part of the world? I do – and by chance my friend from Barcelona was staying with us when it was all kicking off in her home city. Actually it wasn’t complete chance – she was keen to get a break from the disruption, the ill feeling and the pressure to ‘choose a side’.

Sounds familiar? Yes, we experienced all of that three years ago in Scotland. That’s where the similarity ends though. The Spanish government is ridiculously heavy handed and show a scary lack of evolution from the days of Franco. To think the two situations are similar is like comparing the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff with that of Terry and June!

Of course the staggeringly huge difference between Scotland/UK and Catalonia/Spain is the historical timeline. The Franco regime came to an end just over forty years ago and – as recent events prove – his influence lives on. If you want oppression, subjugation and bloody battles over here you have to dig out the history books or download Braveheart.

So as the Catalonia/Spain situation rumbles on we can probably expect the old Saltire to make a few more appearances across the road. I’ll be polite though and smile to myself as I’m reminded of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie when poor wee Mary McGregor (Joyce Emily in the book) goes off to join the Spanish Civil War but is confused about what side she should be fighting on. Of course she didn’t have the benefit of a world of knowledge and historical fact at her fingertips; and the only brainwashing came in the form of one silly and deluded woman. Muriel Spark making the point that politics – especially those of another country – are complicated but a bit of flag waving can cover up a fair bit of ignorance.

 

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Myth and Mourning

Can it really be twenty years since the death of Diana? If you were a full grown adult at the time you might respond with the cliched ‘it only seems like yesterday’ because that what happens with time – it gets more fleeting the older you get. It also has something to do with denial at getting older. You don’t want to acknowledge that so much time has passed. If you were one of the people who wept and wailed at the time you might welcome the distance the years bring – in an emotional sense, certainly.

It hasn’t taken the full twenty years to feel a collective queasy embarrassment at the whole spectacle though. Those rumblings started before the floral funeral carpet wilted so we’ve had almost that whole period for psychologists, sociologists, historians and writers to analyse and pick apart the whole phenomenon. None more excellent than the recent essay by Hilary Mantel in The Guardian. With her customary surgical precision she dissects who Diana was, how she was and why she was. The otherworldly is alluded to with Diana the last in a line of doomed sacrificial princesses cast from both fairy tales and historical reality. She delves into the psyches of Diana and the other main players but finds – as royals and aristocrats – there isn’t much depth to delve into. The main player herself confused and having to create a winning persona with help from a selection of advisers. It’s a staggering piece with fascinating observations about how we mourn and how that’s changed (wear bright colours and be happy) and our attitude towards death (still a naive non-acceptance). But are we any closer to understanding the actions of the crowd at that heady time?. Understanding is probably not relevant though as the crowd here is cast from folklore and can be – by turn – the baying mob or weeping mourners.

In reality and back in 1997 there were no such binary choices. If you weren’t a weeping mourner your reactive profile category would vary from mild sadness to intense frustration at the Media overload. The public perception of the individual was pretty binary though. If you weren’t part of the hysterical outpouring of grief you had to keep it quiet lest the weeping mourners became the baying mob from folklore.  These days though – you want binary? Spend a few minutes with the various Diana trends on Twitter (today will be the worst) and you’ll be able to view both extremes.

For myself – I was definitely in the mild sadness/intense frustration category. In the subsequent years however I found myself wanting to make sense of it all. Not the ‘why, oh why did she have to die?’ but rather that many people just couldn’t accept that fame, status, beauty, money and a kind heart weren’t enough to make a cloak of invincibility for her. And the whole thing of looking for a saviour to protect us from the world’s ills. Like some kind of super hero/heroine. That continues today with people proclaiming that the world would be a better place had she lived? Really?

I managed to work out my own particular fascination with the phenomenon by giving the woman herself a new life and a new persona in a work of fiction. She had to be fictional as I could never claim to have known her – actually, spiritually or emotionally, unlike so many others did.  Maybe I’m atoning for my mild sadness and intense frustration, who knows?

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/26/the-princess-myth-hilary-mantel-on-diana

 

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Fringeschmerz! Many happy returns?

So that’s the Festival over with for another year. Of course, when we say the Festival we actually mean The Fringe – as that’s the part most people are interested in and it’s the reason why the population of Edinburgh doubles during August. Actually that’s an old stat and – going by my own personal opinion – the numbers had to be far greater than that this year. Admittedly it probably looked a lot worse depending on what part of the city you ventured into with much of the Old Town being a no-go area. Glimpsing the seething crowd mass crammed into the High Street around the Fringe office gave me a very queasy feeling indeed. But luckily I was well out of it, witnessing the carnage from the top deck of a number 33 bus.

So why’s the Fringe so popular? Well, it’s ‘a thing’ now apparently. I realised it was ‘a thing’ when The Sun reported on it and BBC Breakfast showed an interest. Along with other ‘things’ like other festivals, and city breaks, and days at the races and afternoon tea – it’s something to do. Or – more to the point – it’s something we’re told we should do. It’s the opposite of niche or having a particular interest or discovering something for yourself.

At this point – and to celebrate seventy years of the Festival/Fringe – let me take you on a personal journey…

First years were the late 70s and early 80s with church-hall productions of Shakespeare and the Greek classics; a lot of Brechtian (actual and influenced) theatre and probably too many torch singers channeling Piaf and Brel. Memorable highlights: Learning from Quentin Crisp how to cultivate a lifestyle; being chilled to the bone by Patrick Malahide in his one-man, three-hour-long play about cannibalism; gasping with laughter and almost believing that John Bardon was the incarnation of Max Miller. Biggest regret: Not experiencing even one of the 24 hours of The Warp.

Late 80s: The classic days of the official Festival half-price ticket van at the bottom of The Mound. Memorable highlights: a very gory Macbeth in German with The King’s orchestra pit used as a dumping trench for bloodied body parts. A lot of Steven Berkoff – the man himself on the official and excellent productions of East, West and Greek on the Fringe. Experiencing sublime camp classicism in the shapes of Julian Clary and Lily Savage. Seeing pre-Hollywood Mike Myers and Denis Leary (not really highlights but thought I’d just mention). Biggest regrets: missing Nureyev‘s swan song and The Fall/Michael Clarke mash-up that was I am Curious Orange.

Mid 90s – 00s: The rise and rise of the comedy behemoth when ‘the Fringe as a trade fair TV producers and PR agents’ ultimately succeeded in its bid to become the only show in town. That said – it was nice to see The League of Gentlemen and The Mighty Boosh before they got on telly… or is it just nice to say I saw them before they got on telly… ?

00s – present day: Okay – I haven’t always been faithful to the Festival/Fringe. There have been long gaps throughout the years – due to logistics of traveling and residency and also due to something I like to call ‘Fringeschmerz‘. Hey, it’s a thing! I just named it. It’s meant to describe an overwhelming feeling of jadedness and cynicism.  However – around five years ago I discovered the Free Fringe and it was a minor revelation for me. Here was experimentation, here was risk taking, here was a half-empty room with confused people in it. It was like going back to the days of my classic Fringe experiences! If you want to know what my modern era highlights are – read the reviews elsewhere on this blog.

But here we go – nothing lasts forever and things change. The whole story of the Free Fringe is a textbook study of political infighting, power grabs and fragile egos all nicely nurtured throughout the year and brought to bloom in the Edinburgh August hothouse. Just Google and you can read all about it. That’s them but what about me? For various reasons this year I couldn’t take part in my usual (like as in the past four years) Free Fringe going frenzy. I managed to see a handful of shows which were fine and I reviewed them accordingly but I saw around the equivalent number of other shows and they were meh at best and dire at worst. I thought it best to take the stance of ‘if you can’t say something nice about someone…’ And of course there’s that whole thing about trampling on a fledgling dream but honestly these guys aren’t fledglings – more like tough old birds who’ve been flapping around the circuit for years now.

So why do old hands do the Free Fringe? Here’s the economics bit: the acts who appear at the big paid-ticket venues – like the Pleasance and the Gilded Balloon – are essentially fast-tracking themselves to bankruptcy by the time the venue, their agent and all the myriad parts of their PR machine take their cut. Contrast that with the comparatively modest expenses of the Free Fringe and getting to keep all of the proceeds when the hat is passed round at the end. However many of the Free Fringe regulars now have agents and PR teams to support so the ‘bucket speech’ now goes along the lines of ‘you’d pay at least £15 for a show like this at the Pleasance/Gilded Balloon/Underbelly so give me that amount’. ‘Er, no – I can’t/wouldn’t pay that amount. That’s why I’ve come to the Free Fringe’. Maybe it was just me this year and hopefully the Free Fringe is going to get its groove back next year. It can’t just be the poor envious relation to the fat cat Fringe, expecting increasingly bigger scraps from the table.

So what’s my marvelous vision for the future of the Festival/Fringe/Free Fringe? Well, the Fringe as comedy shop window for those who can afford it and don’t want anything particularly original is never going to change, given the massive power of the main venues; so it can continue being ‘a thing’ and people can tick it off on their tourist ‘to do’ lists. The Free Fringe can – and does – get a share of that market, but lose the inferiority complex, eh? The official Festival is the esoteric elderly relative who swans in and out, avoiding any political spats and doesn’t cause any trouble. On a practical note – the action has to break free from the Old Town stranglehold and in particular the kettling hot spots in the High Street and at the bottom of the Mound. It’s dangerous, makes the centre of town out of bounds to residents and reinforces the idea that the Festival is strictly for tourists only. Some Fringe shows have ventured out to other areas including – gasp – Leith! But I can remember going to tiny venues there and all over the city back in the day. But then it all comes back to money and whether it’s ‘a thing’.  I suppose traveling on a bus to go to a church hall to watch a production of Marat/Sade where the performers outnumber the audience isn’t going to make economic sense. But hey, it was a thing – my thing!

Happy 70th!

 

 

 

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Bob Blackman’s Tray?

During the inspired lunacy that is Bob Blackman’s Tray? main man Johnny Sorrow notes – nay, wails – that you wouldn’t get this kind of thing at The Pleasance or at any of the other silly-money-charging big-boy venues up the road. Quite refreshing then as there seems to be a growing trend for Free Fringe acts to claim they’re every bit as good – and as bland – as their paid-ticket counterparts so ‘gimme, gimme, gimme £15-20!!’. Such logic of economics or equal-footing comparisons simply don’t exist in the world of BBT. In fact a lot of things don’t exist in that strange near-mythical world: PR, marketing, advertising, flyers, posters, agents for example.

Refreshing, maybe, for us jaded old cynics who every August look with tired eyes on the stack of mediocrity that’s hyped up, packaged and presented to those who haven’t got the time or can’t be bothered to seek out something truly original. But what about the BBT guys themselves who steadfastly refuse to play the promotion game? A case of ‘build it and they will come… ‘

And that brings me to my big schizophrenic relationship with BBT. On one hand I want to tell everyone about the magical experience and tell them to go see but on the other hand I would be horrified if I was turned away from a house-full performance or worse still had to squeeze in with people who didn’t ‘get it’. There’s something about that strange mix of half empty house end-of-the-pier show desperation and nostalgic kids’ TV a la Crackerjack! presided over by a strange man in a blue balaclava and sunglasses that’s uniquely compelling. If BBT was packaged up, promoted and presented to the ‘right’ people they would storm it and be appearing on a telly near you. But then – as Johnny Sorrow says – they just want people like that Malcolm McIntyre these days. Which just goes to show how gloriously out of touch Johnny is. Yes – okay – I’ve decided: I don’t want BBT to change. Let’s keep it as our little secret, shall we?

https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/bob-blackman-s-tray

 

 

 

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Luca Cupani: It’s Me!

Some comedians have an indefinable quality. That certain je ne sais quoi. Something you can’t quite put your finger on but you know you like it. Here we go though – I’ll have to try and describe how good Luca Cupani is so I can convince you to get along to see his show before the run ends on Sunday. Oh – and it may be helpful to Luca himself as the big question he’s been pondering of late is ‘who am I?’

To start with – Luca is a class act. But the great thing about being in his company is that you never feel he’s acting. He has trained in the dramatic arts though so he’s either the most brilliantly naturalistic actor ever or he’s just being himself. I suspect the latter.

Open, guileless, refreshingly honest – Luca’s material is always a seamless match with his engaging personality. He’ll start off innocently enough – telling you what he’s been up to in the past year. This time around it’s been getting one of those DNA tests to find out his ethnic origins. Disappointingly – for him – it turns out he’s mostly Italian, with some British and a hint of Kazakhstan. Soon though we’re heading into raunchier territories with nude photo shoots and (sort of) group sex. Although Luca – as usual – isn’t getting any of the action.

Okay – big ticks for material and personality. But here’s the difficult part – trying to define the idiosyncratic beauty of a Luca Cupani show. A lot of it has to do with the structure and the rhythm. It’s a bit like being on one of those fairground rides which starts off gently and gradually picks up speed until you’re being flung (mentally, in this case) in all directions. Slowing down now and again, giving you time to breathe and think: did he really say that? And more to the point – did he really do that?

I’ve been thinking of who Luca reminds me of. Maybe a touch of Roberto Benigni – but with far better control of the manic tendencies. Ultimately though – Luca doesn’t need any comparisons, personality tests or horoscopes to confirm who he is. He’s a gifted story-teller and comedian, and an hour or so in his company is worth any number of introspective workshops and scientific tests.

https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/luca-cupani-it-s-me

 

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Kev’s Komedy Klub

Let’s face it – most people who come to the The Fringe want to be entertained. They don’t want to be harangued, ridiculed, interrogated or made to feel socially anxious. Also a good many people will only go and see one show – a handful at most – the reason could be completely logistical or it could have something to do with not wanting to shorten the odds of being harangued, ridiculed, etc…  So how do you match audience with show and not put them off the Fringe for life? Difficult enough to pluck something suitable from the tidal wave of ‘funny’ which engulfs Edinburgh every year – but imagine if you set yourself up with the thankless task of organising a ‘Fringe outing’ for friends/colleagues? Yes, masochism is a thing and there are shows you may like (see above). So great bullet-dodge for the person who organised the work’s outing, filled up the front row at Kev’s Komedy Klub yesterday and whose workmates must be saying today – ‘yeah, good choice!’

It wasn’t just the front row – the rest of us had a great time as well. My reason for being there – in a year of going to see only a handful of shows –  was that I know Kevin Dewsbury is a safe pair of comedy hands. As a host he got us nicely warmed up with routines about Weatherspoons and ‘posh’ Cheshire. And even if you’re not familiar with Cheshire, Kev’s vivid description and classic deadpan delivery make the place totally hilarious.

A reliable host in a showcase is pretty important but the other acts have to be good as well. Yesterday there were two recruits from Kev’s other show (Kev’s Komedy Kitchen – also worth a visit) : Will Hutchby and Mike Newall. Will is all boyish enthusiasm masking sadder elements like his mum’s cancer (it’s OK, she’s OK!) and his failed Star Wars audition in Manchester. Mike out-deadpans Kev with tales of typical Manc lads realising they’re not ‘lads’ any more – for example drinking red wine instead of scoring drugs at a music festival.

If this is all sounding quite Manc-centric – let me introduce you to one of the other acts: Rachel Fairbairn – from Manchester! Rachel wrings every bit of comic potential out of her Manc accent, OCD and her family relationships – particularly her footballer’s wife of a sister. Good assured performance.

The star of the show however was Jinx Yeo from Singapore. What a find! Brilliant routines taking British and Chinese stereotypes but mixing it all up into a very tasty stir fry! Yes, there are cooking jokes including a Chinese Spiderman eating his enemies as they are all based on animals. Fresh, funny with loads of first-rate material – Jinx is definitely one to watch.

Showcases are great for dipping a toe into the Fringe sea but they can be dire if the acts aren’t up to scratch. The good thing with Kev’s Komedy Klub is that Kev has so many contacts in the northern powerhouse of comedy so you can be sure there will be excellent quality control. The Newsroom venue is a little bit outside the main Old Town Fringe hub but the 18.15 time slot makes it a good starting point for the evening with the Klub the perfect aperitif!

https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/kev-s-komedy-klub

 

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Dharmander Singh

The show’s full title: Dharmander Singh from Bollywood and Birmingham to Berlin and Brexit is clarified pretty early on in the proceedings. Dharmander shares a name with a Bollywood actor; he originally comes from Birmingham (although he doesn’t have to explain that one – the accent rather gives it away); he now lives in Berlin so obviously Brexit will be mentioned.

However as the show isn’t overtly political the Brexit element is quite low in the pecking order. This is a wise move as Dharmander (or Da – as he helpfully invites us to call him) isn’t your hectoring politico type of comedian but rather the kind who invites you into his world and introduces you to all its quirks and oddities. In Dharmander’s case this means a fair amount of culture-class comedy centering on the Berlin psyche – on one hand avante-garde and anything goes – on the other petrified when the ticket-inspectors board the train. Even if life in Germany in general – and Berlin in particular – isn’t a hot topic for you Dharmander’s mega-watt smile and brilliantly energetic style will win you over. And of course there’s the Brummie accent which adds to the cheeky chappie persona and is always good value in the comedy stakes.

Dharmander is also appearing in two other shows for the whole Fringe run. Hopefully he’ll be able to keep those energy levels up!

(review for 4 August)

https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/dharmander-singh-from-bollywood-and-birmingham-to-berlin-and-brexit

 

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