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!