“it all used to be anarchist mimes around here” he wept

WARNING – no editorial process has taken place, expect poor sentence structure, bad punctuation and misspelling

What is that you are thinking, “there aren’t enough blogs about the Edinburgh fringe here”? Oh okay, I’ll write one too then. Sadly this year I could only pop up to the fringe for two days, just enough time to perform twelve shows of varying quality.

This year there seem to have been complaints that the Edinburgh fringe is not what it used to be. This is true, if it was, it would be an artifact in a museum, a city in August in which Tony Robinson would dig for the remnants of Dudley Moore’s piano and the echo of Russell Harty’s voice.

I first came to the Edinburgh fringe in 1987 as an excited, alternative comedy-obsessed punter. I saw Harry Enfield performing his new character Loadsamoney and, with tremendous prescience, declared it would be a failure. I saw the National theatre of Brent with Patrick Barlow and Jim Broadbent, Roger McGough and Pete McCarthy, Jeremy Hardy (I paid £1 towards the Terrence Higgins Trust to get a signed poster) and I fell off my stool watching the fabulous Raw Sex, comprising Rowland Rivron and Simon Brint. It was the most fabulous place in the world and I thrived off nothing but shows and occasional tins of spaghetti shapes. Two years later I performed there for the first time in a play called Shadow-walker. Cramped in a tiny flat, the writer director Trevor Maynard accidentally threw my contact lenses away and I wore his spare glasses as they were a vaguely similar prescription. Eventually one of the lenses fell out and I walked around for some months afterwards with a double-framed monocle. That same year I ended working in the Greyfriar’s Kirkhouse where I filmed Eddie Izzard’s show each night and got paid a total of ten pounds for doing the tech on Earl Okin’s shows. For some years afterwards, my friend KP and I could recite the whole of Izzard’s “god hates salmon” routine with every slur and err in place.  Then two years later, in 1992 I entered So You Think You’re Funny and ended up getting second place. Backstage that night include a musical double act that would end up forming part of sketch troupe The Cheese Shop and one of the man who does the sarcastic commentary for Come Dine with Me (that Dave Lamb, his partner was globe trotting comedian Gordon Southern). Afterwards I stood wide-eyed in a bar being told by comedians I had watched and admired that they felt I should have won. I didn’t care, it was amazing to be second, I was on my way (though far slower than I imagined, I would not appear on a poor quality and ill-thought out TV show for some years yet).  I have gone on to spend my Edinburgh fringes with a broken elbow, locked in a toilet away from a psychotic compere trying to kick the door in, and with all my possessions at home being lost in a flood of sewage, so I have plenty of reasons to feel nostalgic for the past.

Yet I think the fringe festival has never been more vibrant than it is now. There are problems with it. The rents for flats are exorbitant. The ticket prices at venues are too high. Many of the venues are so hot you start hallucinating that you are in the last reel of a doomed submarine movie. Ugly mesh fences deface the city with magnified images of hopeful and desperate comedians hung on them. There are almost as many reviewers as performer, so many of the reviews are meaningless daubs of letters and aggression by people unable to comprehend that art cannot be objectively judged. Those currently experiencing the fringe as performers, audience, or year round city dwellers could certainly add more. Despite this, I believe there is more variety than ever before, more access to quality cheap or free shows and more experimentation, you just have to know how to find it or create it. Many of the problems being complained about in articles are ones that can be avoided with a little effort. I think too many performers approach the fringe believing this will be their big break. This will be the time they get nominated for the Beer award and TV people will fashion them gifts made from tusks of extinct or mythical beasts. To enjoy the fringe as a performer I believe the first thing to do is lower your expectations. You have to make the choice – do you wish to approach this as an expensive industry showcase or do you want to approach it as a fringe festival? The choices are there because the entire event is so vast it can contain multitudes – if you want to enjoy a fringe, there is a fringe within the big festival. If you don’t want to be part of something you fear is corporate, then find another venue, there is no shortage. Imagination is needed not just in the choice of words and images you use in a show, but in how you actually do the fringe as a whole. Many seem to believe you can only achieve something in the major venues, go anywhere vaguely alternative and you will be lost and forgotten, talking to old beer mats and broken furniture. This may happen, but it may also happen in a major venue. Alternatively in a major venue, the audience may be primarily drawn to the venue itself and only attend your show because all the TV names were sold out. They sit watching you with the anger people have when they know you are one of the few comedians at the festival who has not been on 8 out of 10 cats. I had a few years in the major venues, but I didn’t really enjoy it, they didn’t seem right for what I thought I wanted to do.

When I first started doing the Free Fringe, some performers thought it was a dangerous move. Would this mean that people would think my career was on the slide? I thought, so what if they do, let’s have fun. I originally went into comedy because I loved comedy and the potential of performing, not because I wanted it to feel like a job. I got a little lost on the way. It’s been twenty years since I did So You Think You’re Funny and since then I have made many poor career choices. Sometimes I look back at the nineties and see it as a wasted decade, then I realize it is only by wasting all that time that I worked out what I wanted to do. The Edinburgh fringe can be a corporate monster, and for some that works just fine, or it can be a place for big risks, outsider oddballs and crazed ventures that can only really work at 3am in a clammy room that is usually used to store Victorian body parts.

Like most branches of the entertainment world, comedy is an industry now. In music you can hope to be part of a manufactured band signed to EMI or you can wish to be part of a record label run out of Scroobius Pip’s front room or many of the inbetween possibilities and choices.  We can moan about the money men who have ruined it all and complain that it is run by those devoid of love or competence, or we can just get on with doing something different knowing that there is always room for an alternative as long as someone is prepared to take the risk of providing it.

Recommendations for the fringe of 2012 – Nick Doody, Martin Mor, Josie Long, Bridget Christie, Seymour Mace, Danielle Ward, Billy the Mime, Helen Arney, Alfie Brown, Wil Hodgson, Helen Keen, Phill Jupitus as Porky the Poet, Chris Coltrane and so on and so on etc

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17 Responses to “it all used to be anarchist mimes around here” he wept

  1. 1987 was my first and only year at Edinburgh. I did the sound for a production of Bent at St Johns church at the end of Princes Street. I wish I could remember what I saw… I seem to remember the Thunderbirds show was on, Berkoff’s Metamorphosis and Equus. I saw a lot of comedy, but I drank a lot of beer…

  2. C.A. says:

    I have just returned from the magical dream that is EdFringe, and your free shows on the 14th were the highlights of my trip (Sometime in the afternoon at some italian place, I asked a waiter if it was the right venue and he couldn’t understand me because I’m from Newcastle, and I also saw you on at PBH’s show). I must ask you, which books were you discussing in your afternoon gig? I left the room very interested in Darwin and have had enough of reading the literary genius my friends keep throwng at me, works such as “A Weekend With Mr Darcy”, and decided it was time to change genre.

    • robinince says:

      so many wonderful biographies to choose from – I think Annie’s Box is a very good start and really Voyage of the Beagle is the best of his works to start with. any collection of his letters is a joy too

    • Heather says:

      One of my favourite things about Robin’s shows; you tend to leave each one with a new reading list!

  3. Kevin says:

    Good blog, well thought out! Hope you had a enjoyable fringe.

  4. You were brilliant at that final, Bungees, your house with them videos etc. I have always been a fan. Rhona Cameron was always a shoe in! Great article. This year I’m doing the history of the world in an hour inspired by EH Gombrich.

  5. is that it for you then you slacker?

    (ps, good blog).

  6. You know, I think you might well be right about everything. When I next see you I shall stroke your flaxen hair that I openly covet.

  7. Steve says:

    Great blog robin, my fav blog writer still, by a big margin…. Its been a while since I’ve re-read ur my space blogs while you were doing fame tour with Ricky Gervais, they were a brilliant insight in to the world of a stand up comedian on tour and a stand up comedian in general (in my opinion)
    PS hotel prices also too exorbitant for punters too during August …..

    Thanks for a good little read… Cheers

    Steve. (a fan) no shit I hear you say

  8. Susan T says:

    I had 4 days in Edinburgh this year and spread myself between venues and saw lots on the free fringe. Three out of my top 5 shows were on the free fringe and I think it’s great that more established comics are transferring to it. The shows feel more real, more like the right platform for fringe comedy plus people don’t make donations til the end so there’s maybe more of a drive to really perform.
    It his year felt more like the fringe in the late 90s when I started going – new, exciting, more of an adventure. I sincerely hope someone on the free fringe gets nominated for th ever award – Nick Doody almost certainly should be on that list.
    You talk sense Robin! There’s a choice, people can choose what type of venue to play in Edinburgh and I think it depends on what kind of audience they want. I’m not sure if tv execs are going to the free fringe yet – I certainly am but then I’m never going to make anyone’s career! I think I may not have come to the fringe this year had it not been for the free fringe mixing things up and allowing a new set of people to perform.

  9. richmonde says:

    Many comedians go to Edinburgh expecting their big break and go home to a career in chartered accountancy. Simon Hoggart (paraphrased, distorted, quoted out of context). PS I am reading your book about Bad Books and laughing out loud – think I bought it at Mind.

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