In January this year my wife and I decided to celebrate our 45th wedding anniversary with a return to Edinburgh for the annual arts extravaganza in August.
We were not touring a half hour comedy routine a la “Meet the Wife”, based on our years of marriage, but revisiting earlier happy memories of previous stays. We had been there a number of times before and consider ourselves veterans having had a daughter who attended university there (therefore giving us access to much sought after accommodation).
There are a range of events and festivals taking place simultaneously in the summer but our destination was specifically the performances and venues known as “The Fringe”.
For those of you who have not had the good fortune to be able to attend it is an experience like no other.
As a prelude, let me give a brief intro to the legacy. The first official International Festival was held in 1947. Eight uninvited companies performed in unofficial venues on the edges of the city. These performances included a version of the medieval morality play “Everyman”.
These groups referred to themselves as the "Festival Adjuncts” but the word "fringe" was used in a review of Everyman. In the following year, 1948, Robert Kemp, a Scottish journalist, is credited with officially coining the title "fringe" when he wrote about the second Edinburgh International Festival.
By the early 50’s revue shows in the late evening began to appear. Ned Sherrin first performed there in 1955, and Ken Loach and Dudley Moore with the Oxford Theatre Group in 1958. As most reviewers were only able to attend Fringe events, now referred to with an all-important capital letter, after the official Festival shows were finished, the Fringe came to be seen as being about late night revues.
Formal organisation came in 1959, with the formation of the Festival Fringe Society but coinciding with regular complaints that the Fringe had become too big. Perversely in 1961 a show, put together by the official Edinburgh International Festival as a rebuff to the emerging Fringe, and starring Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller did the opposite as “Beyond the Fringe” was a huge hit and went on to the West End and Broadway over the next 12 months.
In the 60’s and 70s, the Fringe established its reputation for size and variety and this juxtaposition between it and the International Festival became of mutual benefit. In the first two decades groups used their own performing spaces but by the late 1960s sharing a venue became popular mostly as a means of cutting costs.
Soon halls were hosting up to six or seven different shows per day. Next venues were partitioned into two or more performing spaces as are most major venues to this day. Soon the Fringe became too big for students and volunteers to organise and in 1969, the Fringe Society became a constituted body, employing its first administrator the following year. In the early 80s locations that contained multiple performing spaces appeared, becoming known as super-venues.
1981 was also the first year of the Perrier Award (now the Edinburgh Comedy Awards). The alternative scene was taking shape where previously comedy at the Fringe was generally in the form of student revues. Now stand-up was becoming a feature.
In 1983, the Fringe joined with the International Festival, Edinburgh Tattoo and the Film Festival to promote Edinburgh as 'The Festival City' for the first time.
In the 90’s the “Big Four” venues arrived: the Assembly, Gilded Balloon, The Pleasance, and Underbelly, which now dominate the programme. These tend to specialise in comedy, and in 2008, they tried to trademark themselves as the Edinburgh Comedy Festival but this was resented as a dilution of the brand and against the original spirit. However the comedy section has become the biggest segment of the programme. 2008 Fringe marked the first time that comedy made up the largest category and brought complaints of "an infestation of stand-up comics... an epidemic for which there is no cure", which "overwhelms the possibility of serious theatre". Others have commented that a large proportion of newer audiences are drawn to stand-up comics (particularly to television comedy stars in the aforementioned large venues), and that they are starting to see non-comedy performances as "peripheral”. However the number of theatrical shows premiered at the Everyman and other venues that transfer straight to London in the autumn or have successful national tours in the provinces make this claim rather hollow. So it is against this backdrop that we spent our first summer at the Fringe having been introduced to the city via student accommodation and later termly drives delivering and recovering our daughter and her belongings. This first dip in the water was back in the early noughties before the widespread use of mobile phones and apps to book shows. Navigating the vast programme required unreliable internet and hefty laptops, or perusing the daily Guardian listing supplement. Flyering and fly posting are ubiquitous especially for small companies (of which more later).
It is via this method that some of the gems are uncovered and others frustratingly missed. As it is an open access performing arts festival, meaning there is no selection committee or jury, anyone may participate, with any type of performance.
Okay, so far, so what? Why have I chosen to bring the history of the Fringe to the Elementary site. Get back to the personal, the anecdotal.
The egalitarian attitude of the Fringe ensures that performers and companies feel encouraged to bring their productions to the city in August, often as premieres, not only in the hope of being “discovered” but of attracting audiences and reviews not possible otherwise. So next to the Mock the Weekers and Kirsty Wark with the entire arts staff of the BBC you can find gems like a school group performing an entire Star Wars in 25 minutes in a church hall or an all black ex-con rap/poetry group slamming about the US prison system, then be moved to tears by “My Name is Rachel Corrie”, a one woman show performed three years after her death, about the American peace activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 while trying to prevent Palestinian homes from being razed. You might stumble across a young Tim Minchin (pictured) fresh from the beaches of Australia doing stand-up in a portable cabin, and an embittered Sarah Millican debuting her broken marriage onstage.
These are enduring memories.Being thrifty by nature, our forays into this world are often in the first week of August when untried shows offer two for one ticket deals. This means the later standout hits are not yet reviewed (or sold out) so you play Russian roulette when you might be one of only six couples in an Underbelly cellar avoiding eye contact with a semi-naked youth miming to blank verse but the first to see a breakout star who wins the Perrier at the end of the month.
Often you play safe and go for names you recognise or venues that attract sure fire hits. This can be expensive even in the first week. Too many big name artistes have cynically chosen the Fringe to revive their careers or promote tours, books, films etc. on the (relatively) cheap. For this year we planned to do a bit of both, pre-ordering the programme booklet ready to organise locations, timings and personae in advance, whilst leaving space for off-piste adventures. We booked our hotel in January online, declining to pay the cancellation refund guarantee. What could possibly stop us from going? Thankfully we delayed booking the train tickets till the best advance window opened. We may yet venture north if lockdown is eased and spend some “Summer in the City” without the crowds, the chuggers, the tableaux, the flyer hounds, but sadly for the first time since its inception the Festival is cancelled.
But it is flyers that are the real purpose of this overlong and no doubt soon to be edited intro. In an unexpected plot twist it is not as a tourist/visitor that I chose to share this piece to our webpage. It was as designer of the poster and flyers for a student production that went to Edinburgh in 2006.
Our son was at Nottingham University and involved in student theatre. He had previously taken a group to Edinburgh in 2002 to perform a play written by Australian writer and social commentator Van Badham who he met at Sheffield University as an undergraduate. Following the 2004 invasion of Iraq she adapted “The Persians,” a tragedy by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus. First produced in 472 BCE, it is considered the oldest surviving play in the history of theatre, and also the only extant Greek tragedy that is based on contemporary events. It recounts the Persian response to news of their military defeat under Xerxes at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, one of the decisive episodes in the on-going Greco-Persian Wars.
Transposed to twenty first century Iraq, the play involves a war crime and the media’s response. It was entitled Persae.After castings, rehearsal, sourcing funds, venue, accommodation etc. hiring prop weapons and uniforms, getting clearances and the myriad details necessary to get the show on, I was flattered to be asked to design the poster. I say “flattered”, I think it was a money saving exercise, and I say “design”, my son knew exactly what he wanted and I was merely the Photoshop technician.
A clever pastiche of Julian Opie’s Best of Blur album cover was duly produced. This involved careful redrawing of images of the cast cut with heavy doses of plagiarism. Over several weeks various versions of this mini-masterpiece were emailed between Leamington and Nottingham with size and placement of the copy tweaked and adjusted within a pica of its life. Eventually approval was given for both the poster and flyer and the artwork sent to the printers for the publicity materials to be produced. The last of the precious budget was allocated to this expense.The troupe moved up to Edinburgh for final rehearsal at the venue and began their publicity offensive. Within minutes of the first bill being posted, a tiny flaw in the copy was noticed. Four numbers and two letters were missing. Could that make a difference? Look at the image accompanying this piece. Would you have noticed? Only if you were booking a ticket in a busy week of carefully matched venues and shows to make the most of your time in the heart of the arts that year. What’s the show, what’s it about, where is it on, how much are seats? What time do I have to be there?
Sorry, what time?
When my wife and I proudly went to see the production, chests bulging with pride, honoured guests backstage afterward, privileged to see the other side of the Fringe from the performers' viewpoint I had to apologise profusely to everyone involved who, between performances, were walking the streets handing out flyers and repositioning posters covered by the opposition, and had spent hours in their crowded apartment placing tiny stickers on thousands of pieces of paper saying 11:30 am, the time of the doors opening.
An easy mistake to make, that’s why no one noticed. It could have been worse. Couldn’t it?