I’m an Edinburgh man myself

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Tickets are now available for the Collings & Herrin live podcasts in Edinburgh. We’re appearing for five days only, August 19-23, at the Underbelly at 12.2opm (just before lunch at the Tempting Tattie). The pic above is of the satisfied audience from last year’s live podcast at the Underbelly, although they didn’t have to pay. This year, it’s £6, because we are professionals. If you’re at the festival, why not book your tickets here. Equally, I would expect you to book tickets for Richard Herring’s show Adolf Hitler And His Funny Moustache, which is also at the Underbelly, but in the evening. I shall be booking mine this afternoon.

This is all very exciting for me, as I was planning to take my Mitford Sisters show up this year but I did the sums and it was just too risky for a relative newcomer like myself at what is a financially challenging time. (I made the decision not to go before Not Going Out was cancelled, so it turned out to be an astute move.) Maybe next year. I may do the ten-minute version while I’m in Edinburgh if somebody will let me. I’ll keep you posted about that.

I love Edinburgh. Here is a picture of me in 1989 outside the venue where we staged our first ever show at the Fringe – 20 years ago! – that is, Renaissance Comedy Associates, a theatre group founded at St George’s Medical School under the aegis of one Matthew Hall, then a student, but later Harry Hill. The show was called President Kennedy’s Big Night Out.

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Any excuse to run a few of the old snaps. Actually, here’s the first, unpublished draft of a short piece I wrote about the experience for Word in 2005. It explains everything.

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I’m not a doctor, as the man in the white coat used to say on those adverts. But in August 1989 I played a vital part in taking a medical school drama production up to the Edinburgh Fringe for a frantic, heady, penny-pinching week of costume changes, dodgy digs and self-promotion that indirectly helped launch the mainstream TV career of Harry Hill. When I say I played a vital part, I drove one of the cars.

The other, a 1968 Vauxhall Viva which went halfway up the A1 with a flat tyre, was driven by my pal Rob, an art teacher. It was through him that I came to join Renaissance Comedy Associates, the self-appointed amateur dramatics society of St George’s Hospital Medical School in Tooting, South London. RCA’s leading light was the urbane and witty Matthew Hall, modest linchpin of many a student revue. For his first self-penned play, game show spoof The Ted Duffy Show, he’d cast old schoolfriend Rob in the title role. (The pair of them had dipped a toe in the London cabaret circuit as The Hall Brothers.) As I played the drums, Rob and I found ourselves enrolled, without paperwork, as surrogate medical students.

Having successfully staged two subsequent comedies in St George’s impressive Monckton Theatre, Matthew and I collaborated on the over-ambitious political farce President Kennedy’s Big Night Out, which traced the trajectory of the “magic bullet” via a Wichita-set subplot about a Reader’s Digest-obsessed hick – played by me – seeking unethical surgery to turn him into a teddy bear. At its climax, in homage to the Laurence Olivier hologram then appearing in the West End in Time, a huge moon face of JFK (composed of A3 photocopies pasted to a board) descended to tie it all up.

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Without previewing this technical nightmare at the Monckton, we packed ourselves, costumes, wigs, teddy bear ears and musical director Matt Bradstock-Smith’s Rick Wakeman-like keyboards into two cars and set off for Edinburgh, festival virgins all. Having won the Fringe poster competition with Rob’s design and seen it reprinted in the Independent, we thought perhaps this would be our big break and we’d be discovered. It wasn’t. We weren’t.

Playing seven nights at the Theatre West End (impressively named but actually a long, thin church hall run by Imperial College), my most vivid memory is the panic of setting out all our props and costumes while the previous show finished and clearing them all away before the next one started. That’s the Edinburgh arts conveyor belt. On opening night, Matt’s keyboard malfunctioned; although he expertly salvaged the music for Matthew’s links as lounge singer Val DeMere, it put us all off our stroke. We never played to an empty hall, but audiences did make use of a dramatic blackout during which Kennedy was shot to sneak out.

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Our insane week revolved around that intense nightly hour of graduate comedy. The entire cast and crew, including nurse Sue (who played a Welsh Jackie Kennedy), Suzi, Helen, George and Matthew’s brother Rodney, handed out flyers by day and retired to the members-only Fringe Club at night, where we saw an unknown Rob Newman doing Ronnie Corbett impressions. The same year I saw Eddie Izzard unicycling for free in the street.

Our sole review, in The Scotsman, called it “an inconsequential mish-mash” with “some very dull material” but presciently singled out Matthew for praise. Returning in 1990 with another RCA play Dog Murder One, he gave up medicine, changed his name to Harry Hill and won the Perrier Best Newcomer award in 1992. The rest is showbiz history.

His abiding memory of ’89? “Rob keeping the prize money from the poster competition, which still irks.”

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