NB: Sorry this is so long, but it’s more like a diary entry for two days than a standard blog entry.
You are here. Actually, you may not be. But I am. My Edinburgh Fringe 2010 has begun. As is now fairly well documented, I first visited the Fringe in 1989. I came again in 2001. Both times with a show – President Kennedy’s Big Night Out and Lloyd Cole Knew My Father. But from 2005, I think every year, I’ve been up in some capacity or other. (In 2005, it was for the audience pilot of Banter, funnily enough, which involved Richard Herring.) Two years ago, under a year into the podcast, Richard and I tried out a live one, at the Underbelly, for free, at 10 in the morning, and it worked out just fine. Last year, we did five in a row, which sold out. This year, we’re doing ten (two blocks of five), and – in case I haven’t mentioned it – I’m making my solo debut with Secret Dancing. Anyway, I arrived at Waverley Station at 14.25 on Friday afternoon, and although it all felt incredibly familiar and comfortable, I had a different feeling in my stomach.
I checked in at the Young Ones-style flat, welcomed by the star of Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric, Justin Moorhouse, who, it turns out, wears a housecoat for most of the day and looks very much the Wildean sophisticate. I had no time for a cup of tea, as I had to dash off to Bannermans, the rock pub venue where Secret Dancing takes place every lunchtime until August 21. This was the aspect that gave me the weird stomach feeling: knowing a) that I will be performing, on my own, for an hour every day I’m here, and b) because it’s part of the Free Fringe, there is no promoter to look after me, not even a co-star! Charlotte Young is what’s known as the “venue captain” at Bannermans, and I met she and Frog and Mark, whose Unwrong Quiz follows my show each day for the next week, at the venue. They were all very nice, and made me feel less nervy. I inspected the venue, which is ostensibly for punks bands to play, so it’s very easy to convert to a comedy venue, with folding seats, and a PA all ready to roll. Once I had tested out my new lead, and made the music on my MacBook come out of the speakers – and work with my remote control – I relaxed considerably. Gawd bless Charlotte, Frog and Mark. And Chris, who is our liaison at the venue, and seems very much to know exactly what he’s doing.
I came back to the flat, and this time Richard Herring was home, looking even leaner than when I last saw him, and disarmingly smart in his Christ On A Bike suit. No sign of Tom Wrigglesworth, who’s playing Neil in our recreation of The Young Ones, as he is a bit of a hippy, but I hoped he wouldn’t mind me toasting two slices of his bread – I made a mental note to replace them, perhaps without Tom even noticing. I had a cup of herbal tea with he and Justin, and I knew I wouldn’t be doing anything as domesticated or organised as buying food from Sainsbury’s with which to territorialise a section of the fridge just yet, as I had Free Fringe duties that evening. So I went back out, and up the hill, remembering how much of an incline Edinburgh is on, and how many times in a day you are likely to have to trudge up and down that incline. Who needs gym membership? I was confident I could instinctively find my way around again, having come here every year for six years’ on the trot, and indeed, Cowgate and Canongate and the Royal Mile and George Street and the bridge and Pleasance Hill soon slotted back together for me. I walked past the Tempting Tattie as I headed off to the Canon’s Gait pub, and wished our podcast shows weren’t on so late this year, as the mass descent on the Tattie may not be practical – or advisable, given the heavy weight of the large tattie with mango chutney and cheese – at 4pm.
I had already texted Michael Legge, and it was a happy sight to see he, Robin Ince (with whom he’s doing Righteous Ire for the Free Fringe) and Carrie Quinlan (who helped convince me that the Free Fringe was my best option after raving about it at the Radio Light Ents Christmas party), coming down Canongate. We drank pints, and clinked glasses with Margaret Cabourn-Smith, who is in Gutted: The Musical with Michael. She and husband Dan Tetsell are here with their baby, doing what many performing couples do up here: share out the childminding. We attended Peter Buckley Hill’s rousing oratory downstairs at the Canon’s Gait, which was a bit like a left-wing revolutionary version of Hitler in a bierkellar. PBH, whose Free Fringe this is, is a charming old lefty. His ethos and commitment to said ethos are infectious. Kate Smuthwaite also added to the smoke-filled-backroom-without-the-smoke atmosphere by ordering us to attend a Fringe Society open meeting on Tuesday morning and demand, possibly with menaces, that they allow more performers to become directors, and to offer membership to all performers as a matter of course, as they govern us, and we should govern ourselves. Also, a desperate call went out for four further mic stands. This is the Free Fringe: bluster and bonhomie, coupled with pleas for equipment. You have to love it.
Another quick-smart dash across town to the Assembly at 9.30 in order to collect my ticket for Christ On A Bike, which started at 9.45, or so the posters said. I was a little late and the queue for Richard’s biggest ever Edinburgh solo show was already halfway down George Street. As I wandered down it, looking for the end, I was delighted to spy Tony, whose Twittername is @cockbongo, with his mates whom I met last year, via Twitter. Real comedy fans, I was even happier to see them if it meant beating the queue. If they didn’t want me to join them, they did a sterling job of covering it up. Tony has already seen about half a dozen previews – he lives locally – and made me realise just how difficult it is to see everything you want to see. (I will see my flatmates’ shows first, then gradually work my way down the list of people I know whose shows I also want to see, like Gary Delaney, Sarah Millican, Tara Flynn, Michael and Robin, Gutted, Stewart Lee, Carrie, Ava Vidal, Bridget Christie … the list goes on, way past when I have to go home, I suspect, but I will do my best.)
Christ On A Bike, which I am proud to say I saw twice in 2001, once here, once in London, is very, very good, and you can see why Richard has revived it. His audience has expanded so much over those nine years, and most will not have seen it. So it may as well be a new show. Richard thinks I didn’t like it, or pretends to think that, because I keep saying how good the technical side was, and how good the queue was. This is because I’m trying to think of something more useful to say than just, “It was really good.” We met for a drink afterward, which meant pear cider for me (I am still in thrall to Mark Watson from last year) and herbal tea for him. He hasn’t drunk since he turned 43, and even though he’s not totally well and knackered from all that stupid exercise he’s doing, a more suitable lifestyle for the 43-year-old man suits him. I can’t get used to him being in a suit the whole time. He may as well put on a tie and be one of the businessmen he once mocked so freely. We bumped into Sarah Millican there. And Paul Putner. It’s good like that. You bump into people.
Another cup of tea at the flat. Still no sign of Wrigglesworth. Richard’s girlfriend is staying with us currently, which is just as well, as four blokes in a flat is no healthy. (Lucy Porter usually supplies the oestrogen – plus, last year, Danielle Ward – but she has gone and got pregnant, and is thus sensibly living somewhere else with the father of her impending child.) Incidentally, having previously kipped in the spare room in this very flat the previous two Edinburghs, it’s nice to know the layout of the place, and to have an actual bedroom this time. The ceilings are characteristically high – about the height of two modern rooms stacked on top of one another – but not as high as the rent, which is through the roof, as is traditional. I am doing the Free Fringe to reduce overheads – you pay no venue costs, or PR, or promotion, which makes all the difference, and any money you make in the bucket after the show is yours to spend on coffee and cake – but some, like accommodation, hiked bar prices and at least two big nights out at that Italian restaurant, are unavoidable.
Up early this morning, Saturday, in order to do what I like to do in Edinburgh, go for a walk and get some air before the day really gets hectic, buy the Guardian, and sit and drink a coffee. Because my favourite little underground coffee shop, Wellington, wasn’t open yet, I was forced into Starbucks, which was, and I enjoyed watching the same genial Big Issue vendor from previous years with a beautiful dog, who was greeted by a number of people who obviously always chat to him and give him money, and his dog some biscuits. On my way back to the flat at 8.45, I saw a cab waiting outside, and passed Tom Wrigglesworth on the stairs, as it was waiting to pick him up. I never ascertained where to, but it was good to say hello at last. Richard and I then went back up the hill, this time to BBC Scotland, where, in crazy, topsy-turvy fashion, we’d be appearing as guests on our own 6 Music show, which Richard Bacon is taking over for the next four Edinburgh Saturdays, and, by dint of being up here for 5 Live, he was presenting from inside a tiny studio with his co-host Mark, while producer Dan was at 6 Music in London. With only one mic, and Richard’s iPad propped up with the running order on, it was perhaps the least glamorous set-up in broadcast media. Mark had to come out of there, so that Richard H and I could squeeze in and snuggle up. It felt unlikely to be sitting there, promoting out shows because we could because we were guests not presenters, and hard to imagine that it was actually going out, live.
Richard went home, and I had a brunch in Foodies cafe, to fill me up for the rest of the day, as I had my first show to do at 12.30. I got to Bannermans at midday, met Kate and the Unwrong boys, and started to centre myself. It became clear as I nipped out into the bar to get my pint of tapwater, that we were going to have a full house. In fact, even with people standing, we had to turn some people away – including a gang of teenage girls, as we discovered that Bannermans doesn’t even allow under-18s through the door of the building, something none of us knew. This is a shame, but can’t be rectified. Spread the word. With the venue crammed – something that really lifted my confidence – I launched into Secret Dancing, and pretty much remembered all of it, and dropped the Plax Bottle Mystery bit to shave it back to an hour. I couldn’t fit in the analysis of dance lyrics either, which will mean something to you only if you saw the previews. I expect it will change again, as the fortnight progresses. Anyway, I enjoyed doing it, and people seemed to enjoy being there, and some coins were dropped into the bucket, which cost £1.50, at the end. I still can’t really believe it went so well. But I came down with a bump just three hours later.
Simon Lilley, comedian, muso and impressario, is hosting a variety show at the Free Fringe, every day at 5pm, called The Dog That Ate Your Birthday Cake, its title taken from a Sparklehorse song; basically, he and two guest performers. He’d asked me if I would be one of them at last week’s PBH benefit gig at the Comedy Pub in London, which I found awfully flattering. I said yes. It would be interesting to take 10-15 minutes out of my hour show and see how it worked as a short set. Anyway, after a refreshing pear cider in the Underbelly bar, by myself – you become incredibly self-sufficient at Edinburgh, and nobody takes a blind bit of notice of people drinking or eating or sitting and thinking alone – I wandered over Simon’s venue, the Base nightclub. He said he had no audience, and was frantically flyering outside with a couple of guys from the venue/Free Fringe. I took some flyers and joined in (“Free show, starts in ten minutes, just over there!”), and, amazingly, we rustled an audience up, about 20 people, of all ages and temperaments, who were tempted by the lack of money changing hands to come and sit in a club, not knowing who or what they were about to see. I felt it was the spirit of the Fringe. Sadly, due to there being no music playing when they sat down, and a perhaps ill-advised opening salvo by Simon about Sparklehorse, whom nobody had heard of, and the fact that their singer had committed suicide last year, the show started out pretty flat and quiet, and if anything, got flatter and quieter. I did my best to get them going, and did the Surrey routine from Secret Dancing, with absolutely no connection whatsoever. Simon had another go, and then Rosie Wilby, who has a show about sex at the Underbelly, whose thoughtful and jolly observations about men and women failed to light up the audience either, despite many attempts to get them involved. Most of them were polite enough to stay until the end, although three drunk girls, who had at least provided merry, if pissed, laughter, and put some money behind the bar on shots, staggered out, followed by the four less-drunk-but-still-drunk lads who may or may not have been from Potters Bar. Simon, Rosie and I supported one another by enjoying one another’s acts, and I held the bucket at the end, for what it was worth. It was a fairly miserable experience, although for a novice like me, character-building. I don’t blame the audience; they were amenable enough to be herded in off the street, and didn’t boo or even heckle, but it can be hard going. My experience at lunchtime was, I realise, a blessed one. This put it into perspective.
Tonight, having finally bought two bags of shopping from Sainsbury’s and created my own shelf in the fridge (and replaced Tom’s bread), I plan to do very little but meet Gary Delaney for a pear cider in the Pleasance. Tomorrow, I fancy I may see Justin’s show, The Boiled Egg On The Beach (his show last year was one of my favourites: good, honest, northern comedy from a man who was in Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric – he showed me his holiday snaps on his iPad from the filming and the subsequent Cannes outing), and then perhaps Gutted. I may run into @cockbongo. There may be home cooking, as it’s a Sunday. I was excited to find my show listed in the Guardian Guide today. I don’t really expect that much coverage. I cut my finger on Friday morning while cleaning the metal filter on the shower, and, having had a plaster on it all day yesterday, I unwrapped it today to find a scar that looks a bit like a star. Justin says it’s my first one-star. I think it looks like a tiny stigmata, which allowed me to throw in this new joke this morning:
I’m not saying I’m Richard Herring. That is for other people to say.
You have to be a fan of Richard’s work to get it. It got a laugh. I don’t really want Richard to come and see my show, as I know it will cause hm pain if he has to grudgingly admit that he likes any of it.
PS: A load of fireworks just went off, at about 9pm, probably at the Castle, and the seagulls of Edinburgh have gone mad. It’s a lovely, clear evening.