Thursday, 5 April 2012

Edinburgh Festival

I was first taken to the Edinburgh Festival by my parents when I was about 11 (a long, long time ago, before the internet, kids - actually, it was before cars with heaters). In those days, the main Festival comprised a handful of theatre and arts events and the Fringe was about as lush as a slaphead's comb-over.

And that was it until 1988 when I took my wife-to-be up there in an attempt to convince her of my aesthetic sensibilities. By then, the Fringe was fairly well established, albeit a far cry from the behemoth of today. The Assembly Rooms - now defunct - was the hub, while the Pleasance and the pre-blaze Gilded Balloon were in their infancy. We saw some cracking shows including Victor and Barry, a brilliant camp-fest with the young Alan Cumming who was clearly a star in the making.

Thereafter, we went almost every year, often with my parents in tow, and saw some stunning shows - plus, of course, plenty of crap. That's the Festival. New venues opened up every year, while existing ones expanded. Rawness was replaced by slickness and professionalism, and it became THE place to make your name. Pre mega-fame, we saw people like Frank Skinner, Steve Coogan, Alistair McGowan, Jack Dee, Lee Evans, Omid Djalili and Jenny Eclair. And the Perrier Award - since superseded by the Fosters - was the key to the comedy door.

Edinburgh inspired me to give stand-up a try, although I had no designs on a career in comedy. I'm shy and was never a performer, but I was that irritating attention-seeker who could make his friends laugh and thought I could simply adapt my schtick for a roomful of strangers. I got that dramatically wrong, as it turned out, but I had some impressions up my sleeve which seemed to work and, suddenly, and without particularly wanting it, I was launched into a 'career' which eventually included live work all over the UK and abroad, TV shows and countless radio shows.

Edinburgh, though, was the promised land and, in 1996, I was offered a last minute slot at the Gilded Balloon which I couldn't turn down. I should have. My half-baked show got me nowhere. The following year, I took more time over it, used my experience, brought to bear everything I'd learned, and performed an equally useless show in the same venue. I waited 5 more years before revealing my obsession with baldness with a show called Losing It. It was funny in parts, but wasn't well received and, worse, I shaved off all my hair for the 4 week run. I'm still not bald 10 years later, by the way, but remain traumatised. By 2005, I'd teamed up with Philippa Fordham and we took our show, He Barks, She Bites, to the Pleasance. We were nominated for the Dubble (sic) Act Award and spotted by the BBC, eventually getting our own series on Radio 4. Finally, Edinburgh had paid off.

This year, I decided to try Edinburgh for probably the last time. I had an idea for a show, you see - about how I stumbled into impressionism - and started exploring the possibilities. But it was a late decision, too late. In the old days, comedians applied in June, wrote their shows in July and pitched up in Edinburgh in August. Nowadays, you need to be on the case as soon as the previous Festival has finished, writing, previewing, organising a venue, having photos taken, creating posters, appointing a PR agent...and that's the tip of the iceberg. After I was offered a slot at a leading venue a couple of weeks ago, I started fumbling around trying to first locate then fit all the pieces of the jigsaw together. The show - nowhere near written - was the least of my concerns. And, as one delves into the Edinburgh minefield, it becomes clear that it's going to cost a fortune. Guarantees to the venue, travel, accommodation, printing, PR - not much change out of £10,000. With a following wind, a couple of good reviews and 50% seat occupancy, you might eventually only lose £7,000. The point, of course, is that this is an investment. If you get spotted by the BBC or a promoter who wants to take your show on tour or an awards panel, you could be on your way, but for the 2000+ shows that fly under the radar, it's a case of trudging home with all your savings blown.

The money wasn't the only reason I decided not to go, though it was certainly a compelling one. The show just wasn't going to be ready. And I'm old. I know that shouldn't be a factor, but comedy is a young man's game and mature performers are often given short shrift by reviewers however funny they might be. We're just not hip. And, worse, I'm an impressionist, the most heinous, unworthy, unoriginal genus of performer in the comedy-sphere, at least in the eyes of the comedy purists. Or wankers, as I prefer to call them. I'd only get a bashing if I didn't pitch the show just right, and you can't do that if it's April and you haven't even written it.

So...Camden Fringe, here I come! Edinburgh? Maybe next year.

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