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Dodging death, downpours and Oxbridge dilettantes: Paul Merton's Edinburgh Fringe

Accessibility debates around the Fringe have got ever louder in the last few years, but Paul Merton says it's always been tough for working class performers

Comedian Paul Merton ahead of his improv show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Paul Merton. Image: Dean Chalkley

There’s a rumour that goes round every year at the Edinburgh Fringe. Somebody’s cousin’s mate’s friend’s brother has been out leafleting during the month-long festival of comedy, theatre, music, dance and every other conceivable corner of the arts. It’s been a wet day, as Edinburgh in August often is, and the poor sod didn’t have the proper footwear. Saturated and exhausted from a day standing on the Royal Mile, he comes back to his rented hovel to unpeel his socks and – shock, horror – realises he’s got trench foot!

That tale is almost certainly apocryphal, but the fact that feels true to hundreds of exhausted performers, producers, directors and reviewers each year tells you a lot about how gruelling many people find Edinburgh. It was ever thus, says Fringe veteran Paul Merton. “We had about 20 people in per night,” he says of his first “real” Edinburgh run in 1985. “I remember a lot of walking home in the rain.” In 1986, he recalls being attacked in the street by unhappy locals while putting up posters for a pal’s show.

In those days there were hardly any stand-up comedians doing the Fringe. “There were a lot of revue groups, and people who were just doing it for a laugh, but weren’t doing it as a profession,” says Merton. “You know, they would go on and become members of the cabinet, or chartered accountants or diplomats or whatever. So it felt completely alien to anybody that I’d ever known. It seemed very middle class.”

And then came 1987, a Fringe that for Merton was actually worse than the trench foot urban legend. “That was the year I had my broken leg,” he says. “I went into hospital and I got a pulmonary embolism. It was very serious.”

A pulmonary embolism is when a blood clot blocks a vessel in your lungs. It can be life-threatening if not treated quickly. “If you get a blood clot, it ends up in three places: lung, heart or brain,” says Merton. “Heart and brain, that’s it. Lung, you’ve got a chance. So I survived. Otherwise, this’d be a very one-sided conversation.”

Merton had done one show when he broke his leg. Ironically, it got “a rave review”. One of the Perrier Award judges said Merton would have been on the shortlist… if he hadn’t spent the rest of August in a hospital bed. “Everybody I knew, all the other comics, were living within three miles of the hospital. So I was having visitors every day because during the day they’d not much else to do. So that made it a bit more worthwhile,” he remembers.

“I was still in hospital after the festival was over. Julian Clary got two friends to help me down to the railway station. My right leg was in plaster, but my left leg had atrophied, which happens if you don’t move around much. I managed to get into a wheelchair and they pushed me into a car.”

After some dicey moments Clary’s mates managed to get him onto a sleeper train to King’s Cross. Thirty six years later, Paul Merton is a regular at the Fringe. Along with his Impro Chums, he’s done almost every year since 2004. It’s a different kettle of fish when you’re a household name, with more than three decades of Have I Got News for You (not to mention Room 101, Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Just a Minute) behind you.

“All sorts of pressures and difficulties of the first few years are gone,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about handing out posters or leaflets or being mugged in the street. I can afford to get a taxi. I’m staying in a nice place, not – as I always was in those days – at the top of seven flights of stairs. I can eat in nice restaurants. I don’t remember Edinburgh having nice restaurants in the ’80s. Perhaps it did, but I don’t remember them because I was never anywhere near them. It was always fried pizza at half 11 at night, you know?”

Nowadays, he also gets to spend the 11-night run on stage with his wife – actor, comedian and Impro Chum Suki Webster. Knowing your fellow players well is helpful when you’re improvising every night. 

Paul Merton's Impro chums (left to right): Richard Vranch, Suki Webster, Paul Merton, Mike McShane, Kirsty Newton.
Paul Merton’s Impro chums (l-r): Richard Vranch, Suki Webster, Paul Merton, Mike McShane, Kirsty Newton. Image: Steve Ullathorne

“The important thing about any improvisation group is that everybody must get on,” he explains. “I’ve seen improvisation groups where two people aren’t getting on and every scene they do together is an argument, insults flying. Because that’s how they really feel. It’s important in an improvisation room for everybody to be on the same wavelength. It makes life so much easier than if we were two strangers who have just been cast in this show. So it’s a joy, you know. There is no downside.”

Merton knows his luxury Fringe experience is unusual. In the last few years, more and more people have asked whether the Fringe model is broken. The critique around accessibility and expense only got louder after the pandemic. Accommodation prices have rocketed. Venue costs are in the thousands. And then there’s the hundreds needed to get in the programme, to print flyers, to feed yourself on late-night chippies for the whole festival.

Making your money back is precarious. It’s hard to fill a room during a cost of living crisis, when potential audience members look at their food and energy bills and question whether they can afford to take a punt on a Fringe show. 

Merton’s fellow Fringe veteran, Big Issue columnist Robin Ince recently wrote in these pages that he knows “people who have not been able to find a single room in a flat for less than £3,000 for the four weeks”. He added, “What worries me is that more people can’t afford the ticket. This is not only about acts, but about the audience too. Edinburgh Fringe should not be exclusive, it should be affordable to all.”

But when Merton looks back to the mid-’80s – another time of economic volatility, when interest rates were high and unemployment was running up to 13% – he says the Fringe seemed an insurmountable goal then too. 

“I know that people in the last couple of years have talked about how expensive it’s become,” says Merton. “But for me, it always was incredibly expensive. If you haven’t got any money, £200 is a fortune. In ’81, myself and a friend wanted to put a show on in Edinburgh. I didn’t know anybody in show business, but we sent off for some forms. It’ll cost you hundreds of pounds to register, hundreds of pounds to get a venue. In the end, it was thousands of pounds just to do a run in Edinburgh, with no guarantee. That is even before you talk about publicity and posters. It just seemed impossible.”

Instead of going to Edinburgh, Merton and his friend (and writing partner on the sublime early-’90s Channel 4 sketch show Paul Merton: The Series) John Irwin paid the princely sum of £5 to be part of the Swansea Fringe. Merton made his professional debut with two weeks in a Welsh church hall. 

Of course, the dream that keeps many a comic trudging through wet streets with hope in their hearts is that the festival will be the moment they get their break. In the ’60s there was Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Alan Bennett. In the ’70s, Alan Rickman. The ’80s had Rowan Atkinson. Steve Coogan and The Mighty Boosh’s breakthroughs bookended the ’90s, Russell Brand in the 2000s and, more recently, Phoebe Waller-Bridge took the place by storm with Fleabag.  

“There is still the lure for people isn’t there? That they could be discovered in Edinburgh. But actually, the truth of the matter is hardly anyone ever is,” says Merton, pointing out that rare individuals who do get noticed frequently happen to be the same middle-class Oxbridge types that dominated the
festival in his youth. 

Aside from that one good review, Merton doesn’t credit Edinburgh with doing much for his career. It was London’s Comedy Store that first opened the door for Merton, getting him onto Clive Anderson’s Whose Line Is It Anyway? where his deadpan improvisation kickstarted a stellar comedy career.

Still, that’s not to say that the grind of getting through the Fringe in one piece (just about) didn’t have value. “I was very much of the mind that I wanted to serve a five-year apprenticeship… It’s a very working-class thing really, I suppose, to think about learning a trade or craft,” he says. “But you’ve got to spend a lot of money to get that… so maybe there’s a cheaper way.”

Laura Kelly is The Big Issue’s Culture Editor. @laurakaykelly

Paul Merton’s Impro Chums is at Pleasance Courtyard – The Grand, 3.30pm, 10-20 August edfringe.com

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

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