Opinion

Edinburgh Fringe should be affordable for all – acts and audience alike

The Edinburgh Fringe once gave aspiring comedians a valuable crash course in their craft, now it's financially out of reach for many

A packed Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Scotland, UK

The Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival. Image: Brian Anderson/Shutterstock

Whatever else the Edinburgh Festival Fringe may do to me, it allows me to spend an entire month in one city. There is no need for a bus or train. I will walk everywhere, inhaling the fruity fumes of the brewery and peering down alleyways where Ian Rankin has created murders by imaginary freemasons.

I first came to the Fringe as a teen in 1987 and I have regularly returned. Once, the fear of the Fringe was so great that I could only eat thin soup and Coco Pops for the whole month. Time moves strangely there; the first five days can often last a decade. On the first night, performers carry excitement that has more luminescence than all the fireworks that explode over the castle on a nightly basis. By day six, some are beginning to bruise and despair. They have dreamed of instantaneous success, deafening plaudits and TV executives offering them bullion for their brilliance. But now, they have faced single-figure audiences and a suffocating indifference.

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I knew that I was old when Stewart Lee and I started watching out for the younger comics who were unprepared for their dreams to be elusive. We would make sure they ate hearty broth and we would talk of our worst disasters and the light at the end. After years of terror, I started to enjoy the Fringe because I stopped seeing it as either a competition or a showroom. The Fringe is unlikely to bring any radical changes for me. I am too frayed for primetime, so I can just look forward to doing my shows to the best of my abilities and hopefully excite people with the ideas that I want to share. I used to do a very verbally violent show with Michael Legge called Pointless Anger, Righteous Ire. On some days I would find myself topless (oh, I had a body like a god, but one of those ones that celebrates excessive wine and honey) and climbing over the audience screaming at people, “are you from telly?!”

When they would say “no”, I would scream, again: “Well what is the point in doing this show if no one here is from telly. We haven’t come up to Edinburgh and wasted all this money for people like you! We want to be on telly!” During some shows, you will sit there watching and know that this thought is going through the act’s head, though a little more quietly. 

It is a difficult situation. Performing at the Fringe is becoming more and more costly. I know people who have not been able to find a single room in a flat for less than £3,000 for the four weeks. Add all the other expenses and you are potentially looking at losing a lot of money. The terror of debt may push you to try and create something that you think will lead to big bucks contracts, but in this desperation you may lose the real thing that will satisfy you AND the audience. It was my years of performing on the free Fringe, where your ticket price is whatever is put in the bucket at the end, that freed me. Edinburgh has always been a major part of the journey to whatever I have created. 

What worries me is that the journey I have been able to take has become so expensive that more and 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.

I am hugely looking forward to this August in Edinburgh, but I will also be watching it carefully. After all, we live on an island where a prime minister berates Mickey Mouse degrees and declares that qualifications that don’t teach the skills to build a bridge or mend a plough will be severely curbed, then a day later has a big reception at his London home to celebrate the National Theatre and the importance of arts in this country. You’d think the cold, hard, purposeful degree he obtained would not allow such confused thinking… wouldn’t you? 

Robin Ince is a comedian, writer and broadcaster. His Edinburgh Fringe show, Weapons of Empathy is showing 2-27 August at 1pm, Gilded Balloon at the Museum. A Big Issue vendor will be selling copies of the magazine outside the venue for each performance.

Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince

His book Bibliomaniac (Atlantic Books, £16.99) is out now. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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