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.
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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.