After reading Stewart Lee’s now yearly mawkish piece for the Guardian about the commercialisation of the Fringe, and how it was much better when all of Edinburgh was fields and shows like Professor Nutty’s Racist Flea Circus played to three people in a giant abandoned shoe at the bottom of Arthur’s Seat, I felt an urge to respond.
As one of our greatest living stand-ups, he makes some good points, but in my opinion he completely skates over the true danger to the Fringe – and that is his current employer, the BBC.
Lee’s main gripes were aimed at the so-called big four venues and the Etonian cabal who run them. I dislike the big four as much as the next man, but they’ve been at the fringe for over 25 years (or 12 in the case of the Underbelly). They are here to stay, get over it.
He stated that the cost of performing at some of the venues was upwards of £10,000 (the figure is closer to £6,000 max) and venue hire makes up very little of that, one of the biggest costs is actually accommodation, Scottish landlords charging you a month’s London rent a week to live in a city with worse weather than the moon.
Most of the big four venues do a pretty fair deal apart from forcing you to advertise in their brochure. If you are arrogant and deluded enough to think, after working the open mic circuit for upwards of a year with one appearance on Russell Howard’s Good News to show for it, that £2,000 is a worthwhile investment in a PR then you deserve the debt you find yourself in.
Showbusiness is not a charity vanity project. You don’t book the London Palladium and ask them to cover your losses if the show you are putting on is rubbish and no one comes, so why should the big four pay for people to fail? That is not reality, unless you are playing The Stand, which underwrites all its shows.
Edinburgh offers you a platform to both develop and become a better performer and in the process build an audience. It is the ultimate meritocracy: the better performer you are and the better your show is the more people come and see it and the more money you make. You can be in the back room of a pub on the Free Fringe or the Pleasance, managed by Avalon or some bloke who operates out of a public toilet in Peckham. If your show is shit no one is going to come and see it. So either stay at home or give me £6,000 and I’ll make you a star (I say this to a lot of the young female performers).
What Stewart failed to mention was last year the BBC relaunched and rebranded their Edinburgh presence by moving their operations out of the Pleasance and setting up a full-time comedy venue at the Fringe to house the live recordings of some of it’s flagship comedy shows, master classes with producers and Q&A’s with TV stars about their forthcoming shows all totally free to the general public.
On top of that for £12 a ticket you can see their long running mixed bill event BBC Comedy Presents. At the risk of never getting my own TV show on the BBC, something that seems highly likely as after ten years of trying I have yet to ever be called into a meeting let alone have a meaningful reply to any of my proposals (Can someone forward this sentence the head of comedy at the BBC? ) I have to say that he BBC venue is wrong and is a real danger to the fringe.
The reason being audience, the crucial thing to the success of the fringe and the reason why it even began in the first place. With more than 100 shows scheduled by the BBC venue, several pages of listings and advertising taken out in the Fringe brochure this is taking thousands of audience members away from other shows on the Fringe. Performing to no people is not a show that’s mental illness.
The BBC’s argument is that they film and record their shows for broadcast on TV and radio, which advertises the fringe. The BBC instead of documenting and packaging the beautiful self-regulating ecosystem that is the Fringe and selling that to its audience are putting Q&A’s with bloated TV stars and soulless mixed bill nights (some of which are filmed for broadcast) in a marquee that would be better used hosting a wedding reception, thus taking away audience from real fringe shows.
And who’s paying for the privilege? We are: the acts, producers and promoters who produce the majority of the Fringe’s output. If Rupert Murdoch set up a Sky venue and gave all the tickets away for free there would be a call for it to be shut down and a Levenson style inquiry. But because it’s Auntie it feels like the free comedy they put on is a reward for our licence fee, when in fact long term, in its current guise, it is a bad thing for the Fringe, slowly eroding performers audiences.
The BBC should be covering the festival as a broadcaster the same way it covers Glastonbury or the Olympics. I would argue that what this venue returns to Fringe is minimal but what it does for the BBC is maximal. There is no imagination in their programming where the Fringe by its very nature has the most imaginative programme possible. This should be reflected in the BBC venue and broadcast output – and it isn’t.
Essentially the BBC in Edinburgh becomes a rival promoter putting on free shows with TV names and, worst of all, charging to get in for their mixed bill shows taking £12 per person out of the fringe economy (the equivalent of two tickets for two unknown shows.)
With many acts producing their own shows, appearing on the Free Fringe or being backed by a small promoter they are never going to be able to compete with this.
So Stewart Lee is right that the Fringe has change, but whether has it changed for the better or for worse is debatable, I think the spirit of the Fringe is stronger then any corporate entity and it lives on, but you have to look a little harder for it.
Artists being abused is a dance as old as time and if you don’t believe me, look no further than Edinburgh’s biggest pop export: the Bay City Rollers. That’s not to say I agree with it. I think the BBC should have a presence in Edinburgh but in its current form it takes more from the Fringe then it gives back to it.
Right that’s Edinburgh sorted, now can I have my own TV show and a prime slot at BBC Comedy Presents?