The Edinburgh Fringe, or The Great Big Comedy Takeover

In 1946 there was nothing. Then, in 1947, eight theatre groups arrived uninvited to Edinburgh. Ben Venables spent this summer cooped up in the archives, and found out what happened next

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Fringe programme cover 1987
Published 22 Jul 2017

Edinburgh's late summer clean-up operation scrubs away the Fringe like a master criminal clears evidence from a crime scene. From discarded flyers to spiegeltents, little trace is left. It seems that what happens in August, stays in August.

It was with such seize-the-day spontaneity that the first eight theatre groups arrived in 1947. No-one had asked them to come. Unlike the new International Festival, there wasn't any coordination or plan. These were groups subsidised only by enthusiasm, a desire to create and have something to say. They made an open access festival outside a closed door. It is this ethos that the often used term "spirit of the Fringe" attempts to capture. 

What started as a celebration of theatre became dominated by comedy. It's a twist in the Fringe's 70-year history that some see as corrosive, even "degrading". Richard Demarco is co-founder of Traverse Theatre and has never missed a Fringe. "It is about everything being turned into a competition," he says. "If you want to do something really distasteful, turn the world of art into the world of entertainment." However, the idea of an artistic Fringe that has become sullied by commercial interests is not a new one.

Donald Pleasence is best known for playing the Bond villain Ernst Blofeld. In 1952, he adapted Robert Louis Stevenson's The Ebb Tide. Unfortunately, one critic declared it a "slow moving melodrama". (Though, naturally, it went down well enough with the rest of the St Mary's Hall audience). Pleasence and the New Drama Group had something less ponderous to perform – a series of late night sketches. Titled After the Show, it was the first sign of comedy, created for its own sake, at the Fringe.

Every time the history of the Fringe seems to branch in a new direction, it is often replicating an original pattern. There are features here that echo through the following decades. Comedy starts as a mere add-on to theatre, which may help explain the persistent and pig-headed idea that it is more froth than art. In 1953, a revue titled See You Later made a critic from The Scotsman blush due to its "scantily clad young ladies". It seems comedy is an activity best left to the night.

Thirty-four years later Karen Koren founded the Gilded Balloon. She turned the Fringe on its head by prioritising comedy over theatre. Part of her success was managing to secure a late drinking licence (and the social scene along with it). The Balloon also introduced a raucous cabaret titled Late‘N’Live. But, Koren knew, even with a 3:00am bar, the night was only so long. To establish comedy she’d have to guide comedians into burning the candle at both ends. “The fight I had getting comedy on before 7:00pm, because none of them wanted to do it. They believed comedy was a late thing. Now comics perform in the afternoon and do very well. But back then they thought it was a death warrant to do anything earlier than 8:00pm.”

Rewind to the early 1950s – revues became the principal vehicle for comedy. By 1960, such was its popularity, the International Festival decided to strike back. Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller's Beyond the Fringe was an enormous success. Yet the title cemented comedy and the word 'Fringe' in the public mind, more than it did anything for the official Festival. Oxford and Cambridge revues flourished and respective members, such as John Cleese, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, went on to form Monty Python.

The Pythons’ Edinburgh path was an inspiration to a young Eddie Izzard. Studying accountancy at Sheffield University in 1981, he recalls in his memoir: “The first thing I had to do was get to Edinburgh. So I called the Festival Fringe office and got information about their opening hours and location. I thought, I have to go and sit in that office and beg them to advise me what to do.” And that is exactly what he did.

The unannounced and uninvited nature of Izzard's visit to the Royal Mile office is not unlike the original theatre groups rocking up in 1947. And around the same time as Izzard’s visit, standups from London’s Alternative Cabaret crowd started trickling up to Edinburgh. ‘Alt Cab’ is really the starting point of modern UK standup, with comedians moving away from sketches and gags to establish their own voice and point of view.

The first Fringe ‘super venue’, the Assembly Rooms, put venue sharing onto a more commercial footing and created a comfortable and convenient place for people to stick around. It is another pivot point in Fringe history that depends on your perspective – it's either a modern and professional response to the Fringe’s growth, or defiles its very spirit.

An Assembly success in that first year was titled Alternative Cabaret, featuring some of the main players from that scene, but the ‘super-venue’ was primarily for theatre. It just happened that standup comedy was cheap to stage and attracted an audience. This was true of comedy generally. The Cambridge Footlights broke from their theatre group some years earlier, fed up with their popularity subsidising serious drama.

Ivor Dembina is co-founder of the Comedy Boom, the first venue in Edinburgh specific to standup, which started in 1985. “What you have to understand is, in those days it was very easy to do. You just walked into a bar and said, 'Can I run a comedy club here?' We were just getting up on stage, telling a few jokes. People were coming in droves, and paying good money to see us, and television people were turning up. It wouldn't have been that different from in the early 1960s, the way you could pick up a guitar, play three chords, and go off to America.”

The Comedy Awards were also not set up with the idea of a competition in mind. In many ways it simply responded to an established trend in theatre. The Fringe Firsts had started in 1973, and did not count revues as eligible. The future success of the inaugural Comedy Award victors, the Cambridge Footlights—including Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tony Slattery and Emma Thompson—has wrongly led to an idea the awards lead to commercial success. It seems unlikely this cast wouldn’t have got somewhere without it, just like previous Footlights who went on to help create Monty Python.

In 2016, the Awards’ Panel Prize—given for the ‘spirit of the Fringe’—went to Iraq Out and Loud, the continuous reading of all 20 volumes of the Chilcot Report. It is hard to imagine that the aim of this undertaking—run by volunteers, taking place in a shed—was to win prizes or to lure TV producers. One of its architects was promoter Bob Slayer. “I really hate some competitions put in place by the industry. But I don't include the Comedy Awards because they gave me £5,000 last year. (well, we shared it out). If you look at the people who win—like Funz and Gamez, Adrienne Truscott, John Kearns, Richard Gadd, Sofie Hagen—I don’t think there’s an agenda.”

There was a spell in the 1990s where comedians in big venues, backed by big management, seemed to catch all the breaks. But, it is easy to forget that now famous names, such as Frank Skinner, Steve Coogan and Jenny Eclair, all had long apprenticeships before they received any recognition at all. The recent comedians that Bob Slayer identifies all combine their comedy instincts with shows that push the form in myriad ways. These artists have all found the Fringe a place where they can turn up and express themselves, much in keeping with its original spirit.

Award winners of Fringes past – with their original programme blurbs

1981

Cambridge Footlights: The Cellar Tapes

St Mary Street Hall

The annual revue: one of the strongest casts for several years, has already toured in southern England with great success.

1987 

Arnold Brown, Barb Jungr and Michael Parker: Brown Blues

Gilded Balloon

Two ‘86 sellouts for the price of one – and why not?

[Brown was the first standup and the first Scot to win prize, and the last Scot until Richard Gadd in 2016]

1992

Steve Coogan in Character with John Thomson

Gilded Balloon

Spitting Image's top voice brings a coachload of his new characters to his stonking new show.

2000

Rich Hall is Otis Lee Crenshaw

Pleasance Courtyard

Voice like six miles of gravel road, songs like a hangover. Otis returns. New show.

2002

Daniel Kitson: Something

Pleasance Courtyard

Everyone said he was good last year. You should come if you like self-indulgent whimsy on the verge of critical backlash.

2005

Kopfrapers Syndrome: One Man and his Incredible Mind

Holyrood Tavern

Imagine not knowing if what you knew was knowledge. Now imagine that's not true and you can't remember why. Living with Kopfrapers is like that, but worse. Stigmas are born through ignorance.

[This is Laura Solon. The description doesn’t mention her name and the show was changed completely after her comedy partner dropped out]

2013

Bridget Christie: A Bic for Her

The Stand Comedy Club

Eroticises rainwear, ridicules pens. 

With thanks to: Ivor Dembina, Hampstead Comedy Club; Alan Gordon, Edinburgh Festival Fringe; Karen Koren, Gilded Balloon; Bob Slayer, Heroes. Sources: The London Stage 1850-1959, Michael Dale: Sore Throats and Overdrafts, Eddie Izzard: Believe Me, A Memoir of Life, Death and Jazz Chickens, Alastair Moffat: The Edinburgh Fringe; The Scotsman Presents: Festival City; John Connor, Comics; Edinburgh Fringe programmes 1981-2016. The quote from Richard Demarco is from a widely-reported 2014 lecture, given at the Fringe.