Reminiscences of my first Edinburgh Fringe

 

Reminiscences of my first Edinburgh Fringe  (extracted, and slightly amended, from my memoir ‘My Name is Daphne Fairfax’  

 In late summer it is the only thing to do. For two of the past 30 years I have missed it and both times I felt like all my friends were having a terrific get-together while I had stupidly chosen to stay home and sulk. The Edinburgh Festival is one of the world’s great parties, an orgy of self-expression that encourages experimentation and welcomes the amateur performer as well as the professional. It has provided a ravishing playground for my own imagination and the things I have done in my career of which I am most proud all started, in one way or another, in this stern, dramatic, unique city in the month of August where the streets are alive with young wannabes chanting the performers mantra:

I’ll get drunk

I’ll get laid

I’ll get spotted

I’ll get paid

 

My adulthood has been measured out in Edinburgh Fringes and if the event did not exist I would have had a different life. Whenever, for some reason (like writing an autobiography), I wish to identify what year something happened, my first reference point is the roster of stuff that lodges in my head recording, in roughly chronological order, every show I  have done in Edinburgh. Not every show you understand. Not all the one-off cabaret gigs, the guided walking tours, or the cameo appearances in odd plays, the benefits, the ‘best-of-the-fest’s, the processions, the sideshows, the radio spots, the pod casts, the press stunts, the state-of-comedy seminars, the TV programmes, the hospital charity gigs; not all of them – no, I mean the ones that inspired me to go up to the festival in the first place, the shows which I (or some sort of we) had prepared, budgeted for and advertised.

 

All those summers lay before me when we arrived in1977, buoyant and optimistic with our revamped version of the show we had performed at college, SwingalongaDante, subtitled, ‘…dahlings, it’s the Divine Comedy.’  We drove up from Norwich in a grubby yellow van stuffed with costumes, props, posters, programmes and hope. If we sold 25 tickets a night we would break even; if the audience numbered 50 or more we would make a small profit. That must be possible – after all, we had some great quotes from the Eastern Daily Press and the Primary School which served as our venue was famous for a wee pupil called Sean Connery. I spent 3 days failing to do as little as possible in the frenetic preparations for our opening, which first required us to convert the school hall into a theatre. The other members of the team were aware by now that I had a total lack of practical skills but I joined in grumpily sticking up posters, hustling, begging, giving out fliers, borrowing coat-hangers – all the palava of ‘let’s do a show right here in the barn.’

 

On the Sunday morning before our Monday night première, exhausted and, in my case, hungover, we took part in the traditional opening parade in which Adam had secured us a place. Clutching bags stuffed with costumes, we walked to the gathering point along a line of waiting lorries, until we located the spot reserved for us where it was revealed that, unlike all the other local businesses and fringe groups on the parade, we did not have a lorry and would be obliged to proceed on foot between floats at street level – the poor bloody infantry among the divisions of rolling tanks.

 

The float in front was occupied by members of the Cambridge Footlights Revue, who easily found room on their commodious lorry for our bags and shouted down encouragement. The Footlights had history, experience and a big oily machine behind them; they had already been on tour with their show, had a large venue, a guaranteed audience and an air of self-confidence that we, mooching around the gutter in our cheap wigs, could not match. Meeting them here, I felt a little of my dad’s humility in the presence of members of the establishment – the officer class. These young men with their pedigree and superior A-levels were probably much funnier and much cleverer than us.

 

Miind you they had no Babs and Max who gathered the handouts and bravely strapped themselves into their uniform of fishnet tights and high heels, while we boys pinned up our baggy leopard-skin underpants. These ‘nappies,’ worn with white shirts and unconvincing false moustaches, constituted the costume of the ‘Canaletteloni* Brothers, a frenetic bunch of acrobats – all called Luigi Cannalleteloni –  whose enthusiasm, since none of us were acrobats, outstripped any genuine tumbling skills. To a furious piano accompaniment, we would run on, manically shouting in mock Italian, and commence banging each other’s heads with tin trays, leaping through hoops and performing extravagant forward-rolls. Adam would drag up a member of the audience to stand on his shoulders, while in one trick I launched myself dangerously over Adam and Phil to crash to the stage behind them. Wagons roll. We canellettoloni-ed along Princes Street to cheering crowds, convinced we would draw enough attention to sell dozens of tickets.

 

For our début public performance I treated myself to some clean socks.  My brother and his girlfriend, with whom I was staying in Edinburgh, arrived twenty minutes early with a friend, bought a programme, and took their places, while Rick, ‘Banana Fingers,’ tinkled on the piano. Then my mate Lindsay showed up. We waited nervously in the school toilets that were now our dressing room. After half-an-hour it was apparent that no-one else was coming. Our audience numbered 4 people, all of whom we knew.

 

Fucking hell, what a bummer. We felt utterly dejected. What had been the point of the posters, the fliers, the parade? We had been wasting our time and I, at that point, would happily have packed my bags and gone to London – Babs, I think, may have felt the same. But Adam and the others were not going to give up so easily. I was out-voted. We would continue the run, and what’s more, we would not cancel this show. Twenty minutes later, during our opening salvo of audience participation, anyone entering the  School hall would have seen the cast and the entire audience standing on stage swinging-along-a-Dante to a hundred empty seats.

 

* NB The number of n’s, l’s and t’ s in ‘Canneletteloni’ has never been agreed.

 

In the next few years our troupe became known, above all, for our enthusiasm and energy, both onstage and off. Galvanised again by Adam, the following day, and every subsequent day of the festival, we returned to the streets of Edinburgh, singing and dancing outside the Fringe box office, cajoling passers-by, button-holing journalists, and doing anything we could think of, however desperate or humiliating, that might increase our ticket sales. By the Thursday the audience at last outnumbered the cast and, on Friday, we hit double figures for the first time. Things were improving but I remained disconsolate – I estimated we were each putting in about six hours work for every 50p ticket sold – but at least performing the show was becoming less embarrassing and the few people who came seemed to be enjoying themselves. Whenever we could we did a spot at the Fringe Club on the Royal Mile, where performers gathered after their shows to compare notes, watch the cabaret, dance, get drunk and sleep with each other. Nowadays there are too many shows at the festival for there to be one central performers’ bar, which is a shame because it was a fantastic place to end your evening, equalled in bibulous exuberance only by the bar at the Gilded Balloon a decade later.

 

We took time off only to attend other comedies which, I noted, were all significantly shorter than our own two hours of fun. The Footlights boys were good, but no funnier than us, while the Lancaster University Revue, presenting Hayley’s Vomit were definitely worse. Chris Langham’s show was the most hilarious and featured the funniest thing I saw that year – Jim Broadbent doing his ‘jazz dancing.’ Langham cut a dashing figure with his famous girlfriend and his reputation as a TV writer. I heard with amazement how someone would ring him up and offer him £20 quid to write a joke! ‘That must be good,’ I thought.

 

Our audience numbers continued to grow, as did the number of pints I consumed at the Fringe Club after the show. During one performance in the school hall I was afforded a foreglimpse of the type of confrontation that awaited me on countless nights to come when a drunk persistently interrupted my Max Miller routine. I did not then have the resources to deal with hecklers but at this, my first public barracking, it did not matter because one of our new friends in the Footlights, who was sitting in front of the drunk, turned, and inviting him to ‘Shut up, you Scottish cunt!’ punched him in the face A small scuffle petered out as the lights came on and the rueful heckler left, along with 12 others, thus halving our audience. In the last week we received a good review in the Scotsman – no doubt it would have had 5 stars if reviews had been graded then. Or perhaps 4 stars since there was one caveat among the heavenly inches of praise. My cricket strip, a succès d’estime in Norwich, was declared, ‘unfunny in the extreme.’

 

On the final night of our run, hoorah, we sold out to a raucous crowd who laughed and clapped. Afterwards, in spirits as high as Arthur’s Seat, I capped the evening by finally copping off with a woman who, I was to discover, became a nun soon after.  Edinburgh had supplied a mixture of emotions, the extreme contours of the experience fitting perfectly the geography of the city itself, but when it was all over the only thing I wanted to do was to repair to my new pad in London and lie down. I had gone to the festival thinking of it as a fun holiday which might pay for itself, a kind of full stop to my university career; I had not bargained for the sheer hard work it entailed. There were a lot of funny, ambitious people around in Edinburgh, funnier and more ambitious than I. We had worked our tits off, but nothing had  come of it and I was more in debt than ever. I didn’t expect to return to Edinburgh. However, when I recounted our adventures to my mate Dave in a London pub and he asked, ‘Will you ever go on stage again?’ I could not `bring myself to say ‘no.’ And I guess the only time I ever will say no to that question will be during the endgame of my death.

 

Unless, of course, I play out the secret fantasynightmare of every comic, and die on stage.

 

Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen (Vol. 2)

Edinburgh 2014

15th Aug  – 24th Aug

Forth – Pleasance Courtyard

2pm – Tickets & Info

 

 

 

 

Ed Fringe 2014

Stage – Ed 2014

The street cleaners have cancelled their holidays, bekilted beardymen are defragging their bagpipes (I don’t know – how do you clean a bagpipe?), retired dames in Morningside are sharpening their pencils and the Lothian police are taking on new recruits – yes, the Edinburgh festival Fringe is back in town and it is time for my annual comedy recommendations.

 

To begin with – a comic who is consistently inventive. Go see Simon Munnery sings Soren Kierkegaard. Munnery is the uncrowned king of original comedy, although if we did crown him he would make an excellent show out of his abdication. Kierkegaard is better known as a philosopher than a songwriter or comic, but who can forget his lyrics?

 

To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.

 

Or, from his second album, (On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates):

 

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

 

Next it’s ‘Old toads corner’ – interesting new shows from ancient fringe recidivists, all of whom now owe me a cranberry juice.

 

Kevin Day – Standy Uppy. I have seen a preview of this and witnessed an hour of deluxe stand up that is true, funny and affecting.

 

Ronnie Golden – New Age Pensioner. I missed his preview but his poster is brilliant, showing Ronnie as both a lithe guitarist and at ease in a Chelsea pensioners red coat. One person who has seen the show is Ronnie himself who tells me : “Golden, humour’s musclebound Adonis, utilised every arrow in his comedic quiver to great effect and left his audience……..”

 

Charmian Hughes, meanwhile, advertises, “Drug-crazed moon worship and ,human banana sacrifice” in Raj Rage, where she describes her adventures on a trip round India.

 

The Barry Experience features the ineffable Barry Ferns who, in pursuit of laughs, once changed his name to Lionel Ritchie, a fact which still disconcerts the people at passport control

 

2 Brilliant new acts I have noted:

 

Half Baked, aka Nina Smith and Libby Northedge, won one of the Funny Women Awards in 2013 and are presenting a sketch show called Twisted Loaf on the free fringe. They are, I am reliably informed (by their handout), “a supremely fearless double act,”

 

He nearly won the BBC new comedy award last year and left me gasping with laughter but Mark Silcox is not what his name suggests. Seek him out on a bus.

 

And, finally, 2 musical comedy shows:

Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho, in which the iron lady lets her hair down and

 

Mighty Voice, featuring Jess Robinson – one of the UK’s top impressionists and singers – with the unbeatably fabulous Kirsty Newton on keyboards.

 

O yes, and Kirsty is in another show I have heard great things about – Arthur Smith sings Leonard Cohen (volume 2).

 

Hey, Arthur’s seat, put the kettle on man, I’m comin…….

 

ARTHUR SMITH SINGS LEONARD COHEN (VOLUME TOO) AT EDINBURGH FRINGE PLEASANCE

ARTHUR SMITH SINGS LEONARD COHEN (VOLUME TOO) AT EDINBURGH FRINGE
PLEASANCE

 

 

 

 

 

Strange Gigs

 

 

 

 

Picture from: http://bit.ly/NjTfat

Picture from:
http://bit.ly/NjTfat

With Boycott & Aggers

No doubt we all consider other lives we might have led. What if I had accepted that offer to train as a teacher when I was 24 and appeared to have few other prospects? Maybe I would now be a head teacher in, say, South Yorkshire with a wife who is a nurse and a regular part in the village panto?

Whatever other job I might have done I doubt it would be as varied and faintly ridiculous as the one that is being a comedian. As evidence of this let me list 5 of the gigs I did in the January that has recently floated off down the swollen river.

January 19.   Arthur Smith’s walking tour of Soho. I meet my audience in Soho gardens and take them off round the thronging streets where they pass a man in a tree, a couple snogging vigorously at every street corner they pass, a chorus line singing ‘Happy days’, a man dressed as a banana and, er, Paul Merton. I had planned the first 2 of these but the others have arisen by chance. Back in the gardens I signify the end of the walk by dancing dervishly in my new silver onesie.

Jan 22nd.       I have agreed to do a ten minute spot at the Comedy Cafe in London for an audience of French people. Thus I must deliver my set en francais. As it turns out  je me debrouille.

 Jan 23rd.      A late booking this, but one that intrigues. I journey to Birmingham Symphony Hall to join Sir Geoffrey Boycott and Jonathan ‘Aggers’ Agnew to talk about cricket and the disastrous Ashes tour that is just dwindling to a dismal halt. I try out a few shots in front of Sir Geoffrey who is suitably unimpressed…..

Jan 24th        MC-ing a comedy night in my local school (Ravenstone Primary School) for the parents, many of whom I have passed in Balham as they hurry to collect their kids. Tonight, however, they are all pissed and extremely aimiable. They make a great crowd and me and the other 2 comics (Ivo Graham and Jo Caulfield) all have a brilliant gig. It is nice to have a 2-minute walk home after too.

Jan 26th      Compering the NATYs – the New Act of the Year Awards in the Bloomsbury Theatre in London. This is the oldest and most respected of the New Act competitions and the list of its finalists contains many names of comics who have since become famous. There is a superbly wide selection of styles but most of the audience agree with the judges’ choice for the coveted title, ‘Top of the Bill’ (the word ‘winner’ seems to have banned), Alasdair Beckett-King, a suave stand up with some killer lines.

Jan 28th    Lunchtime finds me in the downstairs bar at the Prince of Wales theatre where I do a turn to kick off the Critic’s Circle Theatre Awards. There are some distinguished actors and all the number one critics who nod sagely when I say that being a theatre critic these days is like having Kim Jong-Un as your nephew.

 

So that was January. In February my itinerary is more predictable – I am doing Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen (Volume Two) at the Soho theatre from Feb 16th for 2 weeks and, although that Yorkshire panto would no doubt have been fun, I am pleased to be a stand up comic with all its ludicrous adventures. Not too long to the bluebells now….

 

I am a stand up

I am a stand up (from my autobiography My Name is Daphne Fairfax)

ARTHUR SMITH SINGS LEONARD COHEN (VOLUME TOO) AT EDINBURGH FRINGE PLEASANCE CABARET BAR : 3-18 AUGUST 2013

ARTHUR SMITH SINGS LEONARD COHEN (VOLUME TOO) AT SOHO THEATRE – JAN/FEB 2013

I am a stand-up comic. Even now, after a couple of thousand gigs, making this statement gives me a bristle of pride and a bump of self-importance. ‘That must be the hardest job in the world,’ people say routinely to stand-ups. It is not of course, but it is the most singular job in show business and, in some ways, the most glamorous. The stand-up comedian is a solitary warrior, ignoring the theatre’s fourth wall in a direct Brechtian assault on his (or her) audience, the one performer whose success or failure is determined instantly and audibly. He does not sit down in timid informality, he stands up, like you stand up against bullies or for your rights. He has come to banish cant, bullshit, hypocrisy and the straight face. He does not hide behind costumes, music, cameras, props or masks, he relies on no-one but himself, he is not edited or enhanced after the event, he strides onto the middle of the stage and addresses the crowd, like a politician with no party on his back, like a preacher without God, a gladiator come to slay a roomful of lions and Christians. He ‘kills’, he ‘rips the room apart,’ he ‘storms it’ and the world applauds at his feet. I am a stand-up comic. Who would not be proud to be able to stand up and say that?

 

But when he fails, when no laughs come, when he ‘dies’, ‘goes down the toilet,’ why then he is an arse and he must get the first train out of town. The stand-up is a con artist who will dance to any tune that gets him a gig and pander to any prejudice that keeps him in the spotlight. He distributes prejudice with a smile, disseminates the lie that laughter redeems or that it is, as Nietzsche said, ‘the one true metaphysical consolation,’ when really it is a way of hiding from the serious business of life – the tragedy of existence.

 

The first time I tried stand-up I died. I also went down the pan at gigs numbers five, twelve, thirty-seven and so on, until just two weeks ago when, in a large, bland businessmen’s hotel near Derby, my quips left a roomful of car salesmen indifferent to the point of belligerence. To add to my shame, the shape of the room meant that after my public humiliation, when every part of me screamed to get out quick, I had to skirt around the edge of my former audience to reach the exit. They turned in their seats to consider me. Every comic knows this walk of shame. You try to avoid eye contact with anyone. You know what they are thinking; they are thinking you are a useless, unfunny cunt. They are wondering how much you’ve been paid for pissing them off  and how the hell you ever persuaded someone to book you. Like the golden-duck batsman’s long walk back to the pavilion, or the defendant’s grim passage from the dock to the cells, the cry of `take him down` pounding in his ears, it is a head-down procession of despair.

In stand up comedy when you die you are a zero but when you kill you are, briefly, immortal.

Mostly, though, it’s somewhere in the middle.

 

Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen (Volume Too)  Soho Theatre, London – 16th Feb to 2nd March 2014

 

Adventures en route to Leonard (1)

 

ARTHUR SMITH SINGS LEONARD COHEN (VOLUME TOO) AT EDINBURGH FRINGE PLEASANCE CABARET BAR : 3-18 AUGUST 2013

ARTHUR SMITH SINGS LEONARD COHEN (VOLUME TOO)

 

In February 2014 Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen (Volume 2) is playing at the Soho theatre (see link below). This is episode 1 of my account of the show’s birth….

What is it about? What songs will I sing? How will I sing them? What will I say? How will I say it? What the fuck is it about?

It is January 2013 and for 5 days John and I have been locked away with these questions and each other in a Travelodge in Eastbourne…..

Before Christmas I had told my loyal producer Rupert that, yes, there would be a follow-up to the Leonard Cohen show I performed 14 years ago and it would be ready for the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

I co-wrote that first show with John Dowie (who also directed) and was accompanied onstage by guitarist/comedian/superstar Ronnie Golden. Having now resolved a return to Len’s oeuvre, I asked them both to help me; Ronnie declined but John, after some nagging, agreed and suggested we start with a long, intense, creative session somewhere with no distractions.

Which is why we are in the Travelodge. For nearly a week we have been here making notes and discussing what the thing might be. What is it about? What songs will I sing? How will I sing them? What will I say? How will I say it? What the fuck is it about?

We have tried very hard, as a dozen pages of thoughts and ideas testify, but in truth we are nowhere near finding a path through it all. It is the coldest Eastbourne has been for years. In a pause between debates I stand by the window in John’s room and watch the sea fighting with the snow on the beach.

There are no two people in the world who could endure this intimate incarceration without clashing and, by now, John and I are predictably sick of each other. We take a break and I decide to go for a walk along the frozen cliffs outside town.

Other questions are now presenting themselves: Is this show a good idea? Why do it at all? What else can I do instead? What’s happened to me? Have I lost it? I am beginning to feel (correctly as it turns out) that John is losing patience and will soon pull out of the project. The snow turns to rain; I stop and look out to sea. This is grim. Then I realize that I am on Beachy Head. I laugh into the bitterness….

From Last Year’s Man by Leonard Cohen…..

 

The rain falls down on last year’s man,

An hour has gone by

And he has not moved his hand.

But everything will happen if he only gives the word;

The lovers will rise up

And the mountains touch the ground.

But the skylight is like skin for a drum I’ll never mend

And all the rain falls down amen

On the works of last year’s man.

 

(to be continued)

 

Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen (Volume Too)  Soho Theatre, London – 16th Feb to 2nd March 2014 – http://bit.ly/1auy20X