In 1960 an aspiring Cambridge graduate called Peter Cook. who was beginning to establish a reputation as an inventive young comedy writer. was advised by his agent to turn down the offer ofperforming in ‘a little amateur review up in Edinburgh'.
The then organisers ofthe Edinburgh International Festival. Robert Ponsonby and John Bassett. wanted Cook to team up in a show with Oxford graduates Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett along with a young hospital doctor and part time revue performer (an acquaintance of Bassett‘s) Jonathan Miller.
Ponsonby and Bassett wanted the official Festival to have its own revue show in response to the increasingly popular performances by experimental theatre companies and revue groups like Cambridge University Footlights on the then tiny. unofficial. ‘Fringe‘.
Cook ignored his agent‘s advice and accepted the two-week job with its handsome remuneration off] 1() per week (ten pounds more than the other three). The show which the foursome put together was. of course. Beyond The Fringe. a sharp turning point in British comedy that signalled the satirical bent ofthe early Sixties.
Among its greatest subsequent influences has been to encourage countless hordes ofcomedy tyros to hit the late summer low road to Edinburgh in the hope that an acclaimed appearance on the Fringe will return them south on the high road to fame.
However. it was the casein the 1960s. and remains so to date that the really important kind of stir a show can create in Edinburgh is among agents and producers (The Business) rather than the public in and far beyond the city‘s centre for whom a handful of adoring reviews for new fringe performers signifies little or nothing.
Beyond The Fringe did not impinge on the average Briton‘s consciousness until an inexperienced producer. Willie Donaldson (later to make his epistolary mark as Henry Root). launched it at London’s Fortune'I‘heatre in 1961aftera bumpy provincial tour — one unimpressed Brighton critic dismissed the show as ‘frightfulf
In recent years the official. International. Festival‘s attempts to encompass comedy alongside its staple features of opera. dance and intimidating international drama have not been so smartly judged. as when a play was commissioned from Billy Connolly. This year they are playing safe with a show by Lenny Henry at the Playhouse Theatre.
Meanwhile. the distended Fringe. and particularly the big multi-faceted theatre and entertainment package at the Assembly Rooms. has become arguably a bigger attraction than the Festival proper and institutionalised in its own right to the point where shows on the edge of the not so
Edinburgh is awash with producers on the even of the Television Festival, and there are more than a few Fringe comedians out to be noticed. reports David Housham.
alternative entertainment sprawl have been piqued into declaring themselves the Off-Fringe fringe.
Who Dares Wins
Rowan Atkinson and Emma Thompson are two notable examples ofcomedy performers who made a crucial impact on The Business solo acts with shows in Edinburgh: Atkinson fresh out of.Oxford. and Thompson after she had done some TV work without her true potential being widely recognised.
Mel Smith and Griff Rhys .lones met for the first time at Edinburgh. While he was starring in No! the Nine O'clock News. Rhys Jones later returned to the Fringe with a show that featured the core performers of what was to become Channel Four's Who Dares Wins. Edinburgh now functions as a kind ofshowbusiness convention where it is less likely that genuinely unknown talent will be championed than up and coming performers can achieve a pivotal boost to their careers.
A unique consensus ofprofessional opinion can be rapidly formed among the agents. managers. TV producers and executives who gather in bars at the Assembly Rooms or the George Hotel that certain performers should be seen in a new light as ‘an Edinburgh Hit'. The clamouring by performers for showcase venues within the ‘convention’ has undoubtedly pushed out the more oddball and experimental shows in the spirit of the original Fringe.
From the performers‘ point of view. whether they have been slogging round London’s cabaret circuit. hoping for a break into television or have done some TV without much gigging experience. Edinburgh offers the additional benefit ofsizeable (for anyone who has appeared on a right-on TV comedy show). enthusiastic and sympathetic audiences.
Last year for example. Harry Enfield’s sell-out shows at the Assembly Rooms boosted his reputation as a comedian worthy of the number two slot into which he was promoted on Channel Four‘s Friday Night Live that helped him
the fact that the collective professional opinions that members of the business reach late at night over their continental lagers tends to be of far greater significance than the more public approbation bestowed by a Perrier award for example.
There is a new incentive for performers to seek a platform at Edinburgh beyond catching the eye ofa TV producer. and that is the emergence of a world wide circuit of international comedy festivals witness the wholesale arrival of the trendy Australian comedy mafia in Oznost at the Assembly rooms.
Talent spotters from the comedy festivals in Montreal and Melbourne. and from general arts festivals like those in Sydney. Adelaide and Dublin. trek round each other‘s events looking for suitable acts. Thus comedians whose acts might not naturally translate successfully to television or who may not even be especially famous in their own countries. may find themselves whisked on a very agreeable jet set tour ofthe English speaking capitals because they happen to be good ‘international festival performers'.
For the would be comedy stars of the future the challenge of Edinburgh is not simply to do well but to be seen to have done well. with sights set firmly beyond the Fringe.
develop the Loadsamoney character with which he took over that programme this year. Conversely. Helen Lederer‘s disappointing performance at Edinburgh last summer proved something of an unfortunate set back to her TV career because of the poor word-of-mouth it generated.
There is a clear irony in the fact that journalists. reviewers and ‘decision makers’ in The Business have to go to Edinburgh to become aware ofthe talents of performers they could ordinarily see week after week in the many cabaret venues in London.
More London cabaret regulars than ever before. like Jeremy Hardy. Kevin Day. Jo Brand. Mark Thomas _ and Hattie Hayridge this year have ,,"" started labelling their metropolitan .-'i': appearances in early August as ‘Edinburgh previews' — underlining again that the ability to rise to the top of Edinburgh's competitive hurly burly. even with well known material, is one ofthe best indications of real star quality.
Since the decline of the traditional theatres and large clubs around the country which new comedians could fill to offer objective proofoftheir popularity. Edinburgh provides virtually the only opportunity for TV executives to gauge the appeal of untried prospects outside the restrictive confines ofsmall pub and cabaret clubs.
The inward-looking Trade Fair ’ aspect of the event is also reﬂected in
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4 lhe List ZoAug— 1 Sept 1988