Those sleepy mornings—over two dozen of them—took place in Edinburgh in the summer of 1985. Seeking cheap digs, my pals and I bunked out at the Leith Nautical College, on the Firth of Forth. A visiting pipe band from Canada, in town for Royal Tattoo, had the same idea. They used the sports field outside the window to rehearse their drill. Every morning, promptly at six forty-five.
We spoke to management. We explained that we were a comedy troupe from Australia, playing the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Jet lag was eating our brains. Lights went up for our show at midnight. And we drank a lot after the curtain fell—in Scotland, we reasoned, such an argument held sway. Could the Canadians please keep the noise down until lunchtime?
The administrator replied in soft tones reminiscent of Gordon Jackson in Upstairs Downstairs. "Now, you do realise you are in Scotland?"
Yes, we said.
"And you know that this college is an arm of the Royal Navy, and as such, is a military institution?"
Yes, we said.
"And you imagine that militia, in Scotland, might march to tunes played on a bagpipe?"
Um, yes, we said.
"Well..." he concluded, with a phrase that betrayed a schooling in classics not uncommon among east-coast Scots, "caveat emptor."
* * * * *
Leith Nautical College closed its doors in 1987. One of my fellow troupers quipped that had he known, he would have delayed his visit two years.
But bagpipes before breakfast were a small price to pay for an extraordinary several weeks.
Our band of undergrad comics regularly played the fringes of the festival in our native Adelaide, and sought to open our gills in a bigger pond. We came as rubes from halfway across the world, and left as actual, minor-league almost-professionals. (Up to a point. Only one of our troupe went on to earn a crust in showbiz.) At the Fringe, both competition and opportunity ran hot.
By the late seventies, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe had become the largest arts festival in the world, dwarfing the festival proper. Every church, school, gym, pub, spare room and coat closet morphed into a theatre—though in 1985, we were still half a decade away from using the word morph.
Millions crowded into a city which, under normal circumstances, held barely 350,000. To squeeze the maximum number of butts on seats, most performances ran less than an hour. Audiences sprinted from show to show, through as many as eight or nine in a day. As you dashed to make the next curtain, performers plied their witty ways to get a playbill in your hand—a practice known as flyering. It was chaos. Energetic, inventive, brilliant chaos.
Billing ourselves haughtily as the Australian Comedic Revue, we touted that we were a hometown hit on the Adelaide Fringe—an exaggeration: we were less a hit, and more a mild slap.
Several of us threw together a show called Wagga Wagga High High. From memory, the blurb went something like the tale of a school so evil that it can turn children into accountants. I played a character called Zeldor Fitzgerald, Teen from Another Planet. The costume included my own high school uniform, into which I still fitted. Yes, 1985 was a simpler time.
We gave an even milder slap to the Edinburgh Fringe, but felt we acquitted ourselves well enough. Thanks to a not-unkind review in The Scotsman, we sold out our season. Russell Harty wanted to interview us, too. But that fell through, because his phone at the BBC didn't allow Subscriber Trunk Dialling, or something.
Edinburgh has since grown to half a milllion souls, but can still barely contain the beast. In the first three weeks of August 2014, the Fringe sold 2,183,591 tickets to 49,497 performances of 3,193 shows in 299 venues.
If you divide the number of tickets into the number of performances, one gets an average audience size of a little over forty. Few impresarios count this as a real figure. In 1985, rumour put the median audience size at twelve. This year, word on the street tipped nine.
In the decades since, I'd wanted to return, simply as an audience member. This year, encouraged by friends who now live in Edinburgh, we did. The promise of some fine travelling companions clinched the deal.
When I told people in Edinburgh that I'd performed on the Fringe thirty years ago, they grew curious. It must have been very different back then, surely.
I shocked them with my reply. No.
In my observation, here's what's changed.
- Lager drinkers can choose from a wide array of bottled craft beers.
- American university students majoring in theatrical administration or arts publicity often work on the Fringe as a course requirement. We met several flyering.
- Edinburgh's quality broadsheet, The Scotsman, once provided the most authoritative critiques. The paper remains an authority, but nowadays a mammoth website called Broadway Baby overshadows it. Curious, since the Fringe is about as un-Broadway as you can get.
That's about it. Here's what hasn't changed since 1985.
- Busking bagpipers on the Royal Mile love the theme from Star Wars.
- Tickets are pretty cheap, but dedicated cheapskates pick up bargains at the half-price box office.
- Snooty, sensitive, arty types hate the atmosphere. Australian acts thrive. American and Japanese artists enjoy the looser rules.
- An act lives or dies by its reviews—if you get a decent review, you put it on your flyers and flog the hell out of it.
- Modern times have seen the rise of the professional publicist. But still, the best way to get an audience is for an artist to wear out some shoe leather, press some flesh, and perform on the street.
- Never sit in the front row for a stand-up comic. When he asks "And where are you from?"—and he will—whatever your answer, he will mock you mercilessly. He will mock you mercilessly, too, if you decline to answer at all. Too often, the where-are-you-froms displace actual jokes. It's heckling in reverse. Hey, buddy, I'm your audience, not your material. Lookin' at you, Fred McAulay and Scott Capurro. I repeat, never sit in the front row for a stand-up comic, unless you crave attention.
- You can take your drinks into the theatre, or indeed, anywhere. Restaurants in most parts of the world will bundle leftover food in a doggie bag; in Edinburgh, pubs decant leftover drink into a Starbucks-style doggie cup. Have you ever sipped beer through a straw? Not my preferred means of suckage.
- Scots like to vomit. Billy Connolly's most famous routine even jokes about it. Drinking Scots should be required to carry airsickness bags, in the same way dog-owners must carry plastic bags as a measure against their pets fouling the pavement.
- The Fringe organisation does an awesome job of managing the herd of over 20,000 temperamental performers. Nowadays, it provides a cool mobile app that lets you squeeze more theatre into a given day than you thought humanly possible. Their website pulls together a programme, ticketing system, reviews and social media seamlessly. But the telephone-book sized Fringe programme remains the most popular means for visitors, literally, to get their acts together.
- With 20,000 performers in a city the size of Edinburgh, the Fringe thrusts artists and audience together in ways you simply don't find elsewhere. Many performers mingle before and after the show—given the set-up of most venues, it's unavoidable. If you want to talk to your comedy heroes face-to-face, go to an Edinburgh pub.
Umbilical Brother Dave Collins clowns with the public in the foyer after his show
—which was superb, by the way.
I've changed. But the Fringe hasn't. Every year, it finds new sources of energy, originality, and outrage. Perhaps I shouldn't leave thirty years between visits. Nowadays, I can afford a quieter place to sleep.