Lewis Schaffer & Peter Buckley-Hill: Clash Of The Tight Yins

Free shows have changed the entire dynamic of the Fringe, but at the heart of the Free movement is a bitter rivalry. What defines these two movements?

Feature by Bernard O'Leary | 02 Aug 2012

PBH Free Fringe

"I wouldn't presume to run the Free Fringe unless I was a performer," says Peter Buckley-Hill, the driving force behind the PBH Free Fringe. "I do what everybody else does. And that's important."

For performers, a key part of the PBH philosophy is co-operation, with all acts expected to pitch in for the good of the Free Fringe. How has this changed over the last few years?

"The philosophy hasn't changed," says Buckley-Hill, "but it's under some quite big threats. As we become larger, we get acts joining us who don't understand the ethos. It's not like working with money venues. You're not buying a service; you're not a customer. You don't get to ask: 'what are you going to do for us?' It's a collective."

And what does the Free Fringe mean to audiences?

"I think the public expects a sense of shared fun from Free Fringe shows; in these informal settings, the show is something, not performed to the audience but shared with the audience.

"Laughing Horse put on shows – not all of theirs, but enough – which have little artistic merit, and therefore reinforce people's belief that free equals rubbish. Now, they're not the Free Fringe; that's our brand name. But they seem not to make it clear enough and we therefore get some of the dis-credit caused by their bad shows.

"Free isn't enough anymore, and indeed it never was. It's taken us a long time to educate the public that free does not mean inferior, and every show the public doesn't like makes our work that bit harder."

The PBH logo has become a symbol of quality on the Fringe, with a series of strong reviews at the 2011 Fringe. And with a 2012 lineup that includes the likes of Phil Jupitus, Josie Long and Thom Tuck, it looks like this reputation will continue to grow.

Laughing Horse Free Festival

"There seems to be much more of a punk ethic about the [Laughing Horse] Free Festival," says Kunt & The Gang. He's a man who understands the DIY ethic, having caused a huge stir last year with £50 worth of penis-shaped stickers. "I had pretty much given up hope of getting to the Fringe after being rejected by all the main promoters and PBH's Free Fringe. Laughing Horse has luckily worked out a good fit for us."

Free Festival favourite Lewis Schaffer is almost nihilistic when asked about the Free philosophy. "There's no such thing as a free Fringe. Someone charges £10 a show, you don't call it the £10 Festival. It's just an alternative business model, it's not the socialist, altruistic enterprise that Peter Buckley-Hill makes it out to be.

"You have to respect people like Ed & Charlie [Underbelly] and Karen Koren [Gilded Balloon]. They're business people and they provide value for many of the acts they put on. It's not suited to me, but it works well for a lot of other people."

For Schaffer, the key element is not money but time. "People are taking time out of their lives to see your show, and you owe them something. If I was charging money, I'd feel even worse than I do."

Kunt agrees that the bucket system is an inherent motivation to greatness. "I've seen some woeful stuff on Bristo Square and, if there had been a bucket system in place, I would have pulled my pants down and squeezed a jobby into it."

Laughing Horse shows seem to just let the performers get on with it. Sometimes it's great, sometimes it's not, but this seems to be where the legendary, anarchic 'Spirit Of The Fringe' resides.

PBH info: Peter Buckley-Hill & Some Comedians XVI, 4-25 Aug, The Canon's Gait, 9.35pm, Free www.freefringe.org.uk/ LH info: Kunt & The Gang, City Cafe, 2-26 Aug, 10.30pm, Free Lewis Schaffer, The Free Sisters, 2-26 Aug, 8.15pm, Free www.laughinghorsecomedy.co.uk/edinburgh/