When Flight of the Conchords Played a Plague Pit

With Flight of the Conchords landing at the SSE Hydro, we take a look back at when the duo were playing to only the people they could fit into an eighteenth century vault

Feature by Ben Venables | 08 Jun 2018
  • Flight of the Conchords

On 1 August 1785, the first stone for Edinburgh's South Bridge was laid. 217 years later in August 2002 the bridge's subterranean vaults, closed off for over a century and now believed haunted, naturally became a Fringe venue.

These vaults had been long forgotten. But, in 1989, there featured a curious news story which seemed straight from the pages of a spy novel. The Romanian rugby player Cristian Raducanu escaped his country's secret police entering a passageway in The Tron pub, taking him to the other side of Cowgate. 

The Tron's owner, fellow Rugby star Norrie Rowan, spent the next decade excavating the vaults. Eventually he opened it as a new Edinburgh hub: The Caves. On the other side of the South Bridge stood the original Gilded Balloon. And in 2002 The Caves joined the Balloon's family of Fringe venues for the summer.

It's hard not to see this moment, this summer, as a golden moment in the Balloon's history. By December of the same year its Cowgate home would be destroyed by fire. GB's 2002 line-up was a remarkable one. It included Andrew Maxwell, Reg Hunter and Count Arthur Strong at the main theatre; Glenn Wool and Sarah Kendall at the Peppermint Lounge (now Cabaret Voltaire); David O'Doherty and Jimmy Carr at Teviot Row House. All were unknowns, compared to their reputations today. But it was in The Caves, this most unusual venue, where the most unusual act of all received their first big break.

Talking to The Skinny, Gilded Balloon's artistic director Karen Koren says: "Rosie Carnahan from New Zealand, who later became Mrs. Rhys Darby, was working for me running the Gilded Balloon bars and she said I should book this bizarre act who were friends of her and her boyfriend Rhys."

The bizarre act were an offbeat musical duo seeming to parody the folk genre. With a show at a quarter to midnight, Jemaine Clement and Bret Mackenzie – better known as Flight of the Conchords – could have spent August unnoticed, leaving with only their chest infections from the damp room. As the potted history on their website puts it: "When it rained, which was most days in Edinburgh, the ceiling dripped onto the audience and a dank slime crept down the stone walls. Apparently in the 17th century the room had been used to quarantine plague victims."

Similarly, a Flight of the Conchords fansite – fotcmb.net – quotes an Edinburgh diary piece from the time: "The Caves […] resembled a cross between a giant pizza oven and… well, a cave. Damp, drippy, high, domed ceiling, and brick-lined. Very old. If you sat in the right (or wrong, depending on your point of view) spot, you got dripped on."

But, with the help of their new fans, including many comedians, a few drips and the threat of plague couldn't halt their success. Koren adds: "[In] the first year, David O’Doherty just fell in love with them and all the comics started going down to the Caves to see them. I also booked them lots on Late 'n' Live which helped their profile, and I helped get their UK agent."

Along with playing Late 'n' Live, the Conchords show was also rivalling the legendary Fringe show most nights. As Steve Bennett, on a fairly new comedy website called Chortle, put it: "You are going to be sceptical about this – I know I was – but two unknown New Zealanders performing a modest spoof on folk music is one of the highlights of this year's Fringe... That the audience for these undiscovered comedy heroes boasted more performers than the Late and Live [sic] bar speaks volumes about the quality of this delightfully funny show, whose word-of-mouth buzz is spreading fast."

A year later Flight of the Conchords, back at The Caves, were nominated for the Perrier Award. A year after that their BBC radio series picked up a Sony Award. By 2007, their sitcom debuted on HBO in the US, propelling the pair to international stardom. Yet, despite all this, even as they land at Glasgow's vast SSE Hydro, their understated presence and humour still gives them the feel of the alternative act who grew a cult following from the inside of a dank cave.

Flight of the Conchords Sing Flight of the Conchords, SSE Hydro, Glasgow, 18 Jun, 6.30pm, £28-62