How Comedy Captured the Edinburgh Fringe: Part 2

Our first instalment of this series covered over three decades, when the Edinburgh Fringe was almost without comedians at all. Now in Part Two, we find one year alone – 1981 – influences comedy more than all the previous Fringes put together

Feature by Ben Venables | 06 Jun 2017

In Edinburgh's New Town, the glow of chandeliers is a familiar sight on George Street. Peering from the top deck of a bus into the Assembly Rooms, the lights seem inviting. But, the building's majesty is also forbidding. It is the kind of place where it takes a certain amount of social confidence, or a Tradesman's entrance, to get inside.

The Assembly Rooms, for 33 years, had been an International Festival venue. But, the Festival Club housed there struggled to turn a profit. In 1981, William Burnett-Coutts, working at the Old Vic in London, applied a tad late to stage a play, The Madman and the Nun. Not only did he find room for the play at the now vacated Rooms, there was also plenty of space and time for others.

This helped solve a problem caused by the Fringe's swelling girth. In 1976, under the administration of Alistair Moffatt, under 200 groups performed. Five years later, that number was only a touch shy of 500. "When I began to sell the Fringe inside and outside Edinburgh, it became clear that the democratic nature of it (Thou shalt not promote one group above another) made selling it on merit very difficult. So I went for growth. Deliberately but always carefully I tried to get the number of groups into the Fringe Programme that I could."

The Fringe can pour money into Edinburgh's economy. Yet residents might only experience the city's festivals as an intolerable intrusion into their lives led by drama students. They therefore aren't always keen to help contribute too much with the outgoings. Meanwhile, the Fringe Society exists to guide and help artists rather than sell them, and has few sales pitches to choose from when trying to reach new audiences. This is why Moffat played his one pitch hard, and when he left the Fringe it was the biggest arts festival in the world.

This bout of gigantism brought more money into the city but put pressure on the creaky old buildings used for performances. Then, it was common for one church hall to only host a couple of shows. While venue sharing answered this, it is a more complex arrangement, encourages subletting, and calls for someone to stay on top of it.  Burnett-Coutts, the man with the late application, formed a company and venue operator: Assembly Festival is now approaching its 37th Fringe.

The Assembly Rooms soon became dubbed a 'super-venue'. Super-venues created convenience: convenience to see shows, eat at the cafe and drink at the bar. Convenience encourages visitors to become sticky to one venue and locale. In effect, it is like a mini-festival within the Fringe. One which can promote all its own shows without any restriction. By the next year, Assembly and their super-venue rival, Circuit, accounted for almost a quarter of the entire Fringe programme.

It's easy to see all this through today's weary cyncism. Sometimes the squabbles between venues seems to announce the Fringe is near far more than tickets going on sale. Yet, there is no doubt how exciting and innovative these hubs must have felt in the early 1980s. Stand-up comedians found themselves muscling in on spaces usually reserved for theatre.  In London, the comedians within the loose movement known as Alternative Cabaret played The Comedy Store, a pioneering venue with its room above a strip club.

Alexei Sayle and Tony Allen had paved the way in 1980 to Edinburgh. Now, a year later, Allen and a handful of comedians found themselves on Assembly's roster. Their show – titled Alternative Cabaret, featuring Allen, Jim Barclay, Andy de la Tour and Pauline Melville – became one of the critical hits of the Fringe. These four comedians may not have had the mainstream exposure TV later granted some of their contemporaries, but they are no less important to stand-up. (Or indeed do not lack cultural impact: Pauline Melville became an accomplished novelist). What's significant here is stand-ups now attracted audiences wherever they were; if in a debauched club in Soho, or an opulent building in Edinburgh's New Town during an arts festival.

Comedy Awards

As with the Assembly Rooms, the first Comedy Awards mark 1981 as a foundation year for the modern Fringe. Unlike the super-venue, it did not cause a sudden revolution. It took a slow evolution over several years before the awards' grip tightened on stand-up. There was also a precedent: The Scotsman introduced Fringe Firsts in 1973 for theatre. Comedy never had a chance though. By excluding revues, it cut out its then dominant form.

The Comedy Awards seemed set to redress this. The sponsors, Perrier, even advertised that the £1,000 prize was for the 'most outstanding revue.' It is a shame that the awards, looking out for emerging artists, missed stand-up for several years. It was, after all, the most emergent comedy subgenre of all. But it'd take a hard heart to begrudge the first winners: Stephen Fry, Penny Dwyer, Hugh Laurie, Paul Shearer, Tony Slattery and Emma Thompson. Especially as The Cellar Tapes still holds up as a strong hour of sketches.

The Cambridge Footlights’ entry in the programme is doubtless meant to convey confidence. But, the cast's future successes means it reads now with unintentional modesty and provincialism. "The annual revue: one of the strongest casts for several years, has already toured in Southern England to great success."

The award continues to hold dear memories for Stephen Fry. He dismisses academic achievements in favour of this new fangled comedy prize: "The Vice-Chancellor placing in my hands a piece of paper that testified to my status as BA (Hons) was a small thing compared to this."  How much it changed their lives is a moot point. Ex-Oxford and Cambridge revue members tended to do OK after university anyway, offering each other jobs in 'light entertainment'. That's not to dismiss the award's impact on their lives. It's just that their later fame may have exagerrated its influence. And in this sense, the Perrier in this year alone, holds a symbolism that continues to lure people to Edinburgh with the promises of riches that it never offered in the first place.

Miriam Attwood is a former media manager at Edinburgh Fringe society. Talking to critic and author Mark Fisher in 2012, she described the false incentive and crushing reality awaiting naïve hopefuls coming to the Fringe: "You read about the Cambridge footlights... some of the biggest names in British entertainment and you think, 'I can go to to the Fringe, I'm quite funny, I'll be made famous.’ But it doesn't work like that."

By the time a stand-up comedian won the award, in 1987, comedy had ceased to be a minor partner at the Fringe. This next story involves an employee of the Norweigian Consulate and a late licensed bar. And two Londoners, respectively known as the 'Obi-Wan Kenobi' and 'Darth Vadar' of comedy, trudging through the Edinburgh snow in February to find a room stand-up could call its own.

The 2017 Edinburgh Fringe programme is available from 7 June

With grateful thanks to Alan Gordon, Edinburgh Fringe. Sources: John Connor: Comics, Michael Dale: Sore Throats and Overdrafts, Edinburgh Fringe programme 1981, Mark Fisher: The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide, Stephen Fry: The Fry Chronicles, Alastair Moffat: The Edinburgh Fringe