How Comedy Captured the Edinburgh Fringe: Part 3

In the third part of our Fringe history, two long-forgotten venues put comedy before theatre with the help of Austin Powers and a Wonder Dog

Feature by Ben Venables | 11 Jul 2017

Behind the Lyceum was a place known as The Hole in the Ground, for a hole in the ground is what it was. Not that this stopped anyone from considering it as a Fringe venue. In 1982, a company called Circuit erected a 700-seater marquee at this disused site. It was all very Fringe – when told a tent was no place to stage an opera, Circuit ignored all advice and put one on.

It was here that the late Malcolm Hardee made his first Fringe appearance. He was part of The Greatest Show on Legs, a comedy group known for its naked balloon dance finale. A year later, Circuit opted for several smaller tents. An unfortunate arrangement which led to a noise-bleed between neighbouring shows. On finding the din from next door unbearable, Hardee took the action most obvious to him: he drove straight through actor Eric Bogosian's show on a tractor. Naturally, the famously big-bollocked Hardee was bollock-naked at the wheel.

Thespians still outnumbered comedians at the Fringe. But, as such a larger-than-life tale suggests, comedy needed spaces of its own.

Before the Balloon

Close to Haymarket station, 6 Palmerston Place is a handsome townhouse. When last on the market, estate agents pushed both its recent refurbishment and Victorian radiators. Its place in comedy history didn't make the sales bumf. In February 1985, it opened as a restaurant and club called McNally's. Mr McNally himself had drafted in a young grafter to run a casino in the upstairs room. But she had other ideas.

Karen Koren was juggling several part-time jobs, everything from working at the Norwegian Consulate to selling showhomes. She had observed comedy grow in Edinburgh each summer. She was also well-connected to the Comedy Store crowd down in London, although Koren knew alternative comedy wasn't confined to the M25.

When the casino licence was rejected, Koren swooped into action. She ensured the room became a year-round space for comedy, especially Scottish acts. Speaking to The Skinny, she says: "The Tron in Glasgow was doing a Gong Show, and there were lots of people emerging there. I had Craig Ferguson come to McNally's when he was starting, and Jerry Sadowitz. He was very shy off-stage then, although still a maniac on it. Then there was Alan Cumming and Forbes Masson." This duo's later achievements eclipsed their success as glam double-act Victor and Barry. At McNally's, they took part in the late-night cabaret, but were not the only future stars there.

Dave Cohen is a founding member of the Comedy Store Players. Writing a column for Chortle in 2010, he recalled the troupe's "existence hinged on the tiny coincidence of two shows playing back-to-back at McNally's." Along with Kit Hollerbach and Paul Martin, Cohen was "in time to catch the back-end of the previous show, starring the brilliant double act of Neil Mullarkey and Mike Myers." He adds: "During the gig handover, we established over several 10-minute stints at the bar that American-born Kit and Canadian Mike were experienced comedy improvisers... this being Edinburgh, five relative strangers were persuaded to try a comedy improv show."

With a mixture of original, longstanding and guest members, the Players continue 32 years later. Many became familiar faces through Whose Line is it Anyway? And Paul Martin, of course, is now much better known as Paul Merton. It is curious to contemplate, but Karen Koren could have quit here and still left a comedy legacy. Instead, her one year at McNally's is a mere prequel to over three decades at the helm of the Gilded Balloon, which she started on Cowgate the next year.

The Gilded Balloon had once been a silk merchant's warehouse. With its twelve arches and a gentle curve on its South Bridge side, the building became a distinctive comedy nerve centre. With a 3am late-licence it also changed the social scene. And, with Late'n'Live it produced a show as raucous as any at The Tunnel Club in London (a stand-up bear-pit run by a certain Malcolm Hardee). Koren had given comedians a natural home. 

Comedy goes Boom

The junction of Broughton Street and Picardy Place is now flanked by a chip shop and cafe-bar. Once, there was a pub on this corner named the Abercraig Lounge. In the same year as McNally's, its basement moonlighted as the first venue exclusive to stand-up at the Fringe. After five summers, its co-founders took divergent comedy paths. As such, its story has become obscured.

If the 'stand-up only' ethos seems purist, keep in mind what loose criteria the label implies. The five line-ups show how the art-form emerged from myriad alternative scenes. It hosted poets such as John Hegley and Roy Hutchins, and the aforementioned maniac magician Jerry Sadowitz. Then there's John Dowie, the overlooked one-man origin story of UK stand-up. There was also Linda Smith, a much missed comedian who later channelled her wit to great effect on radio. And let us not forget that stand-up was dog friendly too. Fanny the Wonder Dog and her stage partner Julian Clary were better known then as Joan Collins' Fanclub. They performed as part of this venue's first two festivals.

As the co-founder Ivor Dembina tells us: "There was no dancing, no drama, nobody with puppets. We wanted it to be part of the stand-up zeitgeist. That's why we called it the Comedy Boom."

There's something modest and eternal about Dembina. He recalls he had acquired "a reputation for generally doing some decent gigs." He adds this "meant I had the brains to make sure there is a microphone facing the right way." By coincidence, Stewart Lee credits him for correcting his microphone technique during the new act competition he won in 1990: "'Who is this guy?' I thought. Well, he was Ivor Dembina, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of comedy, and he was right."

The Comedy Boom's other co-founder was also likened to a Star Wars character, albeit one from the dark side of the Force. When comedy agent Addison Cresswell died in December 2013, almost all the broadsheet obituaries said he was ‘the Darth Vader of the Fringe.’

For over two decades, Cresswell was arguably the most powerful man in UK comedy. Take the Jonathan Ross saga that started with the presenter securing a BBC contract worth some £18m. Ross was Cresswell's client. Two years later, Ross became embroiled in the Sachsgate scandal and Live at the Apollo filled the vacated primetime spot. Apollo belonged to Cresswell's TV production company, and this helped launch stand-up Michael McIntyre into the mainstream bosom. McIntyre was also part of the Cresswell 'stable'. 

Even as a student at Brighton Polytechnic, Cresswell demonstrated a flair for business. He lived off the money he made as a rather entrepreneurial entertainments officer. Once out of uni, according to one of Cresswell's rare interviews, he saw Dembina as a "great rival" promoter.

But, Dembina remembers Cresswell more as Anakin Skywalker than Lord Vader. "His template was very much the pop business. He liked the idea of being a Svengali figure, like Brian Epstein with The Beatles. He'd already been to Edinburgh, with Tony Allen [in 1982]. He was using the title Off the Kerb early in his career too. But at the time, he was struggling with the venues in Edinburgh. So, he said to me: 'Ivor, how do you find your venues in London?'" Dembina replied: "What I do is I get my boots on and I go in places and ask if I can put a gig on. And he said, 'Well, can we do that in Edinburgh?'"

They took the train from London to Waverley, only to find Edinburgh covered in thick snow. "It was like a film. We were trudging through the snow thinking, 'What the fuck are we doing?'" They were about to give up when they reached the Abercraig Lounge. Once inside, the portents didn't look good, with the landlord less than enthusiastic to turn his basement into a Fringe venue.

With nothing to lose, they managed to persuade him to show them the function room. "We followed him down the stairs, walked into this room and looked at each other." That room is now The Street's nightclub, and with its den-like quality it is little surprise the pair knew "this was going to work. It was like El Dorado".

Within three years, Cresswell's ambitions took him in the direction of comedy management, his first real success being Julian Clary. Over the next decade, Cresswell's Off the Kerb and his rivals at Avalon dominated comedy. Though Dembina points out Cresswell wasn't motivated by money: "He wasn't a greedy person. And the thing people forget about Addison is what a brilliant designer he was. He created the most eye-catching posters."

Meanwhile, Dembina's aims always veered towards performance. He created and compèred a package show called Comic Abuse, which became a successful fixture at Pleasance (which had started in 1984, but was theatre-centric until the late 80s). Dembina's show introduced acts such as Jo Brand and Jack Dee, amongst others, to Pleasance Courtyard. Incidentally, both were managed by Cresswell. It is big names, big venues and big management which inform the final part of this series, and also the counter movement that blossomed in response, swapping theatres and tickets for pubs and buckets.

With thanks to Ivor Dembina, Hampstead Comedy Club; David Dey and Karen Koren, Gilded Balloon; Alan Gordon, Edinburgh Festival Fringe; the staff at The Street, Picardy Place. Sources: Julian Clary: A Young Man's Passage; William Cook: Ha, Bloody, Ha; John Connor: Comics; Julian Hall: The Rough Guide to British Cult Comedy; Stewart Lee: How I Escaped My Certain Fate; Edinburgh Fringe programmes 1982-1990.