When The Edinburgh Fringe went Beyond Satire

The Edinburgh Festival dreamt up Beyond the Fringe to upstage its rival, but the revue only increased the Edinburgh Fringe's fame

Feature by Ben Venables | 14 May 2018
  • When Edinburgh went Beyond Satire

On the last day of the Edinburgh Festival, 1959, its artistic director resigned.

The director, Robert Ponsonby, was a man who wanted to get things done. Four years earlier, on taking the role, he ordered a report that sounds more like an inventory. It documented every problem from the unsuitability of venues to below-par street decorations.

Once the ailments were diagnosed, Ponsonby believed the Festival's committee would equip him with the cure. But presenting plans in a logical fashion is almost always a mistake when trying to persuade. Again and again, Ponsonby felt the Festival's bureaucrats didn't so much dismiss his ideas as forget them.

In consequence, when he went to invite the world's leading arts companies to Edinburgh – in opera, ballet and drama – he felt he was short on resources and long on complications. Having all the responsibility without the requisite power, he tendered his resignation.

Naturally, The Festival Society did not share this view. And Ponsonby agreed to do 'one last job' and stay for a final year. He decided to use his last year to take on one of the more chronic problems in Edinburgh that had "irked" him: the popularity of the unofficial upstart the Edinburgh Fringe.

Comedy Revues at Edinburgh

The Fringe was no longer so unofficial, though. It had grown out of any sense that it was a mere sideshow to the Festival. Over time, the number of uninvited artists had increased and it now became a co-ordinated movement. In 1958, the Fringe Society formed with published aims, premises and box office.

A large part of the Fringe's success had been feeding Edinburgh's appetite for late-night entertainment. Comedic revues became an antidote to the highfalutin Festival performances. Indeed, revues cornered Edinburgh's market for humour over the next three decades. From the early-1950s onwards, theatre groups put on additional performances along with their plays. These quickly gave way to university troupes writing sharper work. Revues also acted as an incubator for emerging artists. In 1953, the Oxford Theatre Group presented Cakes and Ale which starred Maggie Smith.

Ponsonby was not without a sense of humour and had put on satirical musical comedy from legendary duo Flanders and Swann, and Anna Russell. This was quite an innovation for the Festival. Yet, that irksome Fringe still seemed to attract more favourable notices.

Instead of competing with the problem, Ponsonby hit on another way to solve it. He dispatched his assistant, John Bassett, to raid the Fringe of its rising talent. Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore were recruited from the Oxford Revue. And, on recommendations, they were soon joined by Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller, who'd come through Cambridge.

With this unknown yet talented quartet in place, Ponsonby could give the Fringe a taste of its own medicine. And he deliberately chose a title for the revue to reflect this – Beyond the Fringe.

Beyond the Fringe and the Satire Boom

Ponsonby was almost to regret his decision immediately. On seeing the players corpse their way through rehearsals he asked himself, "What have I done?"

What had he done?

In the short term, on the opening night, in front of a far from capacity audience at the Lyceum Theatre, Beyond the Fringe went near unnoticed.

However, The Daily Mail's critic was there and hailed it: "the funniest, most intelligent, and most original revue to be staged in Britain for a very long time." In contrast to traditional revues – all chorus girls and the like – Beyond the Fringe was "getting down to the real business of... satire and parody." It was soon selling out each night and became the hit of the Festival.

In the medium term, Beyond the Fringe helped cement an idea people could make it in Edinburgh and go on to long runs in the West End and on Broadway. On its arrival in London, the Observer's critic Kenneth Tynan wrote, with all the modesty characteristic of the reviewing profession: "Future historians may well thank me for providing them with a full accord of the moment when English comedy took its first decisive step into the twentieth century."

Though in a sense Tynan's hyperbole was correct. Beyond the Fringe was a watershed moment, heralding the arrival of the 'satire boom' to the 60s. And out of the satire boom came Peter Cook's The Establishment comedy club in Soho, a TV series of That Was The Week That Was on the BBC and the great survivor of contemporary print journalism: Private Eye. This era is a direct precursor to much of today's broadcast comedy and the ever popular format of sending up the week's news.

And yet, despite all this, whether Beyond the Fringe was satirical in intent is debatable. Later, Jonathan Miller said Tynan had shoved "the [satire] banner into our hands." He added: "it was rather like Charlie Chaplin […] finding himself at the head of the Communist parade."

The sketch which stood out from the revue was one which turned the joke on Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. A musical mix-up ends with raspberries being blown every time his name is mentioned.

Today, this hardly seems fitting as the catalyst for the satire boom. Moreover, the Beyond the Fringe players did not write it as such. Peter Cook said: "My impersonation of Macmillan was in fact extremely affectionate – I was a great Macmillan fan."

Had this sketch truly satirised Macmillan the script may have fallen foul of the Lord Chamberlain's pen, for this was still an era of theatre censorship. As it happened, the only notes that came from the censor's office was a bit of homophobia that almost seems quaint. The stage direction 'enter two outrageous old queens' was changed to 'enter two aesthetic young men'. The censor's other comment reads like a dismissive comedy review, stating the revue was 'full of silly psuedo-intellectual jokes'.

However, for a sitting PM to be impersonated on stage was rare. And the whimsical audacity of blowing raspberries on the mention of his name starts to reconstruct a context which would've made this sketch funny and seem a comment on changing times.

The Legacy of Beyond the Fringe

Not that political or satirical comedy really affects social change. Beyond the Fringe, in hindsight, harnessed a mood that was already there. Kenneth Tynan's sober closing remarks in his review are more perceptive, and also ring true of much radio and TV comedy today: "Beyond the Fringe is anti-reactionary without being wholeheartedly progressive."

In an introduction to the Beyond the Fringe script, the playwright Michael Frayn argues that satire is soon reduced to quelling an audience's conscience. But it does not compel them to vote "for anything which might have actually reduced their privileges."

Beyond the Fringe's influence on satire and the direction of UK comedy was not its only legacy. For Edinburgh its influence was also vast – but not quite in the way Robert Ponsonby expected.

Jonathan Miller later became the Fringe Society chairman and said: "I hardly knew of the existence of the Fringe until we were invited to do Beyond the Fringe."

In other words, the title Ponsonby chose, the revue he conceived, far from beating the Fringe at its own game only spread the word of the Fringe movement. Miller adds: "I think our notion of fringe theatre is very much derived from the Edinburgh festivals, and from the Festival Fringe."

In the end, then, the Fringe had the last laugh. As the Fringe Society's former administrator Alastair Moffat puts it, "[Beyond the Fringe] probably did more to broadcast the name 'Fringe' than anything else."

Sources: Humphrey Carpenter: That Was Satire That Was; William Cook: One Leg Two Few; Michael Frayn quoted in The Complete Beyond the Fringe; Eileen Miller: The Edinburgh International Festival; Alistair Moffat: The Edinburgh Fringe.

Want to know more about the rise of Edinburgh Fringe comedy? Read our comedy editor's four-part series How Comedy Captured the Edinburgh Fringe

Part 1: The remarkable rise of stand-up comedy
Part 2: 1981 – the year that comedy breaks through at the Fringe
Part 3: Two forgotten venues – McNally's and The Comedy Boom – put comedy first
Part 4: Comedy finally rules the Fringe programme in the 2000s, amid ticket chaos and public fallouts