Lloyd Evans joins the hopeful hordes seeking fame and fortune in Edinburgh
Wonderful, Edinburgh. Isn’t it magical? The artistic world has descended on Scotland’s magnificent capital for three weeks of self-expression and glorious creativity. Or so everyone wants everyone else to think. When people speak of Edinburgh they reach whoopingly for a peculiar grammatic mode, the puerile tense. Delightful, daring, courageous, uplifting, inventive, risk-taking, inspirational, sublime. Yes, maybe. But take off the kindergarten dolly-goggles and you’ll find other qualities, other adjectives, lurking. Vain, greedy, embittered, jealous, self-obsessed, megalomaniac, drunk, stoned and bankrupt.
This is the true Edinburgh. The pilgrims aren’t here to participate in an exuberant outpouring of artistic excellence. They’re hungry. They’re mean and low. They’re after stuff. They want notoriety and success. They want TV contracts. They want to multiply, by a factor of several million, their current quotas of wealth and attention. It’s a mad scramble up here. It always is. Two thousand shows and only one winner. It’s less a festival and more an all-in wrestling match with no rules, no round-calls and no referee. The prize is certainly vast but so are the costs. Most acts expect to return home at least two grand poorer. Breaking even is a rarity. A profit? Forget it. That’s not the point. The point is to get here, to stay the distance and strenuously to quell any nagging doubt that your chances of success are minuscule and the terms of the contest deeply unjust.
Last year the victor ludorum was, by common consent, John Bishop. The amiable forty-something Liverpool stand-up now luxuriates in a prime-time TV show whose title consists mostly of his name. (That’s an important nicety, by the way. Adrian Chiles doesn’t get his name above his new breakfast show, and even Paxo has yet to paint his patronymic on the Newsnight gunwales.) But the cruel oddity is that Bishop wasn’t last year’s official winner. He received a nomination for the comedy prize but not the gong. Who did? I’ve no idea. This is the Al Gore paradox in action. You can win outright and still not secure the prize. There are no reliable predictions in Edinburgh. Everybody has an equal chance. So lottery fever takes hold. And superstition abounds.
Go to the Royal Mile and you’ll see quasi- religious activity on all sides. It takes the form of the leaflet. To you the leaflet may look like a negligible scrap of card but to me it’s the essence of the festival. The leaflet embodies the actor’s faith in his show. It’s a pledge to himself that success will be his. Deep down every leafleteer suspects that his oblong of multicoloured A5 is a wholly ineffective marketing tool. No punter ever bought a ticket on the strength of a crumpled flier in his back pocket. I know about this. I have leafleted myself. And as I distributed those glossy little chits I acknowledged that I was engaged in a futile piety. But I continued nonetheless. I became aware that the leaflet’s purpose was not so much to attract the audience as to console the act. It restores the illusion of control. It lifts your weary artistic spirit to see the name of your show — your beloved show, your ignored show — advertised in public and broadcast on human lips, even if the lips are your own.
On the Royal Mile this year I asked a few random leafleteers to admit they were indulging an irrational religious spasm. They recoiled at the suggestion. They rebuffed the idea with the vehement ardour of the votary when confronted by unbelief. Leaflets, they assured me, were a vital instrument of communication. This summer in particular, they said, the leaflet is more valuable than ever now that the Fringe brochure has changed beyond recognition. Here they have a point.
For several years the Fringe has been creaking under its own weight. The old imperial boundaries have started fracturing into unfamiliar provinces and new-found fiefdoms. The disintegration is now complete. Until last year the Fringe brochure advertised every act that fell outside the International Festival. Now a revamped and rather selective freesheet has appeared courtesy of a rising tribal power, ‘The Edinburgh Comedy Festival on the Fringe’. This represents a blatant act of gentrification. Although the new brochure includes much of the old Fringe it leaves out the bumpkins and riff-raff, the church-hall paupers, and lets them fend for themselves. The reforms are being driven by the comedy stars from television. These chaps — and nearly all are chaps — always found something about the festival that irked them: Edinburgh is full of acts at the wrong stage of their career. Pre-breakthrough wannabes or post-meltdown comeback kids. There are a few venerable elders (Nicholas Parsons, Gyles Brandreth, Barry Cryer) who trundle up here every August to perform a lap of honour before they crawl, like quipping Lears, toward death. But the TV comedy chaps insisted that none of these categories — wannabe, comeback kid or elder statesman — suited their status as established acts and national brands. They aren’t petitioners, lobbyists or fame-claimants. They don’t need the festival nearly as much as the festival needs them and they want a Fringe that acknowledges their relevance. And now they have it. The Edinburgh Comedy Festival on the Fringe — how the name trips off the tongue! — offers punters slick business-class entertainment with a price tag to match. The transformation is richly ironic. For years the Fringe complained bitterly that the snooty International Festival disregarded it entirely. And now a cabal of elite Bolsheviks has formed an aristocratic members-only club within the Fringe itself. It doesn’t sound very arty, very Bohemian or even very Edinburgh.
But what does Edinburgh sound like? Cup a hand behind those lugholes and listen out for a Scottish accent. You hear them, occasionally, but your first reaction isn’t, ‘Oh, a local,’ but, ‘Oh, someone from Scotland.’ Every year the natives desert their home town to make way for an invading southern horde. Look at the restaurants. No one’s ordering haggis and whisky or neeps and tatties. It’s sea bass, Sauvignon and fussy little salads. Have a flip through that brochure. You’ll see page after page of beaming white faces, with just a handful of Asians and two black guys, Reginald D. Hunter and the other one with a middle initial. Stephen K. Amos, that’s him. Of the tens of thousands of festival celebrants I’d guess that roughly half live within six miles of Piccadilly Circus. London comes to Edinburgh not to see Edinburgh but to see London. And a curiously retro London it is too, almost a throwback to the pre-immigration 1950s. Everyone’s young, white and hopeful. Everyone’s got a script in their bag and a talent to sell. And everyone’s going to be famous. Only they aren’t. Someone else is.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 21, 2010