Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The real danger to the Edinburgh fringe isn’t the big venues, it’s the BBC

After reading one of our greatest living stand-up comedians Stewart Lee’s annual mawkish piece for the Guardian about the commercialisation of the fringe – and how it was much better when Edinburgh consisted of shows like Professor Nutty’s Racist Flea Circus played to three people in an abandoned shoe at the bottom of Arthur’s Seat – I felt an urge to respond.

Stu – (I can call him Stu because he’s done about 5 gigs for me, I’ve interviewed him a couple of times and if I see him in the street he will say hi. Actually, saying that, since he’s had his deserved critical acclaim and commercial success, the last time I saw him he ignored me) – Stewart makes some good points, but he ignores the real danger to the fringe – the BBC.

Lee’s main gripe is aimed at the so-called big four venues and the Etonian cabal who run them. I dislike the big four as much as the next man, but they’ve been at the fringe for over 25 years (Underbelly 12.) They are here to stay, get over it. The real problem is not the big four or Eton. And unless someone wants to burn Eton down and throw all its students into the sea, we are going to have to put up with its alumni continuing its stranglehold over British society – David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Bear Grylls, Prince William...

Lee mentions the cost of performing at some of the venues as upwards of £10,000 (the figure is closer to £6,000 and venue hire makes up very little of that). One of the biggest costs is actually accommodation. Scottish landlords charge a month’s London rent for a week to live in a city with worse weather than the moon.

Most of the big four venues actually do a pretty fair deal apart from forcing you to advertise in their brochure. If you are arrogant and deluded enough to think – after working the open mic circuit for a year with one appearance on Russell Howard’s Good News – that £2000 is a worthwhile amount to spend on PR, then you deserve the debt you find yourself in. Show business is not a charity vanity project. You don’t book the London palladium and ask them to cover your losses if your show is rubbish and no-one comes, so why should the big four? That’s not reality, unless you are playing the Stand it would seem (“The fiercely independent Stand underwrites all its shows, so performers lose nothing,” writes Lee).

Edinburgh offers a platform to develop, become a better performer and build an audience. It is the ultimate meritocracy: the better your show is, the more people come and the more money you make. You can be in the back room of a pub on the Free Fringe or at the Pleasance, managed by Avalon or some bloke who operates out of a public toilet in Peckham, if your show is shit no-one is going to come and see it. So either stay at home or give me £6,000 and I’ll make you a star (1).

What Lee fails to mention was that last year the BBC re-launched their Edinburgh presence by moving their operations out of the Pleasance and setting-up a full time comedy venue to house the live recordings of some of its flagship comedy shows, masterclasses and Q&A’s with TV stars. All totally free.

For £12 a ticket you can see their long running mixed-bill BBC Comedy Presents. At the risk of never getting my own BBC series – something that seems unlikely after 10 years of failing to be called into a meeting, let alone receiving a reply to any of my proposals (2) – the BBC venue is wrong and is a real danger to the fringe.

With over 100 shows scheduled by the BBC, several pages of listings and advertising in the fringe brochure, this is taking thousands of audience members away from other shows at the fringe. Performing to no people is not a show, it’s mental illness.

The BBC’s defence is that they film and record shows for broadcast and this advertises the fringe – but instead of showcasing innovative fringe shows, it produces Q&A’s with bloated TV stars and soulless mixed-bill nights in a marquee more akin to hosting a wedding reception.

And who’s paying for the privilege? The acts, producers and promoters who produce the majority of the fringe’s output. If Rupert Murdoch set up a Sky venue and gave all the tickets away for free there would be calls for it to be shut down and a Levenson-style enquiry into why a massive corporation set up a free venue that took tickets away from the fringe. But because it’s Auntie it feels like their free comedy is a reward for our license fee, when in fact it’s slowly eroding performers’ audiences.

The BBC should be covering the festival as a broadcaster the same way it covers Glastonbury or the Olympics. There is no imagination in their programming despite the fringe having one of the most inventive programmes possible. This should a) be reflected in the BBC venue (which it isn’t) and b) be represented in the BBC’s broadcast output (which it isn’t).

Essentially the BBC in Edinburgh becomes a rival promoter putting on free shows with TV names and – worst of all – charging for their mixed-bill shows that take further money out of the fringe economy (the equivalent of two tickets for two unknown shows). With many acts producing their own shows, appearing on the Free Fringe or being backed by a small promoter they are never going to be able to compete with this.

So Stewart Lee is right that the fringe has changed but has it changed for the better or the worse? I think the spirit of the fringe is stronger than any corporate entity but you have to look a little harder for it. Artists being abused is a dance as old as time – but that’s not to say I agree with it. The BBC should have a presence at the fringe, but in its current form it takes more from the fringe than it gives back. Right that’s Edinburgh sorted, now can I have my own TV show and a prime slot at BBC Comedy Presents?

(1) I say this to a lot of the young female performers
(2) Can someone forward this sentence to the head of comedy at the BBC?

Guest blog by Harry Deansway, comedy writer, producer & promoter

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