The Most Talked About Gig of the Edinburgh Fringe
A view from the trenches
I’ve done some nuts gigs in my time. An air open bar in Ayia Napa competing with loud and crap techno from other open air bars, while performing to a bunch of throbbing teenagers whose only interest was getting off with each other was one. In Leeds once the Accrington Stanley football team lined up alongside the bar, pretended it was the urinals, and then relieved themselves. How are you supposed to tell jokes when that’s going on? At the Yell Christmas party in Reading one year I got boo-ed on. That was the high point of the night.
But, of all the gigs I’ve ever done, last week’s in Edinburgh was possibly the maddest.
I had been having a very mellow festival doing my lecture with funny bits about gold, when Andy Shaw of Comedy Unleashed called. They were putting on a night in Edinburgh and would I like to perform? Sure. Also on the bill were Alistair Williams, Bruce Devlin and a “surprise famous cancelled comedian.”
Two or three days before the gig I got a message telling me that the venue had cancelled the gig because word had got out that “surprise famous cancelled comedian” was Father-Ted-writer, Graham Linehan, and some activists had lobbied the venue because of Graham’s wrong opinions on transgender rights. “He will not be allowed to perform at our venue and is cancelled from Thursday’s comedy show with immediate effect,” read the notice.
Andrew Doyle and Andy Shaw, who run Comedy Unleashed, are both brilliant publicists and they went to town, defending their gig. Some comics start slagging it off, others run to their defence. Cue a media frenzy, especially following on from Jerry Sadowitz’s highly publicised cancellation last year at the Fringe. Unleashed found another venue and the gig would go ahead after all.
This had now become a national, if not an international story - never mind the UK press, the likes of Joe Rogan and Tom Woods were tweeting about it. A one-off gig on the fringe of the Fringe had become the most talked about gig of the festival.
Then on the morning of the gig, I got a message saying that the second venue had cancelled. They didn’t want the heat.
I shrugged, stopped rehearsing my set and went off about my day with my daughter, watching shows, doing my own show, phone switched off. She had just got her A-level results, (and had got three A stars and with them a place at Cambridge, humble brag), so we had plenty to celebrate. At about six o’clock we were having dinner. I switched on my phone to receive a message from Dominic Cavendish, the Telegraph arts critic, asking me which side of the Scottish Parliament the gig was on at. What?
A phone call later, I learnt that the gig was going ahead. Andy Shaw and his team had got whatever permission was required and were doing it in the street outside the Scottish Parliament.
I rushed home, got my uke and headed over.
There are certain basic things a gig needs to work. Seats, for example. Ideally pointed at the stage. A stage that you can walk about on is good too - as close as possible to the audience. Lights. A mic. Decent sound. No passing traffic. Ceilings are good, the lower the better - laughter is contagious and low ceilings create atmosphere - though they are perhaps not essential.
I arrived to find none of these. The gig was on the pavement. There were cars driving by (it was on a main road). The stage was a one-yard square platform a foot off the ground, about thirty yards away from the audience, which was a few people milling about wondering where to go. The sound wasn’t working. Andrew Doyle was in Miami. Andy Shaw was in London. They had been quite rightly insisting the gig go ahead, but a feeling of impending doom enveloped the acts who actually had to play it. Those who are about to die salute you.
It wasn’t just that we were about to die. The gig had been opened up to all-comers - you didn’t need tickets. Enemies of Linehan were sure to come. Reviewers would destroy us. There was no way to stop people filming it on their phones. Out-of-context clips of us dying would haunt us as they circulated online for years to come. Heck, BBC News even had cameras there and you know how the news like to distort and sensationalise.
“Do you think we should even do this?” Bruce Devlin, the compere, asked me with a fearful look in his eye. We had to. We both knew it. So many people had worked so hard to make it happen, not least Andy and Andrew’s brilliant friends in Edinburgh who had found the space and organised the PA. The audience wanted the gig to happen too. We couldn’t bail.
The crowd that had showed up meanwhile had gravitated towards some stone bollards, presumably put there to defend the parliament against terrorists, where a few of them could now sit. We moved the stage to be close them as possible. We put the speakers there too (by now we had got the PA working). The gig stumbled ahead.
In the end, we survived, largely because the audience was so nice. I even got a nice mention in the Telegraph. My thanks and gratitude go to all those on the ground, who busted a gut to make it happen, as well as to Andrew and Andy. Somebody actually recorded, edited and uploaded the gig. The keener of you can watch it here or below (at the bottom of this piece). There was something quite memorable to singing about Nicola Sturgeon’s cellmate right in front of the Scottish Parliament. I’ve also posted some pics.
And if you want to come to a gig that does have seats pointed at the stage, a ceiling, no passing traffic and brilliant sound system, then September 27 at Crazy Coqs in Piccadilly Circus is the place to be. These nights are really good, even if I say so myself. Full band. And they do sell out, so book early to avoid disappointment.
The gig itself:
That gigs are getting cancelled at, of all places, the Edinburgh Fringe shows just how nuts things have got. The Fringe was born out of anti-establishment sentiment and action. It’s should be one of the few places where you can air fringe views. Madness, I tell you.
If you want to hear the incredible story of how this amazing festival was born, then Adam Smith: Father of the Fringe is the film to watch.