Looking back at the 1845 Edgar Allen Poe story that gave us the caveat against “the lunatics taking over the asylum”, I genuinely think Drs Tarr and Feather might be exactly what is called for at this Edinburgh Fringe. The hopeful lunatics who bring shows up here to The Fringe were, let us never forget, originally the ones who did run August’s artistic asylum. The early boards of the Fringe Society were all people who knew how to put on shows. Let’s face it, no matter how crazy you have to expect fun, freedom and fairness under this administration (I use the word loosely, much in the way Orwell used the phrase Ministry of Truth), the legendary Bald Man who Sings Rhianna each year could only be an improvement as the Person In Charge.
When we reach a point at which those in charge (for whatever reason that has been allowed to happen) exhibit an egregious lack of understanding of, or any respect for the ‘lunatics’, something surely has to change. Surely?
And we most certainly have reached that point.
Of course the troublesome peasantry of the free shows, the leftie political show-offs and the Pay What You Want rabble are kicking off about not one penny of Scottish Government’s Fringe Resilience funding for PBH and his original Free Fringe or even The Stand, always a benchmark for treating artists fairly.
Of course those little people, thoughtless enough not to have booked themselves into one of the Big Venues are getting petulant about the sudden revelation that The Fringe App, their most potent marketing tool would no longer be available.
Predictably, mouthy comics are getting irritable about the possibility of finding their best gags on content-hoovering, internet giant Tik Tok before the applause on the first performance dies down. Well, they are our new shiny sponsors … ‘we’ have invited the vampires into ouoor blood bank.
But even those Big Venues so pivotal to the Pyramid scheme Edinburgh’s Fringe Society Ltd is making of the Fringe, were more than a little miffed when they realised that 305k was scooped off the top of the Fringe Resilience Fund to be used … not sure … something about continued Fringe Society Ltd … blah blah … anyway we probably never know. “Whoever heard of a funding body taking the biggest share of the money themselves ?” I was asked by one disgruntled applicant. No one, I suspect. But The Board took Phoebe Waller Bridge out to the Gleneagles Town House to celebrate, so that was nice.
Even more surprisingly, William Burdett-Coutts, who created the first of the Big Four – Edinburgh’s Big … One, I suppose, and who is about as Establishment as a person on a Fringe can be, is sounding but a flatpack barricade away from revolution.
“The Fringe Society was created to give the basics of support.” he says. “Now it has become this corporate monster that thinks it has some sort of moral authority over the festival. It sucks in more money, and hires more people, which takes more money and now it is so big it has totally forgotten its core purposes”.
Those who regard the ‘Big Four’ as having inalienable special and unfair privileges will be taken aback to hear that they “couldn’t even get a meeting”.
Burdett-Coutts, who established the Assembly Rooms as the Fringe’s first multi- venue in 1981, in the days when the Fringe Society had three people who ran it perfectly happily and somehow found time to meet people too, is not the first to voice worries about the disinclination of Shona McCarthy, our current Fringe Society CEO (as opposed to Fringe Administrator or even Fringe Director, which I think speaks volumes) to engage with those who actually make the Fringe happen. She arrived here from heading up Derry’s sojourn as UK City of Culture, trailing eye-watering tales of deficit, discontent and disaster and a reputation for having, as the Chief Executive of Derry Council put it, an “us and them attitude”.
And “us and them” seems to be exactly how she is dividing Edinburgh. “Us” being Edinburgh Fringe Society Ltd and “them” being anyone who actually creates anything on the Fringe itself.
While never exactly hoi polloi, Burdett-Coutts has been part of making the Fringe happen over many years. In 1981 he was too late to find anywhere to stage his production of The Madman and the Nun, and managed – impressively – to negotiate a great last minute deal with Edinburgh City Council for The Assembly Rooms on George Street, which lay empty, after having previously been home to the Festival Club. Delightful but financially catastrophic, I gather. WB-C took over the whole place and the rest is Fringe History.
So I ask him what he thinks might be the best solution to the apparently unstoppable degeneration of the Fringe into a commercial and corporate giant and the very antithesis of everything it was set up to be.
“Drop a bomb on the whole thing and start again” he says, without missing a beat.
Now, I do not know if you have ever met Bill Burdett-Coutts OBE, but the bomb is not generally his go-to problem-solving method. However, desperate times call for desperate measures.
There has NEVER been a Fringe so beset with bad feeling, official complaints from professional bodies, online activism and widespread criticism of the Fringe Society from every level of The Fringe itself.
The unwillingness to engage, even with big venues, has led to, as Burdett-Coutts says, “one really good thing. We now have eight or ten venues genuinely working together”. These eight have now become EdFest.com. With a brochure, a ticketing system, press office and a fair amount you might look for in a Fringe administration.
OK, it is not exactly the Free Fringe, and pretty far from by the people, of the people for the people, but it is the Big Boys with their Big Venues taking an important step away from the dark shadow of the 2022 Fringe Society Ltd, in the Stygian gloom of whose shade little creative things shiver and die, and their vital data is harvested for use in future funding applications while we celebrate another workshop on How To Monetise Your TikTok.