There’s an unholy storm a-brewin’ on the wild frontier between the Fringe’s various free events promoters. Freestival, they of the pizza sponsorship, allege they had a verbal agreement to book acts for the Cowgatehead venue. Peter Buckley Hill, he of the Albert Einstein hair and guardian of the ‘true’ free fringe ethos, then trumped them with a written contract which he alleges gives him rights to the same venue. The farrago is further jumbled by the fact that the building is owned by several generations of the same family all called Kenny Waugh, and it appears people have been talking to different ones. And the biggest losers look set to be the performers who don’t know if they’ve got the slot they’ve already paid to put in the Fringe brochure, out tomorrow. They’re petitioning to save their shows. The full saga has been assiduously documented by John Fleming, he of the Increasingly Prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards, on his blog. It’s worth a read.
Now, The Wee Review is a neutral party. We are looking forward to previewing and reviewing Fringe shows, wherever they are held and whoever promotes them. It’s the performers we are interested in.
As Editor, I am similarly neutral. But before I was The Wee Review Editor, I was an ordinary punter, and in that capacity, I’d like to make like The Streets and ask, Has It Come To This? [N.B. This cultural reference is over a decade out of date – ed.]
Peter Buckley Hill was my introduction to the Fringe. As a poor student, scraping by on a Saturday job in the bookies, Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians was the only show I could reasonably afford to see, back in the days when it was at the (now forgotten) Sports Bar on Grassmarket. One evening after a show, I got chatting to a couple of guys who were doing a show out of the back of a converted van they had parked up on the street. Suddenly, drunk after a night watching comedy, it all made sense. I began to see what the Fringe was about, and it started with PBH.
Then, as now, he seemed an odd, mad professor – shambling, not entirely funny, not entirely unfunny, but with something compellingly watchable about him. And he gave us free comedy. I could get behind that. I saw ‘that crazy fella from the Fringe’ at Cambridge Folk Festival and then back in Edinburgh every August. Who knows how he organised it, but here he was every Fringe with more comedians, more free stuff for those of us without trust funds to our name, so that we could dabble in the Fringey goodness.
Many years later and the movement he kick-started has gone forth and multiplied. The free segment of the Fringe has made its venues into must-go destinations for those with insatiable cultural appetites and money-starved wallets. Voodoo Rooms, White Horse, Canon’s Gait, Counting House, Blind Poet, Southsider, Three Sisters. The truth is, I couldn’t tell you who programmed them all, but I know they’re there and they’re free and they’ll have some amazing stuff on. The important thing therefore is that a free element to the Fringe is retained, encouraged and not tarnished with contractual disputes, cancellations and financial losses to performers.
Instead, we have a crazy landgrab going on. Two free festival gunslingers in a Cowgate saloon duelling it out between themselves, and for what? Pride? Revenge? A dispute over the definition of ‘free’? There are bigger battles to fight. Performers grow poor during the Fringe, landlords and bar and hotel owners grow rich. If we’re gonna have a gunfight at the Fringe corral, let’s turn the shotguns on them, not each other.
Personally, I admire PBH’s ‘purist’ ethos of zero charges to performers and zero sponsorship. If I were a performer (viewing public thank God I’m not) I would certainly be inclined to that route. I can understand if it smarts that free splinter groups have taken his ball and are running with it. But the hardline tactics he appears to be using to defend his territory does the movement he started no good. Other models can and do exist, and it is in the spirit of the Fringe to let them flourish. Yes, Freestival have sponsorship, yes, there’s £150 Freestival fee – it’s a different way of doing things that sits somewhere between PBH’s freebie fundamentalism and the top-end commercialism of the Big Four. All should peacefully co-exist. Please let’s hope the UN peace-keeping force of the Fringe Society can help see things to a sensible conclusion.
If you are a performer who has been affected by this dispute and would like us to air your views, please get in touch via our contact page