As the man in the pink jacket gets set to reach 25 years of Pick of the Fringe, the longest running show in Fringe history, Kerry Teakle catches up with the legend that is Mervyn Stutter…
Tell us about the show…
It’s a showcase of 90 minutes of seven acts each day from 1-2.30pm, with each of the acts getting up to 5 minutes. So you’re getting a taster of what’s great at the Fringe, in the hope it will tease you to going to see their whole show.
How did the show come about?
I’ve been performing at the Fringe for 30 years, the first five years with a popular comedy and song show singing topical songs. It got good reviews but then comedy songs were not seen as a good thing and this genre became much maligned.
It was then that I had a lightbulb moment. The eternal question everyone gets asked at the fringe is: ‘seen anything good?’ And I thought, ‘what if I put on a showcase of acts from across the Fringe, of not just old but new ones?’
So in 1992, I started Mervyn’s Pick of the Fringe, with my wife Moira (Downie) producing it. We were determined that theatre should play a part, as even then comedy was a huge part of the Fringe, despite 45% of the festival programme being dedicated to theatre.
In fact we wanted to showcase everything – comedy, music, dance, theatre, cabaret, circus and the indefinable – with the only criteria being that it was good.
We started in the old Cabaret Bar at the Pleasance, changing in the adjoining kitchen. It wasn’t a glamorous existence and we have moved around different venues over the years.
When do you start preparing for the Fringe?
A Fringe year lasts nine months, with the process starting very soon after the previous Fringe ends.
I have two teams of five working for me, six including me, who normally see up to four to five shows a day. It can be quite draining so we don’t want them to burn out.
It’s not a glamorous existence. The team are out and about seeing shows from 9am until our show starts, and then afterwards until midnight and beyond. We tend to use the university accommodation, which is pretty functional, with a bed, a light, and a bathroom and the office is run from the kitchen.
Not everything makes the cut and the team have the executive decision of what gets in. I tend to arbitrate. I don’t tend to have too much of a say as to what goes in, although I can advise. I’ve found that it’s better if I stay neutral, as it causes less problems when having to interview the acts.
Who are your team and what are their backgrounds?
My teams have grown organically over the years and they’re a discerning bunch. Some of the team have been with me for 10 years. I’ve used actors who can be good judge of shows but then it can sometimes conflict with their own Fringe performances, especially if there are issues with their show, which can mean them needing to dedicate more time to that.
I’ve used people who work in schools and this year have a bi-lingual French student, who wants to get a better understanding of UK theatre and culture.
How do you think the fringe has changed over the years?
The Fringe performers are very polished and see it as a launch pad for their careers now, unlike the old days when they would test out their material. They can’t afford to do that now as there’s too much riding on it with many of the industry agents attending.
Technology has also changed considerably with the invention of the internet and the use of Facebook, Twitter and the mobile phone.
In fact I wonder how we ever coped without these. The whole internet package is how the Fringe works now.
I can still recount the days where the team would be sent off with 10p pieces to use in the public telephone boxes if they wanted to communicate with the office. One of the team came back one day to the office and I said ‘why on earth didn’t you use the pay-phone?’ With his response being: ‘I couldn’t – the guy in front of me was breaking up with his girlfriend!’
After all this time, does the Fringe have the same appeal?
What I think we do with Pick of the Fringe is showcasing not just the established but also the new undiscovered gems. It gives me such great pleasure to be able to give a shining light to those acts who might not have the backing or budget to employ PRs or promoters to get them seen in the right places.
Sometimes just giving them a platform at my show is enough to make their Fringe a success.
Tell us about your Silver Jubilee Gala Show…
The Gala show will be at Assembly George Square Theatre on Monday 15 August, the mid-Monday of the Festival, for 2 hours at 12.20pm, rather than at the Gilded Balloon, which is where the daily show is.
The acts, which are under wraps for now, will get slightly longer to showcase their acts, perhaps up to 10 minutes each.
It’s going to be a real celebration of the last 25 years.
And it’s in support of the Imibala Trust. Why?
The Gala is in aid of the Imibala Trust, which means colours in Zulu, and is a social movement of commitment towards enriching the lives of school going children in South Africa.
The primary reason the trust exists is sponsoring a child through school each year, which costs £60-£70.
My wife works for the charity and her family live in South Africa, near to where the charity is in Somerset West, so it makes sense to support this cause.
In our 20th year, we celebrated with a Gala Show in the 700 seater Pleasance Grand, with the proceeds from this and the raffle of my old legendary pink jacket raising £5000.
So rather than sponsoring a child with the proceeds, we decided to create an Arts Fund, which pays for specialist training for talented yet disadvantaged township kids in the specific arts discipline they show talent in.
We had an X Factor style talent show to discover all the kids who would benefit from that fund.
And tell us about the legendary Spirit of the Fringe Awards or the “Mervs” as they are affectionately known?
These have been going since 1992, making them one of the oldest awards on the Fringe. These six accolades are given at the climax of the run at the final show in the Gilded Balloon Debating Hall on Sunday 28 August to celebrate the talent, hard work, pluck and sheer doggedness demanded of performers from all genres on the Fringe to make a show a success. The awards were created to recognise those who show commitment in the face of little support or funding.
So is it a physical trophy like the Oscars?
Haha no! It’s a series of clip frames that have developed over the years with a framed image, normally of me. My son’s very talented so he’s helped photo-shop it.
To celebrate the last 25 years, my promoter, Peter Harris, will be posting on Facebook each of the last 25 years’ winners.
And with all your years’ experience of the Fringe, what would your top tips be to our readers about how to enjoy or plan for the Fringe?
- If you are going to enjoy the Fringe, start planning in January and make sure you sort out your accommodation then.
- Plan accordingly. Don’t fill your day and don’t pre-book everything and make sure you leave gaps for eating.
- If you’re young don’t drink too much as you’ll forget what you’ve seen. [That could also apply if you’re old too! – KT]
- Decoding the festival programme is tricky. Promotional wording can be misleading so take it with a pinch of salt or ask someone in the know.
- If you are passing a venue and something has caught your eye, get a flyer. You might miss a gem if you don’t.
So in a nutshell what I am saying is: Plan / Take with a pinch of salt some of the claims on the promotional material / And just go for it.
And for performers, any top tips?
Make a suitable budget; Have a three year plan and don’t necessarily expect to make money in your first year; Rehearse and turn up ready to go.
In conclusion, there’s no stopping this man’s enthusiasm for the Fringe or for life. What should have been a quick call ended up lasting an hour.
If you’re still undecided as to what to see at this year’s Fringe and are still working your way through the brochure, why not take a punt on Merv’s show? It’ll be different every day and working out at less than £8 per hour (or £11-12 for a full 90 minutes), it’ll be one of the better value tickets on the Fringe.