The inimitable Peter Buckley Hill has a lot to answer for. As the man behind the original, official Free Fringe (beware of less cheap imitations) he has given many performers (good and bad!) and many audience members (including your humble correspondent) their first chance to experience the Fringe at a price that suits them, i.e. nothing. With ever-increasing worries about the affordability of the Fringe (33% hikes in accommodation prices have been reported), we wanted to hear from the man who, while ruffling a few feathers, has done the most to keep the open access Fringe a reality into the 21st century. But there are always more important matters than an old arts festival…
First of all, how are you? Because you’ve not been well…
It varies. The illness was traumatic and long-lasting, but I don’t want to dwell on that, because many people have worse. Some days now I have all my old energy back; others I can barely walk. I still have specialists to see. In 2016 I thought I was just getting too old and tired for the game, but no; I was very ill and didn’t know it. The 2019 Fringe will be a test.
I can never drink again, and the Fringe will be strange without the late-night weirdness and ego-contests of the performers’ bars. I shall be at home watching My Little Pony on Freeview, or reading Spinoza, or neither.
My Tourette’s is also getting worse, which doesn’t endear me to people. For many years I wouldn’t admit to having it, but it has made my life more difficult than it otherwise might have been. Tourette’s is not what most people think it is, and considerably less funny.
You’ve said this is the last year for the show that started it all (Peter Buckley Hill and Some Comedians). Is that a definitive, no-going-back last year or is it more of a Sinatra farewell tour scenario?
I imagine Sinatra meant it at the time. And technology has now made it possible for the dead to perform at major venues. But only selected members of the dead.
I have precisely two gigs in my diary for after the Fringe and I see no more on the horizon. But the stage is a siren, luring unwary sailors to their deaths. I can’t promise never to tread the boards again. I don’t think anyone can. But I shouldn’t. I’m now best known as an organiser, but I will always wonder: if I had not thrown all my energy into organising, how good a comedian could I have become? Well, too late now.
I did announce a retirement in 2016, true, as organiser (not necessarily as performer). But, as I said before, I was ill and didn’t know it. I haven’t done a Fringe show since 2016, so that’s been a sort of retirement. Actually, few people came to that 2016 show, but I’m proud of it. It was all done in haikus, and I recorded it later at the Bloomsbury. It’s on the web.
How hands on are you with the Free Fringe these days?
I try not to be. The team is doing a good job. But in the earlier days I was very hands-on, and I’m still a stickler for detail. Details are very important and a slight error can have big consequences. It’s hard not to intervene. You’d be surprised how important data processing is to us, and how complex our system gets. It’s not something performers usually consider.
I have been quite hands-on recently. Close to the Fringe, it’s all hands on deck and man the pumps. But I shall have no role in 2020, other than to help my successors if needed.
I find I intervene most when some performers don’t get the idea. For example, our shows are free. There’s a bucket which the public can choose to use for donations. Our shows are not “pay what you want”, which implies a compulsion to give. That’s a slogan from the sort of promoter who combines free-admission with pay-to-play, and we want no part of that. Not all our acts understand, although they should. It does make me angry when shows occasionally exploit us by accepting what we give and giving nothing back. But that’s only a minority of our shows, and they tend not to come back.
[Read comedian Jo Caulfield’s thoughts on “free” shows that aren’t really free here – ed.]
I fear my successors may be too nice. Because once you let one breach of the conditions go, the wedge is in. The Free Fringe cannot work if everybody does whatever they like. There have to be rules, and there are good reasons for all of ours, even if not everybody realises that.
When you look back to PBH and Some Comedians 1, did you have any idea what you were getting yourself into?
Well, to a large extent, yes. I knew the idea was right. And the full audience on the first night of PBHASC 1 was very gratifying. It took more years than I thought for the idea to catch on. I go into this in some detail in my book.
What I did not foresee then was others trying to run free-admission shows for profit, combining them with pay-to-play.
I foresaw a Fringe in which there was no pay-to-play except where it was advantageous for the artist. For example, the already-famous selling out the Castle. Or theatre shows which require staging in a fully-equipped theatre, which obviously cannot be provided free. We’re still a long way off that vision, but we’ve come closer to it in the 24 years of the Free Fringe.
People drank more in 1996, so our deal was better for bars and nightclubs then than it is now. I fear for the licensed trade itself.
How do you feel about how the Free Fringe has turned out all these years on?
We’re only just starting. The Free Fringe is a movement for the emancipation of performers, and all these years later, performers aren’t emancipated. There’s a lot of Stockholm Syndrome still about.
We still have not achieved any justice from the Fringe organisation, and I get the feeling they wish we’d go away. But we’re not going to. The Fringe participation fee structure is ridiculous and discriminatory. One week in a tiny free-admission venue costs the same participation fee as a full run in the largest, most opulent, ticketed theatre. I have constantly called for reform on this, but it has been defeated. Only when performers themselves, who make the Fringe happen, also make the policy by being in a majority on the Board, will this change.
Since 1979 UK politics has been about selfishness. People of 40 and below have never known government in the interests of all the people. We’ve lived in a Britished waterdown of the American Dream: success by shafting others, and if you’re poor it’s your own fault. So one can hardly be surprised if many performers don’t understand the collectivist mentality of the Free Fringe; they see few examples in Society itself. After all, they pay through the nose for university education now, and are encouraged to think of expensive learning as a road to employment, not as an end in itself. The pay-to-play Fringe is the equivalent of a university for aspirant performers (but with worse teaching). But you only learn well if you love your subject. And the Free Fringe, I hope, is about performers who love to perform and who support each other, not regard each other as rivals.
There’s been ups-and-downs and controversies over the years. Anything you regret or you’d do differently in hindsight?
I would not have collaborated in any way with Laughing Horse. That was my biggest mistake. I thought they understood the principles for which I was fighting, but they didn’t. I should have kept closer watch over our principles and our venues.
A lot of mud was thrown at me over Cowgatehead in 2015, or was it 16? [It was 2015. See John Fleming’s blog for a summary – ed.] But I would not change the decisions I made then. They were the only possible decisions in the circumstances, and therefore the right ones. Another “promoter” booked acts on to eleven stages when there were only five, and in fact had no authority to book any stages at all. I and the team worked hard to help, with little thanks, but ultimately we have no obligation towards shows who have not applied to us nor agreed to our Conditions, the document that makes the Free Fringe what it is. We have rather more of an obligation to our own applicants.
I’d also never have been persuaded to use Cruz, our biggest venue disaster. It is, however, a pity that the epicentre of the Fringe is shrinking in upon itself like a black hole, to the extent that some of our performers describe George Street as “not central enough”. There are good rooms in Leith, in Morningside, at the West End, and in Stockbridge, and elsewhere, but shows refuse to be based there and the non-Edinburgh public won’t go there.
What else? We booked a few shows we should not have booked, but with the number of shows and applicants we have, that’s inevitable. We still vet all our shows, and my successors always will.
With every mistake we must surely be learning, while my stress ulcer gently weeps.
Despite your good work, in many ways the Fringe has become more unaffordable than ever, especially with accommodation costs etc. What do you think the future is?
In eras of Trump and Johnson and Orban and Bolsonaro, it is hard to be optimistic. When people die sleeping on the streets, where there are food banks, where CEOs are paid in multiple millions and preside over zero-hours contracts, where water itself belongs to the rich, where climate change is shrugged off by the powerful, it’s hard to see any justice happening anywhere. There are many issues more serious than the Fringe.
If artists from all classes of society are to be encouraged, then there has to be some form of subsidy. As it stands, the Fringe is middle class and the “lower” classes can’t afford it. And that’s wrong. Maybe art has always been like that, but it doesn’t have to be.
But performers are their own worst enemies, and their dreams and fantasies kill them. We save them money: good. But many of them then spend that money on things that feed their ego and are of no use. Take paid leafleters. A relative rarity, when I first came to the Fringe; now commonplace, almost universal. How many people being paid £10/hr to leaflet for a show have actually seen that show? And if they haven’t, they can’t answer questions about it. So what’s the point? They’re just pushing paper; everybody loses. But hey, you’re a performer, you have a “street team”; your ego is fed. At the expense of your bank account. Again, the middle class can afford this, but the working class not. Unless the aggregate promotional spend at the Fringe goes down, my work has been in vain and everybody loses. Show promotion is an arms race and it has to be controlled.
Accommodation is a major problem, and getting worse. One of my colleagues recently suggested a performers’ rent strike. I had to tell him it was an unfeasible idea. What is not rented to performers is rented to the public, and they tend to be better off. The people who have accommodation are the universities. If only they would reserve some for performers at a reasonable rent. But they can’t, because they too are driven by the need for profit.
I don’t have an answer. I can’t beat the laws of economics. Accommodation will only become cheaper if fewer people demand it, and if there are fewer people demanding accommodation, then audience numbers are down, thus rendering the whole Fringe not worthwhile. Only positive discrimination can beat the laws of supply and demand. The private student accommodations cannot be expected to charge any less than the maximum rate they can achieve; similarly the hotels. In times gone by, the universities might have done so. I can’t see it now.
Of all the Edinburgh venues you’ve taken your shows to, where have you felt most at home and why?
The Canons’ Gait, my stage home for many years but not a venue in 2019. It was comfortable. It had atmosphere. The beer was good (but nowadays I cannot drink, with the illness; it’s changed my life).
But that’s just my show. We have some wonderful venues that Free Fringers are very keen to be booked at. The Banshee Labyrinth, Whistlebinkies, Bannerman’s, the Voodoo Rooms, and many more.
And what do you feel most proud of? One moment in your years at the Fringe where you were most chuffed?
The day I got an encore in the Bear Pit. Proudest moment of my life, or one of the top ones. Of course, you have to be a long-term veteran to even remember the Bear Pit (a lot of people confuse it with Late’n’Live; not at all the same thing). If you never saw the Bear Pit, you wouldn’t believe it.
Getting five stars in The Scotsman, with a show I had never run as a unit until the day it was reviewed, was also quite special. But this is all head-turning stuff and one shouldn’t rejoice at it. If you wish for five stars, you must be prepared for one star.
The best decision I ever made was to list all shows in the Wee Blue Book strictly in order of start time, regardless of genre. The Wee Blue Book answers the question: what’s on when I, the Fringegoer, am available? And thus it helps people to discover something they might not otherwise have discovered.
But perhaps I am proudest of the community spirit among performers, and therefore angriest when occasionally people break it.
I’d like to have Christopher Wren’s epitaph: if you seek a memorial, look around you. But then came the Luftwaffe, and then the high rise builders. Nothing lasts. I hope to be a bench on Canongate when I’m dead.
How can people get hold of your book if they want to read more?
I’m doing a show reading from it (15:15, Banshee Labyrinth Banqueting Hall, not Wednesdays) and will be selling afterwards. The Banshee Labyrinth will have a stock also, and possibly some of our other venues. It can be ordered from bookshops quoting ISBN 978-1-908755-34-6, or by mail order from me, on email@example.com. I have tried to avoid using Amazon, because I don’t like they way they treat their warehouse workers. I won’t sell to them direct, but apparently they can still list it and I can’t stop them.
I would like people to read the book; I didn’t think I’d ever write one but now I’m quite pleased with it. It says a lot more than my answers to your questions can. And there are funny bits and sad bits, heroes and villains and people with tinges of both, tales of the valorous knights of old (not really) and a lot of pseudonyms. And a bad mistake with the metric system, which will get corrected in the second edition if there is one.