Take a wander round the Fringe, listen to the voices, listen to the conversations being had, look at the shows and their subject matter, check the menus, check the prices, check the drinks on offer. The Fringe is a middle-class festival, and then some. Like many areas of life, its pleasures and opportunities are off-limits to those from poorer backgrounds.
It shouldn’t be that way, of course, and no-one intends it to be that way. The Fringe, after all, is proudly open to everyone. But a combination of factors both cultural and economic, and the complacency of the clubby arts establishment mean getting a foot in the door if you’re a working class performer isn’t easy.
But the Fringe has a habit of renewing itself and, in its best moments, a knack for ingenious solutions. Peter Buckley-Hill’s Free Fringe revolution at the turn of the century revitalised the “Fringe spirit” and allowed many performers and audience members (including yours truly) an opportunity to enjoy a Fringe experience they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to afford, by making venues free to play, and shows free to attend. It hasn’t solved everything – the basic cost of living in Edinburgh in August is still exorbitant, and free shows don’t have the same profile and career-building potential – but it helps.
Off the back of this, working-class comics are, as working-class people have always been forced to do, creating their own solutions to a structural problem that is not of their making. This year, Lee Kyle, a comic from the North-East of England has crowdfunded a “Working-Class Fringe” brochure to help raise the profile of those of limited wherewithal. Elsewhere, Laughing Horse free venue Harry’s Southside will host Best In Class, a profit-sharing showcase of working-class comedy voices. Working-class solidarity in action. But what even counts as “working class” these days?
“It’s tricky to define in traditional terms,” says Sian Davies, a comic based in North West England who is spearheading Best In Class. “Factory workers, miners and chimney sweeps have given way to zero hour call centre, service industry and agency jobs. Personally I think if you are working class, you know you are.”
“I’ve come across people who think they are, because their dad was a doctor but not a specialist,” says Lee Kyle on the same subject. “Ultimately, it comes down to a safety net. If you are raised by poor people who either don’t own property or hugely go without to do so then, even if you have money now, you are working class because if that goes you are fucked.”
Tom Mayhew, another comic on the bill at Best In Class has a more practical test, that conjures images of £50-note-burning Bullingdon boys. Working class people don’t “throw 5p coins away while saying ‘I just don’t like those small coins’,” he says.
Davies’ personal story is illustrative of the kind of life circumstances that those of more affluent backgrounds might not have to face. She grew up in Liverpool in the 1980s, in the aftermath of the Toxteth riots, with a dinner lady mum and an electrician dad, who worked away on ships, three months on, three months off.
“Money was always tight. Holidays were a week in a caravan and I remember the excitement of the whole family when I won a colouring competition and we got a free meal at the local pub.”
Terrible grief hit her young, when her dad was discovered dead from a heart attack on one of the ships. On top of that, the dream of a better life through university didn’t transpire. Lack of graduate opportunities, student debt and dealing with bereavement saw her drift between minimum wage jobs.
“I was jealous of my university peers who had found stable work or gone off travelling thanks to the bank of mum and dad.”
And then she was hit again…
“In 2010, my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. I became her full time carer.” Needless to say, the labyrinthine benefits system did not cover itself in glory. “After a year my mum was in remission, but still very frail and weak. She was found fit for work and returned on a part time basis, struggling all the time. The cancer came back in 2013 and she died three weeks after diagnosis. She was 59.”
With so much to deal with, it’s no surprise her comedy ambitions had to take a back seat.
“For a long time, I sacrificed comedy for the rest of my life. I always knew I had the ability to be a comedian and that one day I would do it. It took me until the age of 34 to finally take the plunge. It was as if I waited to overcome a lot of adversity and personal challenges before I could finally have the head space to focus on comedy.”
Now Davies works part time in retail, having cut back from a full-time management position to focus on comedy. “If I have a bad month, I cut back on food shopping. I eat a lot of beans on toast!”
Likewise, Mayhew works in a supermarket to pay the bills, or maybe not…
“I wouldn’t say I pay the bills, per se; I pay rent to my parents. That’s a major difference between the classes nowadays: lots of middle-class people bemoan the fact they can ‘only’ rent. Lots of working-class people can’t afford to move out.”
And with little money to spare, comedy has to be everything to you – hobby, second job, leisure time…
“I spent around 95% of my disposable income on comedy last year,” says Mayhew. “I had to more or less sacrifice buying anything else. I haven’t had the money to learn to drive. I didn’t buy any new jeans for over 5 years…”
Yet, sometimes even all your disposal income is not enough. Davies explains a predicament she had to face:
“I was invited to audition for a showcase at the Fringe. There was a requirement to put up £1800 if I was selected, with the opportunity to earn that back nine months down the line. A friend started a fundraising page to help me out but within an hour of it going live I was dropped from the audition. The organiser told me that perhaps it wasn’t for me. I don’t know if this was about money, or class or doing something that was not the done thing…”
From this setback, Best In Class was born.
“I decided to put on my own showcase, just for working class comedians. They wouldn’t need to pay anything to secure a place and would earn money if the show turned a profit. With the help from fundraising we should hopefully be going to Edinburgh breaking even.”
What of costs, then? Many Fringe-goers, led to believe that the Fringe is where stars are born, and knowing the price of tickets, accommodation and drinks, often assume someone’s making a killing out of it. At the very least, they assume the performers they’re watching are professionals making a decent living. This is rarely the case. Costs mount up to amounts that ordinary folk can’t afford and that are unlikely to be fully earned back.
Davies estimates her costs to be “roughly £2400 not including transport to the fringe or living costs”. Mayhew estimates his for last year to be around £4000, excluding the previews he did in the run up, and though he admits he could have done it cheaper, he actually didn’t feel it was enough to put him on a level playing field with others. “I came away from Edinburgh wishing I had more money I could have spent on PR and previews.”
Kyle, who grew up in a council house in Jarrow in South Tyneside, does things on the cheap and is not willing to play the game lining the pockets of PR companies and printers. “I’m staying on a campsite for £13 a night rather than paying two grand for a windowless room and I’m getting small flyers.”
But as each of them alludes to, it’s not just about money when you’re working class. That is a problem, and sometime rules you out of things entirely, but once you’re in there, often other barriers are just as difficult to overcome.
“The money is not the main thing,” says Kyle. “It’s a confidence issue. Working class people just aren’t raised to be able to navigate the path to success. We aren’t taught we can achieve or how to do so, we don’t have contacts.”
“It’s systemic,” Davies concurs. “If you grow up working class you might go to a school that doesn’t give you access to the arts. You probably don’t have the opportunity to go and see live comedy and your Sunday afternoons probably aren’t spent listening to Radio 4.”
“Social connections are a big factor. If you didn’t do an internship at a TV studio and no one you went to school with happens to be a producer, you don’t have the luxury of influential introductions. You probably won’t know how the system works and how to make it work in your favour.”
“If you work in a zero hours job, you will be unable to plan gigs in advance and might cancel often, giving you a bad reputation with promoters.”
“For me it comes down to three key factors: money, time and social connections. If a working class person can remove one of those barriers then the right doors can open.”
Mayhew points out another practical problem: “You often play to middle-class audiences, who might not relate to material about being working-class. My worst moment on stage was when I said a throwaway line about having an iPhone 4, which a man in the front row literally cried with laughter at.”
“It’s always thought that we come at things ‘from a working class perspective’ as though that is a thing,” says Kyle. “To the people who get to decide such things, we are very much a mass, very much one thing.”
What can be done then? The comics have obviously taken things into their own hands this year, and it remains to be seen whether it pays off, structurally as well as financially. Perhaps we’ll be seeing more collaborative showcases like Best In Class and collaborative marketing like the initiative Kyle has started. Or perhaps a helping hand is needed from elsewhere.
“Change needs to come from the top rather than the bottom,” says Davies. “Why aren’t the big venues and promoters removing barriers and creating opportunities? Why is it taking a group of working class comics to bring the issue to the forefront? I would like to see each of the big four promoters offer subsidised schemes for comics from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Mayhew agrees that some practical help could make a world of difference. “Maybe a bursary specifically to help a working-class comedian take a show up to Edinburgh? Or concessions on brochure fees and venues, for those who need to save every penny to try and chase their dream?”
Kyle is more pessimistic. “It can’t [change]. It’s societal. There will always be people at the bottom. There will be initiatives to help and they will a bit but they can’t change how we are.”
Without more support, many working class folk will simply never get a shot at the Fringe, or, like these three, will be scrimping, saving and going without just to pursue their comedy ambitions. Even the wealthiest BAFTA winner has tales to tell of the damp bedsits and tins of cold beans they had on the way up, of course. But to quote Jarvis Cocker’s famous line, “if you called your Dad, he could stop it all”. Not everyone has that security blanket.
“I am only ever one crisis away from my life being turned on its head,” Davies admits. “If my car breaks down and I can’t afford to fix it. If my sister gets ill. If I get ill. If I lose my job. If my roof blows off. If the dog gets injured. If I need to work full time again to pay for something. All I can do is keep going until the next issue comes up. And write some jokes about it.”
Best In Class is @ Harry’s Southside, Edinburgh, Thu 2 – Sun 26 Aug 2018 @ 12pm
Lee Kyle: Kicking Potatoes Into The Sea is @ City Cafe, Edinburgh, Fri 3 – Sun 26 Aug 2018 (not 15, 19) @ 10.20am
Comedy Queers (feat. Sian Davies) is @ Counting House, Edinburgh, Thu 2 – Sun 26 Aug 2018 @ 12:45am