Don’t be afraid of an Edinburgh exodus

Richard Herring

COMMENT: Richard Herring has chosen to stop doing the Edinburgh Fringe. Other comedians may follow suit. Here’s why this might be a good thing.

In my gap between fringe visits, I’m going to turn my attention to a story that raised a few eyebrows three months ago. Comedian and long-standing fringe regular Richard Herring said he wasn’t going to take part in the Edinburgh Fringe this year. There were two main reasons he gave, but the first reason is a common complaint of lots of comedians: it’s not worthwhile any more. Herring’s last straw was paying through the nose for a substandard flat for a month. There’s also a problem (not raised by Herring personally but a problem nonetheless) that even established comedians can end up making a massive loss at Edinburgh if things go wrong.

Richard Herring is not the only comedian who’s unhappy about Edinburgh. In fact, there so much grumbling that there was even talk a few years back of having a breakaway “London Comedy Festival”. This idea is, so far, only a hypothetical proposal, but presumably the idea would be a festival as high-profile as Edinburgh (at least for comedy) where the big-name comedians could perform high-profile gigs without the expense. Not sure who they intended would to perform in it, but my guess is it would work on invitation – and therefore it’s unlikely to be an opportunity for aspiring comedians to get started.

Will other big comedians join Richard Herring in dropping Edinburgh? Could they end up setting a rival comedy festival? Might there be a mass exodus from the Scottish capital? This prospect might alarm supporters of festival fringes who might see this as a threat to the ideals of the open access festival. Well, my view is that I don’t know how likely it is this will happen, but if it does, the Edinburgh Fringe has nothing to fear – and, if anything, it could make the the festival better.

To look at this objectively, we need to look back to the original purpose of the Edinburgh Fringe. It began when six groups turned up uninvited to Scotland’s capital in the inaugural year of the Edinburgh International Festival. These groups had little in common except a shared belief that you shouldn’t need an invitation to take part in a festival. It could easily have been dismissed by public and critics alike as a noddy festival that was only for people not good enough to be in the proper one, but it wasn’t. They were taken seriously and the fringe grew. And okay, some acts tried and failed, but other acts tried and succeeded. What was important was that everyone was given the chance to try.

The trouble is, this dearly-held principle of the Fringe – that anyone who wants to take part can – is no longer true in practice. Such is the festival’s success and prestige, a new barrier has emerged, and that barrier is money. It’s costly enough running an act for three weeks in another city (which you have to do if you want a realistic chance to be noticed), but this problem is exacerbated by the sheer number of acts in a city of a finite size. Costs can only go up and up and up as long as demand continues to outstrip supply.

But how can you curb demand in a festival where anyone is free to take part and every man and his dog wants to be part of it? You can’t (at least not without doing something massively controversial such as vetting or a lottery system). The only way of reducing demand is if performers choose not to come of their own accord. And if it’s the big name comedians that choose not to come, I wouldn’t mind too much if we lost them.

Don’t get me wrong – no-one should be barred from taking part, from the tiddliest student groups to the greatest names in comedy. But big-name comedians do make things difficult for everyone else. The large audiences that big-name comedians draw in means there’s less to go round for everyone else. The big spaces they need to perform also means there’s fewer performances spaces for the rest of us. Drawing in additional audiences who’ve come to see their telly faves live takes up accommodation and pushes up accommodation prices for everyone else. Now, it might be nice to imagine that all the people coming up to Edinburgh for these megastars will also see a few grass-roots comedians whilst they’re up there and give them a chance. But I strongly suspect they don’t.

In defence of big-name comedians, they’re not the only people pushing up expense in Edinburgh. You could say the same about the gazillions of small groups who aren’t ready for Edinburgh. But we need to cast our mind back to the founding principle of the Fringe: that the opportunities of an arts festival should be open to everyone. The Edinburgh Fringe is a springboard many small groups badly need (and, sure, many of them are wasting their time, but it’s their prerogative alone to decide if they’re ready). The biggest comedy acts, on the other hand, most definitely do not need the Edinburgh Fringe to launch their careers – they already have plenty of opportunities. Sadly, like it or not, their presence on the Edinburgh stages means fewer opportunities for the people who need it the most.

And this brings us to the other reason Richard Herring hinted on for not doing Edinburgh. He implied – even if he didn’t spell it out explicitly – that there are comedians down the chain who need the Edinburgh Fringe a lot more than people like him. That’s a reason I applaud. I have no time for diva comedians who boycott an Edinburgh Fringe not quite to their liking thinking “that’ll show them”, but Richard Herring’s support for the Free Fringe, and the aspiring comedians who start of this way, is admirable. If he’s worried that established acts such as himself are taking opportunities from the people currently rising through the free fringe, I respect that and I won’t argue.

Under no circumstances should we consider stopping big-name comedians taking part in the Edinburgh Fringe – apart from the pointlessness of that move (you can’t stop them turning up uninvited to start their own festival, just as you couldn’t stop those six acts turning up in 1947), that would open the door to all sorts of draconian censorship. But if big-name comedians choose not to come of their own accord – whether for altruistic reasons or for petty self-centred reasons – I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing. There are plenty of other opportunities to see these comedians elsewhere, but there aren’t many other opportunities to see the grass-roots theatre and comedy that make the Fringe unique.

Just for the record, I am not expecting a mass desertion of comedians from Edinburgh. Richard Herring is probably a one-off; I will be surprised if it actually happens on the scale needed to set up this breakaway “London Comedy Festival”. But if more comedians choose to follow Richard Herring, if a breakaway festival does occur – I don’t think we should go out of our way to stop it. The reality is that the Edinburgh Fringe can be a springboard for aspiring performers, or it can be a festival of the biggest comedy acts, but it can’t do the second without compromising the first. Should there really be an exodus of these comedians – so long, it was nice knowing you.

UPDATE: And within an hour of posting this to Twitter, it’s got a retweet and response from Richard Herring himself. And in keeping with my policy of right to reply, here’s what he said

“yup, agree with you. Free Fringe is great development for new acts. It’s tougher on middle acts, but would be less so without the big names. It will find its level, but hopefully things will become cheaper all round and Fringe is back to experimentation … not to say I will never go back, but certainly feel less inclined to do so than I expected.”

My guess is that Herring will be right and the Fringe will find a new balance in the future. Anyway, as I always say, we shall see.

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