Those of you with good memories will recall that my monthly odds and sods articles are supposed to come shortly after month has ended, not when we’re nearly at the end of the next one. My excuse is that there’s no let-up in my day job and 50-hor weeks are still the norm. As such, I was tempted to gave January a miss and catch up with everything in a February edition. However, there have been a couple of pretty major things that have happened over the winter that need attention, but I’ve decided it’s better late than nuver.
Stuff that happened in December and January
So what’s been happening in December and January to grab my attention. Let’s start with two pretty major news stories that could have a lot of repercussions, and then follow it up with two more things of interest.
Goodbye Great Yorkshire Fringe
So there was one big bit of news that almost passed me by, but after five years of the Great Yorkshire, founder Fringe Martin Witt has pulled the plug on this festival – and is blaming York City Council for this. As my regular readers will know, I’ve been quite critical of this fringe in recent years for its practice of curating who can take part, in contrast to all the major fringe that are open to all. However, in the end, the mood is it’s a dispute over city centre management that has brought about the end. There does seem to be a consensus that it came down lack of space to set up its pop-up venues, meaning it would have spread over more of the city instead of the cluster of venues in one place. That, I appreciate, must have been demoralising for the fringe organisers.
But I’m afraid to say I find it hard to drum up too much sympathy. I’m sure every fringe organiser would love the local council to give them number one priority over shoppers and day-trippers, but I can’t think of any fringe of this size that gets the level of support the Great Yorkshire Fringe wants. The successful fringes simply got on with it. For years the Edinburgh Fringe was seen as unwanted gatecrasher to the International Festival’s party. Until very recently, Brighton Fringe had to put up with disparate venues all over the city, and look where it is now. Even now, Greater Manchester Fringe is on the rise in spite of the best efforts of the council and International Festival treating them like they doesn’t exist. One of the differences, of course, is that all of these fringes are more than their organisers – the open nature of these festivals also made them self-sustaining mutually supportive communities. Big names that make it through selection panels come and go, but it’s the people at the bottom of the pile in the open festivals coming back year after year who form the bedrock of self-sustaining fringes. That was a path that Great Yorkshire Festival actively chose not to follow – and now, I suspect, they’ve paid the price.
I didn’t want the Great Yorkshire Fringe to go. I wanted the advocates of open festivals to win the argument and persuade the Great Yorkshire Fringe to open its doors to everyone. The disappearance of Great Yorkshire Fringe now means there’s now no fringes, open or curated, this side of the Pennines.* But maybe it can be made into an opportunity for something to fill the York-shaped hole on the fringe scene. And maybe, just maybe, whoever’s thinking of doing this might look at the success of Manchester and Buxton and ask what they did that Great Yorkshire didn’t? Come on Yorkies, Lancashire’s beating you here. You’re not going to stand for that, are you?
(* Sorry, Alphabetti, “Newcastle Fringe”, a series of pre-Edinburgh shows performed in and curated by one venue, doesn’t count.)
Edinburgh Fringe gets a Hogmanay headache
There is one other significant development over the winter, but this one has been impossible to not notice. As we all know, in addition to the Fringe Edinburgh is famous for its New Year’s Eve party, and this year in a rare moment of crossover, the organisation given the contract to organise the official party was Underbelly – a name kind of familiar to Fringe fans. Seemed fair enough: Underbelly know the lie of the land in Edinburgh and know how to make a party atmosphere, what could possibly go wrong? The answer, it turns out, is quite a lot. Not so much the celebrations themselves – by all accounts that went fine – but the effect on anyone not attending the celebrations. You’ve heard about complaints from Edinburgh locals who aren’t interested in the Fringe? Oh boy, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
The reoccurring complaint from Edinburgh locals is the feeling that the festivals make the city not for them. I had an excellent guest post on this regarding the fringe, but until last year Hogmanay only attracts grumbles. This time, however, grumbles have inflated into full-blown outrage over the amount of the city closed off for anyone without a Hogmanay ticket, especially those living in the cordoned off area, and Underbelly has been the main focus of the ire. I am a little wary about assuming it’s Underbelly to blame – it was the Council who was allowing their streets to be cordoned off, and it’s inevitable that an event of such prestige would have have to follow security mandate by the Police. But in the blame game that followed, everyone turned on Underbelly. The Police disputed the security arrangements were necessary, whilst the council distances itself from Underbelly’s actions. That could still mean they were setting up Underbelly as a convenient scapegoat, but the most recent development, where we found out how frequently Underbelly threatened to pull out, doesn’t look good for them.
This means that the Festival Fringe Society are landed with a major headache. As one of Edinburgh Fringe’s biggest and most iconic venues, Underbelly has gone from a great asset to a massive liability. The Festival Fringe Society has no power over what its venues do outside of fringe season, but that’s not going to stop people blaming the fringe as a whole. Worse for the Festival Fringe Society, there’s not really anything they can do. As I’ve said before, it wouldn’t take much for the Big Four to break away and do their own festival. Unless, of course, Underbelly becomes so much of a liability that Pleasance, Assembly and Gilded Balloon choose to cut their losses and break ties, but we don’t seem to be there yet. But tensions in the city are bad enough as they are with rising rents, and if council chooses to stop giving all things fringe a free pass things could get nasty very quickly. And given the fickle nature of politicians who hastily adopt supposedly pricipled stances the moment there’s a whiff of change in public opinion, that’s a real possibility.
Has Underbelly just broken the Edinburgh Fringe? Probably not just yet. But it might. Far away from all the noise, the Festival Fringe Society must be watching the fallout nervously.
The rise of the attention-seeking reviews
Now a brief comment about Equity. I’m not an Equity member – I’m not even sure whether I qualify for membership – but I’m generally supportive of what they say and do. In general, I find them to be fair and pragmatic without compromising on fighting the corner for its members. There was a bit of a row earlier this year following some apparently unauthorised tweets following a somewhat inflammatory chap on Question Time, but that to me is simply a matter of working out amongst themselves who tweets in what capacity. However, the one time I think Equity has made an error of judgement is the way they handled, in their words, “the rise of racist reviews”. It seems – well, it’s pretty obvious – that the thing that spurred Maureen Beattie to write this was a review of his Dark Materials that objected to two of the characters in the BBC adaptation being black. As usual, I wanted to check what this review actually said before joining in any any condemnation, but when I saw James Delingpole as the author that told me everything I needed to know.
To my credit, I reserved judgement until I had a look at the review, but it was exactly what I predicted. (Can’t bring myself to link it – if you want to see it, you know how to use Google.) He’s so blatantly trying to ape Quentin Letts and his shock value. In this case, it’s a diatribe against the BBC ruining much-loved classics with political correctness. Never mind that Philip Pullman, as far as I know, didn’t mention the skin colour of any character once. Never mind that the story takes place in a parallel world with a very different society that doesn’t seem that bothered about race, instead focusing its intolerance on religious suppression of freedom and knowledge. Delingpole argues that the King of the Gyptians couldn’t be black because the Gyptians are based on Romanies in our world who aren’t black either. I’d argue that the only thing the Gyptians and Romanies have in common is that they live lives of outcasts, but honestly, that was such a terrible argument I couldn’t read any further. It probably concluded that global warming is a myth and we should vote Brexit and Trump for all I care. It comes across as pandering to people who imagined the characters as white in their minds therefore expect them to be white on TV. Which, yes, would be kind of racist.
But calling on the arts industry to fight rise of “racist reviews”? I am strongly of the opinion that the arts industry has no business trying to steer output of arts journalism, however objectionable, but even ignoring that, hasn’t anyone learnt any lessons? Quentin Letts has been made a pariah by the arts world for years, are his theatre-loving reader deserting in droves? No, because his readership aren’t theatre-lovers, they’re people who love to read his latest diatribe about those PC femanazi libtards cucks who’ve taken over the theatres they’ve never been to. So successful is this format, we’ve now got copycats like Delingpole trying to get on the action. And at the risk of stating the obvious, in the eyes of these readers, every futile move made to shut down Letts and co is proof we’re all 1) PC femanazi libtards cucks, and 2) scared of these people. (See also this.)
Come on Equity, we can be a lot smarter than this. If you must pick a fight with James and Quentin, stop fighting a strawman, check what they’re actually saying, wise up to their bullshit and let the world know of it. I personally think it’ll be enough to stop acting like their drivel is of any importance. Either way, the best way to fight attention-seekers is to expose their attention-seeking tactics so they everyone gets bored. Please Equity, stop playing into their hands.
Alphabetti shortlisted for fringe theatre of the year
Now you’re all feeling depressed, let’s finish with some positive news. Most of you should know this by now, but In December Alphabetti Theatre got shortlisted for The Stage’s Fringe Theatre of the Year. They didn’t win in the end – pole position went to the Bunker Theatre – but let’s not underestimate how big a deal this is. Awards like this do, of course, have to be treated with due caution: how highly you rate a fringe theatre is completely subjective, and a different award might have shortlisted a different theatre, but the reason this matters so much is the fact they was in the running at all. Alphabetti might be one of a kind in the north-east, but in London there’s dozens of theatre their size. Not to mention that Alphabetti was up against bigger theatres such as the Orange Tree that The Stage evidently counts as fringe theatres. (Also, for all The Stage’s efforts to branch out, they are still very London-centre. I still think a non-London venue has to work twice as hard to get noticed by them.)
The reasons for the recognition are the right ones too, I think. The Stage’s article leads with the crowdfunding campaign that saved Alphabetti Theatre from closure back in 2016. That, I maintain, should never have been necessary – when people are working off their own backs to bring such an important advancement to a city’s cultural scene, no-one should be expected to take on such a big personal financial gamble too. But the fact that the money needed was stumped up so readily is testament to how much of an asset people saw this new theatre. Alphabetti’s pay as you want model is singled out for praise too. I have to say, I was sceptical about this when I first heard of it – even if visiting artists were happy with this unreliable source of income, it seemed optimistic to assume the theatre could run on bar takings alone. But it’s worked. I don’t know enough about other small theatres to know how Alphabetti’s programme compares, but few can compare to the gamble Ali Potchard pulled off and the benefit it’s had.
For anyone who’s been following Alphabetti’s fortunes and misfortunes closely, the news won’t be the greatest surprise – it’s been known for some time that Alphabetti’s reputation has stretched way beyond the north-east. Rather, the shortlist for the award confirms how good their national reputation is. So that, I guess, is the conclusion what has been the north-east’s biggest success story over the last eight year. Only thing left: can Newcastle be the next London or Manchester? Will other venues follow in Alphabetti’s footsteps? As one story reaches its closing chapter, who know what the open chapter of the next story is.
Stuff I wrote since November
So, apart from that, what’s kept me busy:
Lord of the Flies, Hound of the Baskervilles: My verdict on two pleasing small-scale shows.
Odds and sods: November 2019: Like this. But November. And not quite so embarrassingly late.
Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2019: This was quite embarassingly late though. And I still haven’t finished this.
Chris Neville-Smith’s 2019 awards: This came on time, though. Including, for the first time ever, a small-scale solo play as the outright winner.
Jane Eyre: Blackeyed Theatre goes old school: I review Nick Lane’s adaptation of the Bronte classic, including a return to something that Blackeyed Theatre haven’t done for some time.
What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2020: The usual look at the season ahead, with quite a lot worth seeing in May.
What’s worth watching: Vault Festival 2020: And, in the meantime, a ook ahead to the closest you’ll find to a festival fringe in the winter month.
Ask Me Anything: two plays in one: Finally, my verdict on the Paper Birds’ collabroation with Live Theatre, for perhaps their most adventurous production yet.
And there you go. I’m catching up, I promise. Hope to be back to normal soon. See you in March, which isn’t that far away now. Damn.