day 22: friends in edinburgh

After the early night, it was fairly easy to drag myself out of bed on Friday morning to meet Mum and Nick, who have come back into town for today. We went to the Mussel Inn, which is one of my favourite places to eat in the whole of Edinburgh.

After that I went to meet Steve Bloomfield (whose talk about his book I saw yesterday), and some others – including the flashback – in the Just The Tonic bar.

Well – at least, I’d like to say ‘friend’ because I always liked him tremendously. But as my boy Aristotle says, you can only truly be friends with your equals, and back in my immature undergraduate days I was probably too envious of him for being so incredibly brilliant and high-achieving while I was stuck in my room trying to record crap songs. He was the star reporter of the Liverpool Student; he had a really lovely and very gorgeous girlfriend (he still does); he wrote and directed a play; and in my final year he was elected President of the Guild of Students.

In some ways, when I got to Warwick and realised I had a second chance at doing University properly, I probably subconsciously tried to model myself on his renaissance-man brilliance.

Anyway, these days he’s still frighteningly high-achieving. He’s had a pretty spectacular journalistic career so far covering Africa and global politics, and he recently published his book about football in Africa (which I’d like to say more about but unfortunately haven’t read).

But more importantly, he is still an extremely nice, witty, quietly confident chap, and it was lovely to see him. And hey – I might not have published any books about Africa, but I’ve got quite a good blog, I get a few paid stand-up gigs now and again and I hang out with the cast of the 80’s Movie Flashback, so I reckon that makes us equal enough nowadays to be friends. And it was really nice to see him after so long.

The day’s biggest downside was the dropouts we had from the showcase. I thought I’d booked a really fantastic lineup for a big Friday night crowd: Julian Deane to open, Patch Hyde and Timmy in the middle and James Sherwood to close. But then Julian sent a very polite text to say he couldn’t make it, and Patch let me know that he would have to drop out too because Tony Dunn needed him for his gig (which was annoying for the gig, but as friend of both of them, I knew was totally the right thing – I get the impression that Tony has been horribly unlucky with people dropping out of his show, and I don’t begrudge Patch being there to help fix that at all).

Then when the show got going, the audience seemed small and unresponsive. Even James couldn’t get much life out of them and by the end of his set looked just about ready to go home. I think he’s probably not the only one. The showcase has generally been a lot less fun this week than it was in the first half of the festival, and I think numbers have dropped as the people of Edinburgh have got increasingly fed up with us.

But then the Flashback was just amazing. We knew there were likely to be TV people in, as well as Fraser’s boss, so we packed the audience with our friends.

And it absolutely rocked. The others were hitting all the right notes in all the right places, adlibs were getting good laughs and everything went right. It was as good a performance of the show as there is ever likely to be.

Annoyingly, it was the only show we forgot to get on video.

Still, it had been a good day; and it got even better when we went to the Library Bar and Robert White showed us the Malcolm Hardee award he had just been given. That, on top of Imran’s Best Newcomer nomination earlier in the week, made it really felt like a really bloody good festival. And we went and danced and laughed and were happy in a way that I have never been in the last week of an Edinburgh Festival before.

One strange thing about Edinburgh is the strange things it does to your idea of friendship: last week I got annoyed at having friends and family in town because it took me away from the festival. But Aristotle is right: a sense of commonality and shared experiences is a necessary condition of friendship. And so immersive and intense is the Edinburgh experience that friends in Edinburgh can only really be your friends if they are doing shows too. Those people who have those same nerves, those same crushing, humiliating defeats, that same sense of exaltation when things go well. These are the only people I can relate to while I’m here.

Which would be depressing, if it weren’t for how much affection I feel for the rest of the flashback, for other performers who I like, how incredibly proud that makes me when they do well. In Edinburgh, these people are my best friends. They are the only people who could be.

WIN.

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day 21: too tired to be that great

It’s getting near the end of the run, and I’m so tired.

I drank nothing more than orange juice the night before, so I felt pretty good but still exhausted when it came time to go and see Dave Gibson’s early afternoon ‘Ray Green’ show. Now, Dave is a man with a great comedy face. His expressions are just so good and his show, while perhaps a little over-reliant on video clips, is superb. No doubt I’d rave about it more if I hadn’t seen Eric and Sanderson the previous day, but hey – context is everything. Still, Dave is brilliant and his show is an absolute cracker. Particularly the puppet bit at the end.

Then, after Fraser took Rik and I for lunch, I went off to the book festival to see my old university friend Steve Bloomfield talk about his book.

Annoyingly I couldn’t hang around because I had to go and flyer for the showcase, even though I wasn’t intending to perform in it. I had a show to go and see – more on that in a minute – and I thought that if I flyered enough to get a good audience in, booked Mark Restuccia to open, and left the rest with Timmy then everything would be fine.

It wasn’t. The few audience who turned up were idiots, and in particular there were some drunk mouthy scots at the back who kept shouting abuse at the stage. When I left, Timmy was into his tenth minute of valiantly trying to MC some life into a cold, hostile room, and Stooch was quite reasonably looking concerned.

I heard later that after the hecklers left, things were better, and that David Mulholland had actually had a pretty good headlining slot.

Still, at the time I had other things to concern me – namely, going to see Lady C at the GRV.

There is at least one adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover at the Fringe pretty much every year, and I have a personal tradition of trying to see them if I can. Not even for simply pervy reasons, either – surprisingly few adaptations contain anything close to explicit sex scenes or nudity, and the ones that do are generally either repulsive or hilarious or both. But I do really like the book, and seeing amateur adaptations of it has become a kind of weird hobby, like a collection. But Lady C wasn’t really an adaptation of the book; more a discussion of its publishing history and its effect on modern sexuality, done by three actors, often in the nude. It was also without doubt the most deliberately erotic Chatterley play I’ve seen, which made it a successful production, but only to the extent that that kind of thing can be. And I am led to understand that there are cheaper places to watch people stripping in Edinburgh, if that’s all people were there for. I was a bit disappointed that when one of the performers asked for a show of hands for who had actually read it, very few of us put our hands up. And the social politics of the book – without which the sex doesn’t really make much sense – was swept over a little too quickly. And sex without a wider politics attached to it is not really that sexy at all.

Still, it was at least more entertaining than watching my friends die onstage at the showcase.

I came out of Lady C with just enough to time to grab some chips and get down to meet the rest of the Flashback at the caves to finally see Doctor Brown’s show Because.

And what a show it is. I’d seen the end of it so many times but you need to see it from the start. It is really a work of genius. Everything I was saying about surprise and confidence the other day is played out so beautifully – the show is full of surprises. His tech, Jon, is also some kind of magician (he gets a lot of laughs just from his lighting and sound before anyone even appears onstage). By the end, I’d enjoyed the show so much that I didn’t even care that it had overrun or that I’d just found out how many laughs are gained from the bit that created the branflake-sweat-spore pond. In fact, it was a pleasure finally watching the mess get made at last…

In fact, I think we’d all enjoyed it a little too much. The Flashback show was fine, and the audience were a lot more generous than they had been the previous night; but it was possibly the least sharp performance for a while.

Ah well. I knew we’d pick it up for Friday. As long as we got enough sleep…

DRAW

day 20: bravery and bravado

There are different kinds of bravery.

I thought I was feeling brave by starting the day by going to see a play based on Tenessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie. It was called ‘Laura’, it was on in the Hive (so was free), and it had got a four-star review from the New Current.

As it turns out, all you need to do to get four stars from the New Current is just have so many looooooong silences while two pretty young actors look around at the room and each other, that it’s a relief when they finally break into a dance routine at the end because at least it means something has happened. And I don’t even like dance. The acting was perfectly competent (I saw worse in the Old Vic’s production of The Tempest last month), but it took an hour for them to tell a story that could have been told in ten minutes. Dull.

Feeling like I needed some guaranteed quality, I went from there to watch Eric’s show Tales Of The Sea. I’ve been meaning to see it for years – and I’m so glad I finally did. It’s such a brilliant show and a story of bravery in so many different ways; not least because of the charm with which Eric underplays his own courage by talking quite humbly about what he perceives to be his lack of it. The stories about his submarine training and his fear of sharks are so endearing because the tales he presents as attempts at overcoming his own nerves are stories of things that the typical Edinburgh festival type wouldn’t go near in a million years.

There’s also a warning in it – one that might have come straight out of Plato or Aristotle, if they had ever been on a submarine – about the dangers of excessive, hubristic bravado.

But what is also brave is that Eric was prepared to spend so much time and effort on a show which, considering that he is a stand-up comedian, quite often goes for long periods without laughs. He says openly to the audience that a lot of his comedy show won’t be funny, but the unfunny bits are worth telling. That, too, takes balls.

And on the subject of having balls – massive, massive balls – Sanderson Jones is about as cojone-tastic as it gets. I went with the Flashback to see his show, Taking Liberties; and I think it might be the best thing I’ve seen this festival. I don’t want to say too much about the show, partly in case he tours it (in which case you HAVE TO SEE IT) and partly because it is now the subject of a police enquiry. That’s how ballsy it is. But for me it is an absolute masterclass in intelligent taboo-busting with moral purpose. He goes so far over the line of what would be acceptable for many comics that he gets away with it; I guess he’s like Chris Morris, only taller and beardier and very very charming. If there is one show I wish I could have done but couldn’t (partly because it would cost me my day job), it’s this one.

And on the subject of police enquiries (another pretty slick link, huh?), I also ran into David Whitney on my way home. I hadn’t really had a chance to chat to him at the previous night’s gig, but in the absence of a showcase that night I was very pleased to see him. He also explained to me his point of view of the ‘headbutting’ incident – and while I think he knows that nutting a heckler possibly wasn’t the bravest thing to do (however much of a prick the heckler was no doubt being) I could see how it happened and it really is a pity that the whole thing was reported on Chortle in such a public way. He’s one of the most genuine honest chaps in comedy, I hope nothing too bad comes of it, and I think he is showing courage by seeing out the run and not just going back to London. I think that’s what I’d do.

Perhaps the problem is that justice has been accidentally unjust. By which I mean, if there was any just injustice here, Dave Whitney’s arrest would have gone unreported and Sanderson Jones’ show would have been on the front page of Chortle so that perhaps more people would go and see it.

Anyway. For normal people, perhaps, bravery at a comedy show is nothing more than sitting on the front row where you might get picked on. Most nights when the Flashback show is not sold out, I have to try and hustle people down to the front. So was impressed – at least at first – by two teenage girls who seemed to be really keen to sit at the front.

It turned out they were just drunk. And stupid.

Now, in fairness it should be pointed out that not only is our timeslot (the last slot of the night) a prime horrible time for drunk people, it is also very hot and humid in the room, because it is a cave with no air conditioning or ventilation and it has been full of audiences and performers under hot stage lights for twelve hours straight. Unspecified liquids dribble down the walls regardless of whether or not it has rained outside, so I suspect the dripping is mostly condensation formed from the sweat of hundreds of audience members and performers. We are also, of course, following Doctor Brown, who (because he is lovely) no longer overruns very much, but whose show does still involve quite a wide distribution of foodstuffs around the room. There is a growing pool of damp congealed branflakes in one corner that has not been cleaned throughout the entire run, and is now probably on its way to becoming a protected habitat for all the festering species that have evolved in it.

Basically, the place is a hot, damp, stinking tunnel.

It takes real courage to stay there and stay focussed on the show; Rachel gets a good laugh early on by apologising for the fact that it’s like watching a comedy show in a fully functioning anus, and after that then most people seem to manage it. But it turned out those teenage girls didn’t have that courage. They didn’t even laugh at the anus joke. They just complained. Loudly and obtrusively. Until eventually, having completely disrupted the show, they left.

Even after that, it still felt like a weak performance. There hasn’t been much rehearsing in the last few days and there isn’t the sharpness that was there last week.

Still, there isn’t long to go now…and as with all tests of bravery, it’s really just a question of keeping going until it’s done.

Flashback: 4/10, but it can’t be a losing day when I saw those other shows…

DRAW

day 19: what a clichéd difference a year makes

At last year’s Edinburgh festival, the Tuesday of the last week was my darkest day of the festival.

In late August in Edinburgh, it starts getting dark and drizzly unnervingly early in the evenings; you start seeing kids that have gone back to school. To add to that, last year I was tired, I missed Loz and the Flashback who had left a few days previously, and then I suddenly made and then (or so I thought) managed to idiotically lose a friend.

I hated myself, I hated Edinburgh, and I wanted to it all to stop.

This year was just fine.

I spent most of the day with the Flashback, stapling bits of paper to flyers (because during the final week you have to staple reviews to flyers otherwise people think you haven’t had any good ones).

I compered the showcase, and did it pretty well; Timmy is still struggling to find his voice at the showcase gigs but seems confident that he’ll get there by the end of the run; David Whitney was a good closer, and seems to be in pretty high spirits considering the fact that he’s been all over the comedy-world news this week for headbutting a heckler and getting arrested.

For the Flashback, Beetlejuice went well on its second outing; I really enjoyed it and the audience, despite being small, were really up for the show.

I celebrated by going out, back to The Hive and then to Opium, with some of the guys who are teching and involved in shows at The Hive; and the next morning I hardly even had a hangover at all.

A year ago, the most played song on my ipod was ‘Heartbeats’ by Jose Gonzales. At the moment it’s ‘The Power of Love’ by Huey Lewis and the News.

WIN.

day 18: it’s supposed to be bloody fun

I woke up on Monday in the little village of East Linton, where I had stayed in the cottage my Mum and Nick have rented. My back hurt. The bed was very comfortable but very single, and I’d fallen out in the night.

Apart from that, it was lovely to be there.

We went to the seaside for lunch, and that was lovely too. But unfortunately, we hadn’t actually booked any acts for the Showcase. So I got back just in time for me and Timmy to cobble together a makeshift lineup. We were quite lucky that James Acaster came back to close the show again. I like his act so much – he just speaks in a way that makes me feel calm enough to laugh a lot – that I wanted him to have a better gig the second time round; and I think it was a little better. Timmy compered, which was good because for some reason his material isn’t hitting at the moment, but he’s pretty adept at warming the room up.

If only we could get more people in there – it’s such a big room that even when we get 30-odd people in (as we generally do, even on the quiet nights) – it feels half-empty.

We also had a very small pre-booked audience for the Flashback, but that meant less fear. And less fear meant one thing. It was time to bring back Beetlejuice.

I did my best with it, but I think the audience was too small to really tell whether it had gone well or not. The best (and possibly worst) thing about it was that as I hit the bit where the first magic trick doesn’t work and Beetlejuice goes straight into ‘Magic number two!’, I heard a badly-concealed snort of laughter. It had obviously come from behind Fraser’s side of the screens which we optimistically call ‘backstage’, but it set me off giggling and I really struggled to get through the rest of the scene without completely cracking up.

Which was good – as Timmy pointed out a few nights ago, it doesn’t always look like we’re really having fun ourselves, and in all our attempts to get the show tight and professional we might have lost some of that sense that at the end of the day it’s just a bunch of idiots pissing about in silly costumes for a laugh.

But on Monday, in front of those sixteen people, it felt like we were making a realisation that we need to really be enjoying it, and enjoying it infectiously.

And also, of course – in front of those sixteen people – a realisation that we probably need to flyer a bit more.

Showcase: 5/10 (the audience was too small to get much atmosphere)

Flashback: 6/10

Overall: DRAW

day 17: imagination and confidence

Comedy is a very simple thing to make, at least on a superficial level. It basically just requires two things: imagination and confidence.

Specifically, we need the imagination necessary to create surprises (every laugh is a response to some kind of surprise); and we need to deliver those surprises with absolute, supreme confidence that the normal instinctive reaction to those surprises will be laughter, so that the audience has confidence in us to make them laugh.

If one of those two elements is missing or not quite right, then the comedy fails. If the material is predictable, for example. Or if the material is surprising but not in the right kind of way (often, new comedians go for ‘shock’ humour but they don’t quite judge it right and the response is merely disgust or offence). Or it is the right kind of surprise but the delivery is uncertain – good material sometimes fails if the performer doesn’t hit the lines with the kind of timing and clarity that comes from being absolutely convinced that these things should be laughed at. A misplaced and uncertain-sounding ‘er…’ can make a whole line – a whole act, even – fall flat.

Sunday was just a series of examples of this. The Flashback have long had a deleted scene, in which Fraser performs Beetlejuice as a squeaky-voiced crap magician. They only did it once, and it died a horrible death. So they haven’t done it since.

And yet, it has some of the best lines I think they’ve written. For example, after the first two tricks fail, Beetlejuice calls out,

“For my final magic, I will need – the implement of magical wonder! (pulls out a huge hacksaw)

And I will need – the indemnity form of magical wonder! (pulls out a huge legal indemnity form)

And I will need – a volunteer…with a pen!”

Which has always cracked me up – there is no doubt that it ticks the imagination and surprise boxes, and I’ve been telling them for ages they should bring the scene back. But the previous experience of doing the routine to absolutely nothing means they’ve always refused.

At least until Sunday morning, when Fraser suggested that I do it.

We talked about it throughout the day, but eventually decided that we didn’t quite have the confidence to run with it that night. And I agreed that if the confidence wasn’t there, we couldn’t do it.

For the showcase, though, we had a great lineup. My Mother and soon-to-be Stepfather turned up, and so I opened my compering with my marriage material, and got the crowd quite nicely warmed up for Henry Ginsberg. In private, Henry is a man who (like many comedians) sometimes seems quite shy in person, but who has a natural likeability that outweighs his social confidence. Onstage, though, he comes across as having absolute faith in his material. As a result he often has great gigs and the showcase audience loved him.

But then Timmy came on and did a bit of material that completely bombed – and for which I have to take a fair bit of responsibility because I’d written it with him – about what men would say to women if they could be completely honest about what they wanted. (Admittedly it’s a quite hacky topic but we thought we’d found a new way in.) But perhaps because it was new, and Timmy wasn’t quite sure about it, it didn’t work. The confidence in the joke didn’t seem to be there, which in turn created an awkwardness in the room that even James Acaster couldn’t get big laughs from; it was impossible. It’s not easy to bring a room back from the dead, and we couldn’t do it.

Still, the Flashback show was delivered confidently and was solid. Not great, but solid. Confidence is everything…

Showcase: 7 (some of my best compering yet, but I felt responsible for co-writing the bit that Timmy did)

Flashback: 6

Overall: DRAW

day 16: pleasant distractions, but distractions nonetheless

It’s very difficult trying to accommodate visitors in Edinburgh.

However pleasant the distraction of a visit might be, it’s still a distraction. Added to which, I think it’s quite difficult for people who come up for a holiday at a festival to understand that if you’re involved in the festival it is the most intense workload possible. An average day at the moment goes something like:

1100 wake up (yes this seems late, but keep reading)

1100-14.30 eat breakfast/lunch while watching the video of the previous night’s flashback show, go through notes and rehearse bits to get them better, get ready to go out

1500-1800 do slots at miscellaneous gigs throughout the day to promote my shows, try to book/confirm a lineup for that night’s showcase, deal with dropouts etc.

1800-2045 flyer

2045-2200 host the show, thank the acts

2200-1130 get back to the flat to meet the flashback and eat dinner (the only regular scheduled break of the day)

1130-1230 go back to the caves to get set up for flashback show, soundcheck, arrange lighting

1230-0200 tech/perform in flashback show, get packed up, discuss the show

0200-0400 try to unwind from show. try to see how other comedian friends are doing, chat to friends who have gone out of their way to come to our show, get home, go to sleep

0400-1100 try and sleep

This is a pretty intense schedule. It’s more or less a 15-hour straight working day, every day for three-and-a-half weeks, and you get breaks where you can get them. I’m not complaining, of course – it’s a great life and worth every ounce of work you put in – but it can be somewhat complicated by visitors who understandably want to come and spend time with you, go and see other shows with you, etc. Because you don’t really have any time to give them; and neither do you really have very much mental space to think or talk about anything other than how the festival is going. Which is horribly ungrateful; but to show them the proper gratitude would have a cost to the quality of the shows we put on.

And that is unthinkable.

So. I woke up with an idea of some things I thought the 80s Movie Flashback still needed, and I wanted to go through them with the group; but I’d promised Nan that we’d also go to the beach today. We did eventually go to Musselburgh; but not until after I had (perhaps a little rudely) barked a few instructions to the others (who am I to behave like that?) and the sun was past its peak by the time we got to the beach. It was worth it, of course; I did need to get away, and we had a very lovely picnic on the beach.

But I couldn’t help thinking about the shows.

The Showcase was good, in the end; Timmy compered it and everyone had a pretty good one. I was particularly pleased with myself; I seemed to be able to reel off ten minutes of material that got good laughs almost without really trying that much. Darshan had a very good gig as well. Nick Sun, who headlined, seemed to think he hadn’t done well, but from the audience I thought there was a lot of warmth in the room for him.

I worried a little bit for time again, though; my sister Ellen and her husband Mike came to see the show and suggested going for dinner afterwards. I wanted to go with them, but was also conscious that I hadn’t seen that much of the Flashback that day apart from the slightly rude notes I gave them in the morning – and I was also conscious that in the previous ten days I’d only had one day without a visitor of some kind being around; I also knew that my Mum was coming up the next day and would want to spend tie with me as well…when would I be able to just get on with being in a festival?

Fortunately, Ellen and Mike are the most super-cool sister and brother-in-law I could possibly have. Ellen knows exactly what it’s like to have twenty people pulling her in different directions at once, and understood exactly. We went for a relatively quick (but very nice) pizza, and Ellen gave me strict instructions to not feel too obliged to too many people or things. And then all I had to think about was the 80s Movie Flashback.

The show was one which we christened afterwards as ‘Marmite night’. We had quite a lot of walkouts; and yet, the people who stayed really enjoyed the show. And to the cast’s credit, we performed for them.

Putting on shows is very hard work. It’s time-consuming and mind-consuming. But it is worth it.

Showcase 8

Flashback 7

Overall DRAW