Edinburgh Festival: the fun starts here

Too big. Too many stand-ups. And Norwegian mime troupes. But Stewart Lee will there again tomorrow

Tomorrow morning I leave London in a brown Vauxhall Carlton with a cracked radiator for my ninth consecutive visit to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As I sit here, washing my pants in preparation for the toughest month of their calendar, I remember: what a long, strange trip it's been.

The festival is all things to all comers: a chance to sample a broad selection of the modern performing arts; an opportunity for talent scouts to see a million and one new acts at venues that are all a short cab ride from their expense-account hotels; a forum for performers to try out new ideas, or to flog old ones to death in one last-ditch attempt at recognition; a Club 18-30 holiday for London's pan-sexual media whores.

The social dynamics of the fringe have changed subtly over the last 10 years. When I first started performing at the festival in 1987 I went as a student, sequestered to the misguided university drama group staples of a mid-day revue show and yet another mid-afternoon production of Death of a Salesman. Being a student at the festival in 1987 meant being generally hated by the ad hoc fringe "establishment" and blamed exclusively for the relatively smaller audiences for alternative comedy, serious grown- up drama, and European experimental mime theatre.

My stand-up got bad reviews from people who knew I was a student and great reviews from people who didn't; 50 of us slept on the floor of a masonic temple and washed each day in the toilets at Waverley station. We were the untouchables.

Two years later I very nearly gave up the whole idea of being a stand- up, having witnessed ex-Perrier award winning comic Jeremey Hardy taking time out on stage to attack the brilliant ex-student double act God and Jesus, an inspired surrealist duo years ahead of their time. It seemed so easy to make enemies I doubted whether I really wanted to get involved in such a hateful scene.

In my fifth Edinburgh, 1991, where I was now present in my newfound capacity of professional comedian, I discovered that once again I was on the wrong team. A new ad hoc fringe "establishment", fronted by the chairman of the main festival, now blamed the struggle for audiences faced by student shows, serious grown-up theatre and experimental Euro-mime on the corporate- sponsored beast of stand-up comedy.

This year I propose an alliance of comedians and students to round on the Euro-dumbshows and kick them all the way back to Sarajevo. Artists! Never darken the doorway of our private fringe festival ever again.

But this cannot, and must not, happen. The fringe's vitality is inextricably linked to the fact that the irregularities of its content are beyond legislation.

Just as the Stella Artois Assembly Rooms metamorphose into an absurdly hectic version of the South Bank Centre crossed with the Comedy Store, so the Richard Demarco European Art Foundation pursues an ever more theoretically rigorous programme of "out there" performance art that ranges from the utterly awe-inspiring to the utterly awful.

For each converted conference room full of TV executives watching a soft-drink-feted gag-merchant go through his chat-show-friendly paces, somewhere else a crowd of the self-styled intellectual elite sit in a dingy cellar watching a fat man urinating into his own face. And on a good night, if you're lucky, you'll be able to see both, and have time for a few pints in between.

Each year I approach Edinburgh with this mantra: "There is no such thing as pretention, and even if there is, then for one month at least, let it be encouraged."

As a performer, there comes a point where there is little more to be gained from watching your peers finding ever more inventive ways of achieving essentially the same results.

In 1987 I saw Arnold Brown and Gerry Sadowitz, two of the finest comedians the UK has ever produced, and spent the next five years trying to synthesise them. Nowadays I demand to be confused and upset, and maybe even entertained. The inward-looking thuggish enclave of stand-up could do with copping a few moves from the "arts". And the fringe festival offers even the most Philistine of visitors the whole range of "arts experiences" on a plate. With a big side order of tatties and neeps. Here are a few personal highlights.

1991: The Iceman! His act consists of melting some ice in a variety of methods, while making bad puns about ice. N...ice!

1990: A woman is locked, naked and wriggling, in an airless glass fish tank for an hour. God knows what it meant but it was brilliant and completely mad.

1991: An American performance artist wipes her bum on the Stars and Stripes and crumples sanitary products in the faces of men in the audience. I haven't shaved and leave with a ripped up tampon stuck to my chin.

1992: A group from Texas called The Freedom Tourists vomit up half-digested mayonnaise into circular patterns to the accompaniment of a Frank Sinatra impersonator.

1993: I meet Gordon Strachan, a Christian mystic who has an exhibition of visionary photographs of stone circles. Despite looking like my granddad he informs me that he is able to fly into outer space at will. Cool!

1994: Damien Hurst's Rat Opera. I stand in the pitch black listening to minimalist music. My eyes adjust to the dark. There is a live rat clinging to chicken wire six inches from my face. I've yet to find a way of working the "live rat in face" idea into any mid-1990's comedy format, but it could be the way forward.

The festival begins in the bar at the Gilded Balloon, or the Pleasance, or the Stella Artois Assembly rooms, where the stars of tomorrow shadow- box the egos of their competitors, and ends in a makeshift venue in a shady part of town at 3am in the morning, where John Maloney plays bodhrn to accompany Nigel Kennedy on the violin, while a seventysomething American hoofer called Will Gaines tap dances. This event was not scheduled or sponsored, but an audience of people drawn north by the promise of big names in subsidised venues found something special and went away with a once in a lifetime story to tell. And that is the essence of the Edinburgh Fringe.

Stewart Lee is appearing in his solo show at The Pleasance (0131-556 6550) Aug 27-Sept 2

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing