Coales' Notes: Beyond the Fringe

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The Independent Culture
TUESDAY Today Di and Rory were preparing to leave for Edinburgh. I asked them what on earth they were going to do up there for the best part of a month. Di thought I had better be told, and Rory explained.

The Festival, he said, was now far too big - and the people we really ought to be sorry for were the thousands of arts journalists posted up there. 'They're away from the office. They're trying to get pissed, or get laid, or get some sleep. No way do they want to spend all day trekking round the shows.'

So the idea was to provide them with a comprehensive Fringe Information Service. He had lined up a team of recent graduates. They would go and see 'absolutely everything', and write out a very detailed resume of each production. These would then be sold to the flagging journalists, as the basis for their reviews. Di said she thought it was a good one.

I suggested, wouldn't the problem be that the reviews would all come out the same, and no journalist would want that. Rory said: 'No, we just provide the facts. They make up the opinions themselves - though we would also provide a selection of adjectives, if they're absolutely stuck.'

He added that strategy was crucial. In Week 1, the information is handed out free. 'The journalists use it as an aid. They're still seeing the shows at this stage, but they get to appreciate how accurate our service is. Gradually they stop taking notes. Gradually they realise it's safe to leave a show half-way through. Then in Week 2, when they're starting to get the ab-dabs, we start charging.'

I said, a boring point no doubt, but it sounded unethical. Rory replied: 'Absolutely wrong, in fact. Because if it wasn't for the arts journalists, there would be no Festival. They're the people who make it happen every year. So by helping them, we're helping the Festival itself, right?'

Di told me her friend Lottie (the supposed arts journalist) would be coming in to give me a hand while they were away. I said surely, she of all people should be in Edinburgh, making full use of their service. Di shrugged. 'Couldn't get anyone to send her. It's terribly sad.'

WEDNESDAY Lottie turned up about midday, and suggested we have lunch. I mentioned I was sorry she hadn't got to Edinburgh. She said: 'God, no. I mean, look, Gordon. The arts are in crisis. The Arts Council has imploded. Britain is turning into a post-art society - and people are talking about Edinburgh] Edinburgh is just a total irrelevance to everything. Well, that's what I said in my article, anyway.' I said I felt sure that, when the end came, arts journalists would be the last to suffer. I set her to work writing press releases, which I dare say she can do.

THURSDAY Rory rang from Edinburgh. They were settled in. The team was due up tomorrow. He'd made some initial press contacts. It was all set. But just in case they missed anything, could I keep an eye out for press reports of one event in particular. 'They should say something like this: the very fringe of the fringe - production takes place in the church hall in Prestonpans - adaptation of Edgar Alan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart - performed in Catalan - stark conceptual rigour - lasts four hours.'

He added that the point was, the venue was miles out. The show sounded 'kind of weird but boring'. There would be brownie points for making the trek, but no one would actually want to go. 'I'm just doing this as a control, to find out how many people are picking up on us. Or d'you think 'performed in Basque' would be better?'

I said, did I gather he'd made this whole event up? He said: 'Well, obviously. It wouldn't be a proper control otherwise, would it? But if you do see any mention of it . . .'

I did my arts phone-in again tonight. Every fortnight it gets easier. The knack is simply not to think what you're saying. Edinburgh came up. Various callers couldn't see all the fuss. I found myself making this point: the great thing about the Festival was, it was no good just hearing about it second-hand. You really had to be there, experiencing it live, to appreciate what it was all about.