Edinburgh Fringe 2015: Pension-age performers from Henry Blofeld to Virginia Ironside prove the old ones are the best

The Edinburgh Fringe is often seen as the preserve of young, up-and-coming acts. But Holly Williams meets some of the performers who are daring to defy that trend
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The Independent Culture

The Edinburgh Fringe begins this week, with tens of thousands of performers flocking to the Scottish city. It is a place of dreams – while there are plenty of big names in attendance these days, it is still associated with fresh talent and opportunity; people arrive as unknowns and hope to leave as "breakthrough hits". Perhaps it's unsurprising, therefore, that we also often associate the fringe with youth. Edinburgh can be seen as the preserve of trendy young companies, pretentious students, even school children, all flyering giddily up and down the Royal Mile.

But do you have to be young to do Edinburgh? Absolutely not – look a little closer at the programme and there are plenty of more mature performers in among the American High School shows and monologues about Tinder. And we risk equating new or emerging artists with young people at our peril.

"You're dismissed as useless," bemoans Ronnie Dorsey, a 74-year-old who, after a long career in costume design, has turned to writing; her second play, A Fine Line, is about a septuagenarian looking back on a lifelong lesbian love affair. "People think you don't understand the modern day, you don't understand the problems – of course we do, they're the same bloody problems!"

 

For Dorsey, coming to playwriting late has only enriched her material. "I've lived a long and varied life… I don't think I could have written this play 30 years ago. I had to wait till I was an old lady, so I could bring to it my experiences."

It's a sentiment echoed by American stand-up Lynn Ruth Miller, whose cabaret show Get a Grip sees her looking back at fears that have plagued her life. The 81-year-old had a multitude of careers before discovering stand-up in her seventies, when she attended a class as a journalist. It was a revelation: "Nothing really resonated with me until I picked up that microphone."

She too is outspokenly honest about the ageism she faces: "Last night I was at the Comedy Store and I ripped up the place. But they still won't book me for more than a five-minute slot. The ageism is immense – absolutely immense. It makes me angry because I know the calibre of what I do… I defy a lot of people in their thirties or forties to keep up with me."

At Edinburgh, she'll be doing an hour-set every day for a month. "All I'm doing is the show – I'm not doing what you young people are doing all night!" she tells me with a hoot. "I'm not exhausted at all. I love it."

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Chris Lynam, 63, has got a new character - ErictheFred, a silent, mournful clown with a fading career

And there are some advantages to being in your eighties: despite playing to your regular comedy club audiences of twenty- and thirtysomethings, Miller has never been heckled. "I'd like to say it's because I don't deserve it, but it's because of respect. I'm little, too – I'm only 4ft 10 – they're not going to [heckle] this tiny little lady, who looks like your grandmother right before she went into the home."

Older performers on their Fringe tend to bring a bit of age's wisdom – as well as wit – to the stage. And such reflections often appeal to the grey pound which, despite the fringe's up-all-night party atmosphere, is still significant.

Virginia Ironside, author and Independent agony aunt, has been taking her one-woman show, Growing Old Disgracefully, to the fringe since 2009; performing in the daytime, she found an eager audience: "All the young people are asleep and all these old people are walking around bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, looking for something to do."

She spotted the "gap in the market" for comedy that dealt with ageing: "When you're old you can make jokes about old people – you can't when you're young. I can be quite cruel. But also I did actually enjoy the time between 60 and 70. Everyone was moaning about it, but there's a lot of terrific stuff about getting old that nobody mentions."

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Virginia Ironside has been taking her one-woman show, Growing Old Disgracefully, to the fringe since 2009 (Steve Ullathorne)

Still, she confesses that the festival can try her patience; now aged 71, she's doing two weeks rather than the whole month. The adrenaline spike and subsequent come-down of doing a show puts "the old body under tremendous stress", she observes. "When you do it day after day, you just get cross-eyed. I've sat in the middle of Princes Street with the whole thing whirling round my head thinking how am I going to get home? You feel sick with tiredness."

This time of year ushers in countless "survive the fringe" guides – even bouncy 20-year-olds are likely to leave Edinburgh feeling broken after too many late nights, pints in plastic cups, and a diet of flapjack and Red Bull. Old-timers know that the key to enjoying the month is not to overdo it.

"I don't drink while I'm working," says Henry Blofeld, sports commentator-turned-Fringe star, performing again this year alongside Peter Baxter: the pair will comically reminisce about their adventures on the road. "At my age you've got to keep really sharp, and if you belt into the wine you can blur the edges a bit."

He adores Edinburgh, but finds the pace can be a challenge. "I go to see other shows and I love it, but the trouble is you get quite tired actually. By the time you've done a show and had a jolly good dinner, I'm absolutely whacked. But I suppose at the age of 76, one gets whacked anyway!"

Chris Lynam has been a clown for 40 years, but recognises his wild, anarchic, light-a-firework-in-your-arse act can't keep going forever. Now 63, he's got a new character, ErictheFred, a silent, mournful clown with a fading career, which he hopes will be his "retirement plan... it is quite a sad piece but it's beautiful as well".

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Lynn Ruth Miller's show Get a Grip sees her looking back at fears that have plagued her life

Still, if the aim was to make ErictheFred a physically less demanding show, artistic ambition may have got in the way. "We said, let's do this show that's going to last me the rest of my career, it's all going to pack into a suitcase… but we've got 150kg of stuff, without the set. The routines are for a 40-year-old athlete – I'm in pretty good nick, but it is demanding."

It's 22 years since Lynam last did the fringe – and his approach is very different this time. "I've eased up on toxins quite a lot over the last few years, just in order to stay fit – I couldn't drink in the way I used to. If you don't drink you don't go to as many social situations or hang out in the bars, and I'm not bothered about that, really. My approach this year is to stay clean. But for youngsters…" he laughs, and stops himself from doling out naughty advice to the youth of today.

To be fair, they probably don't need any encouragement to work hard and play even harder. But when it comes to performances, there's a mature side to the fringe that's ready to give us all the benefit of their experience.

'A Fine Line', Assembly Hall, 6 to 31 Aug; 'Blofeld and Baxter: Rogues on the Road', Assembly George Square Gardens, 12-25 Aug; 'ErictheFred', Assembly Roxy, 8 to 30 Aug; 'Lynn Ruth Miller: Get a Grip', C Nova, 5 to 31 Aug; 'Virginia Ironside: Growing Old Disgracefully', The Assembly Rooms, 18 to 30 Aug

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