Happy birthday, Assembly Rooms! 30 years of Fringe magic
Edinburgh's shabby-chic civic chambers became the spiritual home to the best and brightest comic talents. Carol Sarler can't stay away
Sunday 15 August 2010
On a cold, stormy night in August 1985, I spent my first hour in the city of Edinburgh and resolved that it should be my last. The legendary festival Fringe that I had been persuaded to visit was nowhere to be seen, not here in an overpriced hotel room (what, then, did I know of the perennial joys of renting flats?), where no fewer than three friends had failed to appear, as promised, to show me around (what, then, did I know of the infinite flexibility of festival "arrangements"?), and where a snotty receptionist had just told me, no, no trains back to London tonight, before nodding me over the road to somewhere called the Assembly Rooms where I might pass the time (what, then, did I know of serendipity?).
Huffing, I stropped out and walked into – this is no exaggeration – my life. Like some bizarre surprise party, there were friends from school, university, ex-colleagues, past lovers and not one was surprised to see me. Later I would learn that nobody ever is; and nobody says hello or goodbye. You are either in the moment or you're not. So I grabbed an overflowing ashtray, a wobbly chair and... moved in. I live there still.
For Fringe veterans, the Assembly Rooms – 30 years old this summer – is the heart of their festival. It started in 1981 for no better reason than the desperation of a young director, William Burdett-Coutts, who needed a venue for his new play; he approached the council, who lent him the maze of civic chambers on condition that he took the whole lot, filled it and ran it. Thus it kicked off with, among others, the magical Ivor Cutler and his Life in a Scotch Sitting Room, Vol II.
When I arrived, four years later, my first show was Rik Mayall, Andy de la Tour and Ben Elton – sharing an hour's slot, mind, each doing his best 20 minutes; none of this "I'm so gifted I can do an hour all by myself" nonsense then. (Memo to comedians: just because you can doesn't always mean you should.) By then the Assembly Rooms was well established, and, although there are now other excellent venues, the original Assembly Rooms remains the cut above. Welcome to my bias.
I'm not going to attempt to sum up 30 years of shows. Can't, won't, shouldn't; to pick out five is to overlook thousands and, besides, balance decrees you'd also have to mention the turkeys. (Well, of course there bloody have been.) Suffice to say, I've seen most of my best and some of my worst in this shabby-chic building that defies itself to produce them – you try a tense moment in an Edinburgh Suite play when there's a stomp moment on stage in the vast Music Hall above. Every room is morphed into theatre space regardless of aptitude; we used to joke they'd be performing in store cupboards and toilets soon, until two years ago, when the store cupboard happened. Then, last year, the toilets.
Still, we forgive. That its base is in George Street places it smack in the middle of the city; that we cannot afford to shop there doesn't mean we can't breathe the air, see the castle, smell the fireworks – sod the bagpipes. Hang around Assembly long enough and the festival comes to you; indeed, every one of my own incarnations has been fed within it. As, first, a television producer, there was limitless talent to scout; then, in the late 1980s, when I became Fleet Street's first designated comedy critic, many top-name victims were under that one leaky roof. I have produced shows there for money (hah!) and for charity (mercifully, more profitably), and spent a few years, again for newsprint, reaping titbits. (The best, tragically, were always unprintable, as in the overheard: "Does anyone know who shagged the ventriloquist in my stairwell and left her knickers behind?")
When a nice man from Private Eye asked me to do an anonymous column, I declined on the basis that what happens in Assembly stays in Assembly. Occasional rumbles: Lee Evans, taking a deserved swing at a lout; Nick Revell holding him back, "No, man! You're too talented!" Improbable proximities: Nicholas Parsons on one side, Phil Mitchell from EastEnders on the other. Strange encounters: Richard O'Brien meeting Likely Lad Rodney Bewes – just two more pros, mutually respectfully funny, bouncing off each other. Difficult dates: taking Golden Girl Bea Arthur to see Lily Savage and Bea, slightly deaf, instantly recognisable, declaring loudly, "Can't understand a fucking word it says."
Friendships are made and kept, suspended, until they pick up where they left off a year ago: Guy Masterson, David Benson, Dillie Keane, Hattie Hayridge, John Hegley, Frank Skinner, John Pinder (all the way from Sydney, Australia), Liz Smith (all the way from her office upstairs) – what's yours again, Liz? White wine, isn't it?
Tensions rise and fall. I innocently introduced an actor to the much-lamented critic Jack Tinker. "Mr Tinker," he snipped, "do you realise you single-handedly closed my Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?" Jack, unfazed, "My dear chap! How frightful! Then you simply must let me buy you a drink." An hour later: new best friends. Plots hatch on the same scuffed sofas, as when Sandi Toksvig and I planned revenge upon the corrosive PR puffery called the Perrier award; we'd throw a party on the same night – the Perrier-Jouët party! Willy Russell, the full set of Liverpool poets and William Burdett-Coutts led the rest of that year's Assembly crowd to our spoiler. Nul point to (a furious) Perrier.
Even the grandest stars take refreshment in their creaky old workplace. So you can be struck dumb with admiration by a performance and then have to find your voice 10 minutes later to say so to the actress who is now drinking tea beside you. Christian Slater was too polite to move my tangle of papers from the coffee table between us, so he carefully laid out his packed lunch on top of them and ate it. Then apologised for intruding. Happy days.
This year, as last, I have rented a flat opposite Assembly's front door. And this year, as last, there are rumours that soon it might all be over; that the council plans to take the building from us and turn it into a shopping mall. Look, I'm just a Sassenach interloper; I don't get the politics. But if that happened, the loss to the Fringe – and, by extension, to the city of Edinburgh – would be incalculable. So William, old son, if you'll allow me to paraphrase: whatever it takes, don't let the buggers close you down.
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