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No laughing matter in Edinburgh as promoters fall out over Free Fringe

Edinburgh Comedy Awards chief warns of ‘terrible’ performances

A boom in free shows at Edinburgh has sparked a row between promoters, with the founder of the Free Fringe hitting back at claims his inexperienced acts provide a “terrible experience” for audiences.

Peter Buckley Hill, who runs the Free Fringe, insisted the quality of performers who did not charge could be just as high as those at paid-for venues.

He was angered by comments made over the weekend by Nica Burns, director of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards.

Mr Buckley Hill said: “Clearly enough people approve of our model for it to remain viable. The suggestion is we put on shows that are of inferior quality to the paid-for shows. I can’t say this strongly enough: we do not.”

This followed strong words from Ms Burns, who said the free programmes encouraged some performers to come when they were “simply not ready”.

“They’ve not done the work, they’re not good enough and the public go along and have an absolutely terrible experience,” she was quoted as telling The Scotsman. “The Free Fringe performers maybe don’t have as much financially at stake and think they’ll go along and give it a go.”

This year, the Free Fringe has 465 shows doing 7,905 performances in 38 venues – the largest single provider on the Fringe. No one pays to perform, as they do in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and audiences do not have to pay. They are invited to pay at the end if they thought the show was worth it.

Mr Buckley Hill said: “The biggest barrier to success is people equating the word ‘free’ with the word ‘worthless’.”

The programme continues to grow. This year, the Free Fringe received a 40 per cent bump in applications, although 2012 had been heavily affected by the Olympics. It has also attracted Comedy Store headliners and TV personalities such as Phill Jupitus.

Comedians performing at the free venues are attracting more attention, with both Imran Yusuf and Cariad Lloyd nominated for Edinburgh Comedy Awards.

Sharon Burgess, an independent producer and promoter, said: “The fact it’s free has nothing to do with the quality of the work. It’s a fabulous platform for new acts to bring work with minimum financial risk.”

Mr Buckley Hill continued: “Creating a second division of comedy that people will come to because it’s free is not a viable model. Those who tried to take the Free Fringe from us have gone down that route.”

He was referring to the Free Festival, a rival programme run by Laughing Horse, which he feels is falling into the traps Ms Burns outlined. He said it picked up many of the acts his programme rejected, some of whom had stretched 20-minute sets to an hour .

He said: “The free idea is tarnished by their model. They do not understand the vital aspect of quality control.”

The Free Festival was founded by Alex Petty and Kevin McCarron, who previously worked with Mr Buckley Hill before an acrimonious split.

Mr Petty was unavailable to comment to The Independent, but told comedy website Chortle: “As a producer I programme my venues to get the best shows possible, and I can take a risk on someone who is a talented newcomer.”

Last night Ms Burns clarified her comments, insisting she was not apposed to all free shows.

She said: “A bad show is a bad show if it’s on the Free Fringe or paid for. I wanted to make a point about comedians waiting to make their jump from a 20 minute set to an hour.”