Underbelly vs Stewart Lee: The Fringe kicks off

The 'Etonian cabal' running the festival hit back at comedian after his withering critique of their work

Bosses at some of the biggest Edinburgh Fringe Festival venues, including the well-known Underbelly, have hit back at the comedian Stewart Lee for claiming that their commercialism was killing the event.

Underbelly's co-director Ed Bartlam, described by Lee as a member of the "Etonian cabal" running the festival, accused the cult comic yesterday of hypocrisy.

"We were Etonians when Stewart had three or four very successful years performing with us," he said.

Meanwhile, other major venues dismissed Lee's criticisms as "mad", saying the festival would be "less exciting" without them.

Earlier this week Lee claimed that a partnership between the "big four" venues – the Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance, and Underbelly – was an act of "corporate cattle rustling" and had marginalised smaller venues at the 65-year old festival.

William Burdett-Coutts, who has run the Assembly for three decades, said: "Where his view is we're detracting from the Fringe, we've always worked very hard to support and develop it. Without us the Fringe would not be the exciting place it is at all.

"Lee throws out the issue of commercialism," he said. "The fringe is commercial. The entire thing is commercial. There's no public subsidy going in to make this happen. We either sell tickets or not. We've got to drum up public interest in what goes on here."

Mr Bartlam said the big venues did not just concentrate on commercial shows and big acts. "Yes, those big shows are important … but ultimately what the Fringe is about and we're about is putting on new shows, new writing and new talent. It's unfair of anyone to say we don't encourage that or promote it or want to do it."

The artistic director of the Gilded Balloon, Karen Koren, said Lee was an "old sentimentalist".

Mr Burdett-Coutts said the major venues were catering to what the public wanted. "The great thing about the Fringe is the balance of it all," he said. "There's a great range of work, from kids starting out to world-class comedians," he added. "What has grown since I've been here is the professionalism in the middle. That notion has rankled Stewart Lee, but the public is who we're playing for and they like a professional setup."

This year's festival is opening with a record number of performances. Almost 2,700 shows will be staged at 279 venues across Edinburgh, with just over 42,000 performances before the close on 27 August.

Comedy makes up the largest proportion of the shows at 36 per cent, with stars including Daniel Kitson, Phill Jupitus and Jimmy Carr.

Several organisers said they had not been affected by the Olympics, included the Gilded Balloon where sales are up 5 per cent.

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