EDINBURGH FESTIVAL 1993 / Show-shocked: Sean Hughes gives a veteran's guide to Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture
I'VE DECIDED to write this piece in the style of the festival itself. The initial excitement, the buzz, quick look at the programme, look who's on: Julian Cope; shows with silly names; The Wow Show is back; your chance to see four different versions of Abigail's

Party; and not forgetting the opportunity to catch some of your favourite TV-advertisement personalities doing stand-up comedy.

What else has Edinburgh got to offer? The Brazilian rain forest of leaflets thrust into your hand, the jugglers on the street looking for new variations on throwing objects into the air, the tourists walking into Fringe shows by mistake and being too embarrassed to leave, the entire population of Edinburgh becoming critics for the duration, the Mr Benn transformation of certain venues - usually a pokey wine cellar but for the festival an exclusive atmospheric theatre. The lies of Tardis proportions when it comes to flats; 'an extremely large, well-furnished, three-bedroomed house' is, in fact, a pokey wine cellar.

What does the festival offer the newcomer? Many will have seen television programmes professing to show the highlights of the Fringe. Don't believe them. They offer a bastardised version of events: 'I know your show is a conceptual monologue, but could we lift three minutes of it, please?' First- time performers shouldn't be fooled by the scores of television employees running around like headless chickens looking for the next big thing - they just clutter up the audience, desperately trying to gauge reactions without understanding any of your jokes. As for awards, there seem to be about 20 on offer, and new ones appear every year. 'Henley's Bakery is proud to announce it's Best Thing Since Sliced Bread award. This is a prestige award for performers who are doing Edinburgh because they feel they have something to say rather than in the vain hope of getting their own TV series.' The more awards, the better; it's a step in the right direction. Lose the competitive nature, give everyone an award. Having said that, I feel I have a fair chance of winning the Sean Hughes award this year. Apparently, it's between me and Karl McDermott.

Week two starts and a sense of deja vu sets in. I'm sure I'm bumping into the same people in the same place every night. I'm also sure we're having the same conversation. I now know where they got the idea for Groundhog Day. From a performing point of view, three weeks is a bit of a strain; it's all right if the show's going well but, if it's a disaster, the festival can seem as long as the Brookside omnibus. In week two most of the reviews filter through: this is the time when you have to avoid friends who have been given bad ones. You just have to wave at them from a distance, pointing at your watch as if in a hurry. If you find they, too, are making similar gestures, the paranoia sets in, so you buy all the papers and magazines and lock yourself in a room. The other sign of a bad review is if you see somebody with a fixed grin and an 'I'm not hurt' look on their face. Comics tend to dismiss bad reviews but secretly re-read them all the time, even looking up certain words to make sure nothing is misunderstood.

Reviews aren't that important in Edinburgh - word of mouth is what sells shows. One year I did a show with Steve Frost: 'A scathing attack on the world of media', we realised it was about, after the critics had their say. We thought it was just knockabout comedy. You live and learn. On another occasion, a play I was doing with Owen O'Neill, Patrick's Day, got such an horrendous review we blew it up and stuck it to the door so that punters got to see it as well. We even used some of the lines as part of the play.

By the last week you care less about how your show is going and more about making sure you're not the last one out of the Gilded Balloon bar. The only way you can guarantee this is if Arthur Smith is also present. I haven't missed Edinburgh for the last five years. This time I'm only doing four nights, making sure word of mouth doesn't kill it off. I love the spirit of the festival, it's unique in every sense. To me, it's about the mix of hundreds of shows all baying for your attention, and this is why I'm worried by the coming together of three of the larger venues - the Gilded Balloon, the Assembly Rooms and the Pleasance - as a single entity. These venues have always done good things, but I feel that, if the punters think they can see everything at these venues, the smaller ones will go to the wall. The nightmare scenario is that the bigger venues and promoters will gain a monopoly - a few people will be making all of the decisions, the prices may go up and the content will be less diverse.

Certainly go to these venues but, remember, the most fun is checking out those pokey wine cellars.

SEAN'S 10 THINGS TO WATCH

OUT FOR THIS YEAR

Eddie Izzard getting nominated for the Perrier Award.

Comics buying drinks for the Montreal Festival representatives.

The Guardian going all gooey-eyed over anything remotely American.

Seeing if Avalon can make their posters any bigger.

Alan Parker causing a sensation.

The Glasgow Herald giving the most informative reviews.

Karen Koren shouting at her staff at the Gilded Balloon.

Mark Steel being overlooked by the Perrier panel again.

Quality papers coming over as passionate about comedy at the festival, then ignoring it for the rest of the year.

The realisation that the door staff at every venue are illegal Australians.

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