It wasn’t the most auspicious start to the Edinburgh Fringe 2015. This week, the Fringe Society revealed that it had fallen foul of fraud, in which an employee had embezzled £220,000 over eight years. It is not quite Barings Bank but for any arts organisation that is a significant sum. For the Fringe, though, the amount of money siphoned off each year amounted to less than 1 per cent of its annual turnover. The Fringe is no longer, and hasn’t been for a long time, a ramshackle carnival of alternative art. It is no longer a fringe, even, it is the main event. And it is big business.
Last year, 2.2 million tickets were sold over the month. This year, as every year, it will be bigger than ever before. There are 3,314 shows from 49 countries listed in the 440-page programme – up 3.8 per cent on 2014. There are also 14 new venues, taking the total number of theatres, clubs, pub backrooms, lecture theatres, cellars and bookshops where you can catch a show up to 313. The Fringe is now so big, it will probably declare itself an independent country soon.
Throw in the Edinburgh International Festival, Book Festival, Art Festival, Television Festival and Magners Summer Nights gigs, and the entire arts world now decamps to Scotland for August. The BBC has its own W1A outpost, broadcasting shows live from Potterow and presenting mixed-bill comedy shows. Major theatres and companies like Shakespeare’s Globe, The Gate, Northern Stage, Paines Plough and The Place present mini-seasons of work within the programme. Big-name comedians now ensure a stop-off at Edinburgh mid-tour for a few nights to make the most of the comedy-hungry crowds.
As the Fringe has grown, so too has its competitive side. The Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award (once the Perrier) is still the one every stand-up wants to win but there are also Fringe First, Amnesty Freedom of Expression and Total Theatre awards, not to mention prizes for Best Student Stand-up, Best Joke and Best Poster. A comedian told me that the sheer number of awards it is now possible not to win at the Fringe makes him feel like a failure, even if he sells out every night of his run and gets standing ovations.
So has the Fringe lost its soul? Not quite. Try and walk down the Royal Mile at lunchtime on any day in mid-August and you’ll see that its bonkers, amateurish spirit still burns bright. The programme is as eclectic as ever. There are plays about Edward Snowden, the Tour de France and Women’s Hour. There are musicals about UKIP! and the Spice Girls. And there is comedy, ancient, old and brand new, from freshly dug-up Tony Hancock plays in The Missing Hancocks (Assembly Rooms) to household names like Al Murray, Jo Brand, Adam Hills, Patrick Kielty and Paul Merton and exciting up-and-comers like Alex Edelman, Fern Brady and Beard. Andrew Flintoff (Pleasance Courtyard) and Ricky Tomlinson (Assembly Rooms) will talk about their lives. Or if you want more action, try the anarchic kids’ gameshow Funz and Gamez Tooz (Assembly George Square) or The Wrestling in which 20 comedians will don Spandex and grapple for real, and for laughs (Pleasance Courtyard).
As the Fringe expands and professionalises, a multitude of fringes on the Fringe have sprung up. Forest Fringe is the most established and its programme this year is as eccentric and appealing as ever. More and more established acts – among them Phill Jupitus, Pippa Evans and Stuart Goldsmith – are opting for one of the three free fringes, choosing to shake a bucket at the door over selling tickets. At Summerhall The Sick of the Fringe will explore the links between art and medicine in talks by Complicite’s Simon McBurney and Bryony Kimmings. And The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas will see leading academics tackle cervical cancer, Lance Armstrong and the idea that Edinburgh should “ban students”. Just so long as they don’t ban clowns.