Lunatic fringe

A comedy about the Edinburgh Festival? It was hardly a stretch, the director Annie Griffin tells Gerard Gilbert

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The Independent Culture

It can only be Edinburgh in August - welcome to Festival, a feature film about the Edinburgh Festival by Annie Griffin, the US writer-director behind the hit Channel 4 series The Book Group.

Given the number of performers, writers, directors and producers who pass through the Scottish capital every summer, you wonder why it took someone so long to come up with the idea. "I've no idea," Griffin replies. "In all my years of living in Britain, I've noticed this obsession with American culture, but to me, being at the Edinburgh Festival is far more glamorous than, say, being on Broadway." Glamorous, but also self-centred. "The city is swollen with performers," Griffin continues, "all competing for audiences, all desperate for their show to be recognised as something special."

Griffin, originally from Buffalo, New York, first came to Britain in 1981, "as a student of English men", but more seriously to pursue her ambitions as an experimental actor. She moved to Glasgow in 1997 and now lives in Edinburgh. "When I performed in Edinburgh in the Eighties, it always struck me that there was more drama in surviving the festival than in the actual shows," she says. Her refreshingly grown-up and witty film was released on Friday and opens the Edinburgh Film Festival in August.

The film comprises a large number of characters and plot-strands. Daniela Nardini (of This Life) plays a cynical radio journalist and comedy-awards judge who finds a desperate comedian (played by Chris O'Dowd) bedding her to secure her vote. Lyndsey Marshal plays the dippily enthusiastic writer-performer of the Dorothy Wordsworth play, who strikes up a sweet relationship with Brother Mike (Clive Russell), a priest with "impure thoughts", whose solo show about child abuse is one long cry for help (unnoticed by everybody else, of course). Stephen Mangan (of Green Wing) is the monstrously egocentric "Britain's favourite TV comedian", while Amelia Bullmore plays a well-to-do but frigidly married Edinburgh mother suffering from postnatal depression, who is seduced by the free-wheeling Canadians who are trashing her home. And that's just the half of it.

"I was told you can't make movies with lots of different characters, and then Love Actually came out half-way through production and they started to relax about that one," Griffin says. But then, with her background in experimental theatre, she seems to thrive on bucking the perceived wisdom of what will or won't work in drama. "When I told a few people that I wanted to do a film about the festival," she reveals, "they said they thought it was a bad idea, and that always gets me going. It was the same with The Book Group."

Griffin reckons it was The Book Group that persuaded the festival organisers to green-light her project, as it managed to do the seemingly impossible - make a TV comedy out of reading. It seems that every year the festival authorities receive a number of requests to film during the event, all of which are routinely denied. The film was shot on location in Edinburgh last August and September.

Nardini claims Griffin was a hard taskmaster ("She survived," Griffin responds), making Nardini go out on to the streets and interview real festival-goers. O'Dowd, who plays the dipsomaniac comedian Tom O'Dwyer, and Lucy Punch, who plays a glamorous, ambitious comedian ("She's too tall to be funny," one of the comedy judges says), were asked to write and perform their own stand-up acts on the Fringe. "I did three stand-up gigs in character to see how it would be. And it was absolutely terrifying," O'Dowd says. "But it was incredible. When you're an actor doing a drama, there isn't such an immediate response."

"It was absolutely petrifying," Punch agrees. "For my stand-up scene, they rounded up some people off the street as extras to play the audience. Fortunately for me, Annie told them my character was supposed to be very funny - and I felt like a comedy genius, because they were cheering me."

Griffin's main beef with the Edinburgh Festival, it becomes clear during her film, is the way that it has been taken over by the comedy industry. "When I first started coming, it was all about Polish street theatre; then, all of a sudden in the late Eighties, comedy became so important, and all these television people were there, and theatre suddenly seemed boring. So we resented the comedians. A great comedian is just using the form to talk about stuff, but most comedians you see at the festival... you see a few in a row and you just think: 'Please. Say something interesting.'"

At each test-screening, people came away with a different favourite character, Griffin says, but one of the most vivid characters is undeniably Mangan's loathsome but funny Sean Sullivan, a star comedian who treats his female PA - and, in fact, any female - at worst like dirt, at best like a Thai hooker. "There is no exaggeration in the way people behave," Griffin insists, "no stretching the behaviour of the performers or the comedians. You just may not have seen it before - but I have."

And do shows like the Dorothy Wordsworth play still get put on at Edinburgh? "Oh yeah," Griffin says. "There are at least three one-woman shows about Sylvia Plath at every festival."

'Festival' is on general release