Edinburgh Festival 2009: Fringe Stunts

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Every August the Royal Mile, that cuts to the heart of Fringe madness in Edinburgh, is bursting with expectant performers hustling for punters and trying to outdo each others promotional activities.

Getting bums-on-seats for the unknowns that flock to ‘festival city’ will usually involve cunning wheezes or ‘happenings’ that will set tongues wagging. In the past few years, during my duties reporting on the Fringe for The Independent, I have stayed with performers who came up with a mobile kissing booth (they couldn’t have a fixed one as it was moved on by the local authority) and another group who married passers by in the guise of Russian brides.

Some Fringe stunts are so audacious, of course that they have gone down in Festival history.

Celebrated examples of this include the late inveterate japester Malcolm Hardee and Arthur Smith colluding on a five star review of Hardee’ show in 1989 and passing it off for publication in The Scotsman. Hardee was at the centre of a number of other incidents including driving a tractor into the tented venue of American spoken word artist Eric Bogosian because the noise was disturbing his own show.

Though you could argue that this was more a fit of pique than a pre-meditated stunt, PR expert Mark Borkowski says, like himself, that Hardee “always had an eye to the column inches.” Borkowski, who now argues that the age of the stunt has passed to a time of technological tomfoolery, has a record is equally colourful as Hardee’s having been responsible for launching the extreme, chainsaw-juggling, circus group Archaos on an unsuspecting Edinburgh public in 1991. In order to promote their show the troupe were pictured sawing a car in half on the Royal Mile and leaping over parked cars on motorbikes on the mound.

Later in the 90s Borkowski took on The Jim Rose Circus (no chainsaws but plenty of self-mutilation to make up for it) which provided the PR another opportunity to wind up the press and the authorities. Among numerous well-documented occurrences, Rose discovered a forgotten by-law that allowed sheep herding up the Royal Mile before 6am and duly obliged. Some of his flock entered the council offices before being herded out again, a not-so-sheepish gesture of anti-authoritarianism. Then there was a bloody “accident” as Rose hammered a spoon up his nose on Graham Norton’s BBC Scotland radio show aired during the festival.

Despite this legacy of japery Borkowski maintains that the age of this kind of stunt is dead and that they more or less passed with Malcolm Hardee. The “moral arbiters” have gone, he says, and we live, he asserts, in an unshockable age. Borkowski also contends that since we live in a digital age, the emphasis is on ‘cheap’ tricks rather than elaborate hoaxes, flashmobbing rather than garrotting.

One example of this that is cited has already gone down in this year’s Fringe history before the festival started. In the wake of the announcement about the revamped Edinburgh Comedy Awards the American, but UK-residing, comedian Lewis Schaffer sent out an email in June saying that the awards organiser Nica Burns (he merely replaced the ‘c’ in her name with a ‘k’, his first mistake) had accepted his offer £99 so that the award be called ‘The Lewies’. Shaffer’s second faux-pas was to attribute this following quote to Burns: “Comedians are as racist and xenophobic as the rest of us and the British don’t like the French. Yes, Lewis Schaffer is an American and we don’t like them either, even with Obama, but Lewis has lived here so long and has achieved so little, he’s become one of us.”

Burns’ lawyers demanded a written/emailed apology and Shaffer’s representation deserted him. “Biting the hand that feeds him was his real mistake” says Borkowski but he resolves that Shaffer had the right idea of “getting under the skin to provoke a reaction.”

Even if one of the highest profile stunts so far was merely an email, and PR preoccupation can be more about brand-building than shock value, there is still room for more public happenings. Dr Haze, whose Circus of Horrors was PR’d by Borkowski on their first Fringe visit, still brings spirit of Jim Rose (and of PT Barnum before him) with him to recent Fringes.

“One year we drove a tank down Princes St after hijacking the Cavalcade but our greatest stunts happened at our last visit to the festival. First of all Hannibal Helmurto broke a world record by pulling a 4-ton truck 100 meters again along Princess Street using two meat hooks inserted through his back. Then our dwarf got his Penis stuck inside a Hoover and had to have it removed at the hospital. The stunt got front page of the Sun and many other nationals as well as subsequently being featured on radio and TV.”

The fact that Danny the Dwarf’s manhood got stuck in a vacuum cleaner in the first place was because he would ‘violate’ one during his act and drag it around the stage. When someone stepped on it after a show and damaged it he tried to superglue it and didn’t wait a requisite amount of time until ‘testing it’, or so Haze tells me. Haze believes: “A stunt needs to have substance, you can’t just invent a story it has to have some sense of realism. I believe stunts are still vitally important at the Fringe, there are so many shows here and most don’t have a lot of money to remote their event.”

Other stunts of note in recent years include a cardboard cut-out of Nicholas Parsons stolen from the Pleasance Press office. Photos were subsequently taken of it in various Edinburgh locations including atop of an open-roofed sight-seeing bus. Pictures of it were duly distributed and column inches filled. Still on the plane of two dimensions, last year Tim Vine had a giant poster of himself erected on Cowgate that read: “TIM VINE… is not appearing at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival.” It gained him as much publicity as some acts get by playing the whole festival.

More dangerous exploits have been shown off by, for example, comedy magician Pete Firman who swallowed twenty lit cigarettes at the launch of the Underbelly venue in 2007. This happened just in time for the smoking ban and the council duly threatened action. Firman got around it by literally having one foot in the venue and the other, along with the offending articles, outside. Firman, a non-smoker, doesn’t do the trick now though for logistical reasons but also because: “every time I do it I burn myself. My parents didn’t like me doing it either!”

At the other end of the health spectrum, at last years Edinburgh Fringe Leicester Comedy Festival conducted real life health checks for comedians to promote their ‘Hurt Until It Laughs’ shows that focuses on issues to do with male health. UNISON nurses conducted health tests on twenty comedians, normally known for their hard-living and devil-may-care attitude, and found a range of issues that need further investigation and also discovered that Ed Byrne is allegedly the healthiest comedian around.

Inevitably there are stunts that backfire and some that do damage even at the planning stage. So it was for Asian comedian Paul Chowdry’s PR, Dion Clements, a few years back. As The Independent reported in their festival diary at the time Chowdry sacked Clements for apparently suggesting that his client dress as a suicide bomber and stand outside his venue while Clements alerted the police. At the time Clements said: “The show is based on misunderstandings we were trying to get him arrested as a suicide bomber but we didn't dress him as one, we just asked him to put two fizzy drinks and some straws under his belt so he was mistaken as one."

While to some extent ‘the stunt has become the show’ with examples including Mark Watson’s 24 hour show (the last of which runs this year) and Tim Fountain’s Sex Addict show that saw him hook up online with willing partners for gay sex, there’s still room for the one-offs explosions of ‘purely for publicity’ happenings. It’s a craft that will be celebrated this year by a new award called the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award. It’s the brainchild of John Fleming who runs the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality as a tribute to the man whose autobiography he co-authored. Already being considered for this award is Shed Simove, The Ideas Man, whose publicity material will printed on lavatory paper and put toilets all around Edinburgh. ‘Pooblicity’, as he calls it.

Publicist Daniel Bee, who has formerly worked for Andrew Lloyd Webber and for the Avalon comedy agency, and is Edinburgh bred, believes that the Fringe should be a clarion cry for all that is misleading and mischievous: “For a creative publicist, and journalists for that matter, Edinburgh should be treated as open season. It is the only time of the year that one could (and should) actively lie to the media; and the press also really play to that. To many young publicists from London this is really a bit confusing.”

For anyone still looking for that stroke of PR genius, veteran Fringe performer and grumpy old man Arthur Smith, who once played gold down the Royal Mile, suggests that: “for every one stunt that draws attention there are fifty that don’t - but getting arrested is always good.”