Edinburgh Fringe: My favourite year

As the Fringe begins, past performers describe the unique appeal of a festival that has been luring artists for more than 50 years
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The Independent Culture

1947: Richard Demarco, impresario

It was a wonderful piece of orchestral genius – celebrating composers Beethoven and Mozart. The festival was designed to heal the wounds of the Second World War through art. I love the festival; I've been to 61 festivals. My best moments were not just meeting Maria Callas or Richard Burton, Audrey Hepburn or Thornton Wilder. You could see a young Burton playing a perfect Hamlet with a young Claire Bloom.

1963: Melvyn Bragg, writer and broadcaster

I remember making my second film for the BBC arts programme Monitor when I was about 23. I followed the choreographer Gillian Lynne, who has since choreographed Cats and many Andrew Lloyd Webber productions. She had just formed a troupe of young dancers. It was a very avant-garde, thrusting company with all sorts of ideas. I heard about them and went to see them rehearse in Kentish Town and followed them through to the Edinburgh Festival, where they performed in a small church. It was terrific. Gillian, a wonderful woman, is still a choreographer, now in her eighties.

1964: Richard Briers, actor

My first festival appearance was in a play called Hamp, which had an illustrious cast. John Hurt and Leonard Rossiter also starred in it. It was nice to do the part as I could play it straight when I was always really a comedy man – it was an extremely dramatic play. I remember saying to my wife, "there's this wonderful actor called Leonard Rossiter, but I don't think he'll ever become a star – he's too real."

1970s: Joan Bakewell, writer and broadcaster

I remember coming back to the room we were renting and ringing Bill Cotton, head of BBC light entertainment, and telling him I'd just seen this extremely funny young man called Rowan Atkinson. He said, "That's great. I'm sure my scouts will pick him up." Atkinson was very physical; that's what was so brilliant.

I did a Brontës show – there's usually one every year. Richard Demarco gave me a go and we played to full houses. I came back later and did it within the formal Festival.

1980s: Nina Conti, ventriloquist

One of my most happy Edinburghs was in my teens in the late 80s. It was the first time I discovered stand-up, and in the space of two days I saw Rhona Cameron, Paul Merton and the Joan Collins Fan Club. It just seemed as if you couldn't go wrong – it was so good.

Evolution, The Pleasance, 8.25pm, 3-10, 12-17 and 19-25 August

Nicholas Parsons, actor

I first performed in the Eighties. I was doing my one-man comedy show. The audiences are very warm and genuine and the show went extremely well, I remember thinking there's mileage in this. This particular show I've been doing for seven years and am going back for my eighth glorious year.

'Nicholas Parson's Happy Hour', Pleasance Courtyard, 5.10pm, 7-11, 13-18, and 20-24 August

1980: Alexei Sayle, comedian and writer

Me and a guy called Tony Allen were the first stand-up comedy act to do Edinburgh. Everyone who came after that were our babies, and we'd like royalties, please.

1983: John Hegley, poet

In my first year with the Popticians and Otis Cannelloni, the venue was The Hole in the Ground. It was. We played the venue bar in a marquee at midnight. We managed to get about two-thirds of the audience to listen and about one-third to pay. One night we collected £6.30, but this could not detract from our island's most excellent festive gathering. However, earning £4.20 the next night did.

'Beyond Our Kennel', Pleasance Courtyard, 6-25 August

Christopher Biggins, actor

I performed this play Food by John Grillor. My colleague Mae Alexander and myself were playing the fattest woman and man in the play. We were wearing this fat costume and eating. When out of the blue Mae's mother arrived on the scene and started eating too. Suddenly Mae got up and said, "I feel like wanking", and her mother continued eating her soup without batting an eyelid. It was mad, crazy.

1987: Chris Green (aka Tina C), comedian

I first went as part of the Derbyshire Youth Theatre. I had the best part – a soldier goes off to war at the start then comes back at the end with the big dramatic monologue. I spent the gap in between in the pub next door (underage) drinking. Happy days.

'Office Party', Udderbelly's Pasture, 8pm, 3-25 August. Tina C: 'Tick My Box', Udderbelly's Pasture, 10.20pm, 3-10 and 12-25 August

1990: Barry Cryer, writer and comedian

It was the first time I ever did the Fringe. It was with Willie Rushton and Colin Sell who plays the piano on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Willie's son was doing The Duchess of Malfi, and on a whim Willie rang the Little Hill Street venue and said, "Do you have a late slot after The Duchess of Malfi?" The man said, "What are you talking about?" Willie said "Me and Barry Cryer...", and the man said, "You're in." That was the first time. It was terrific.

What I like most about the Fringe is that it's a club. The stand-up comedians just call me Uncle Baz. I love that. I don't like people of my generation that knock the youngsters.

1992: Rhona Cameron, comedian

I was compering a small cabaret bar at the Theatre workshop. I'd been doing open spots, and 10 minutes in London for about a year and decided it was time to go up to the Fringe to try to get noticed. I heard there was a competition for newcomers called "So You Think You're Funny". The comp was full, but I met Karen Koren, the artistic director, and begged her until she caved in and let me perform. I won, and that was how it all kicked off, I guess.

Rhona Cameron. Gilded Balloon, 18-25 August

1995: Tim Vine, comedian

I was doing the Tim Vine Fiasco – there were five of us. On the last week the person playing the keyboard couldn't make it, so a 17-year-old joined us. We were in incredibly high spirits because we'd just won an award. So when he found ourselves in a piano bar we were having such a good time we hadn't noticed we'd left him there until hours later. He rang up his girlfriend saying he was lost in Edinburgh and that we were all drunk.

'Punslinger', Pleasance Courtyard, 6.15pm, 3-5 and 7-16 August

1996: Joanna Neary, comedian

I first performed on the Fringe in a serious play called The Agent. Although we were completely unheard of, performing miles away in a leisure centre which has since closed down and I'd never been in a play before, we had a wonderful time seeing other shows, drinking at the Pleasance Courtyard and trying to make friends with anyone who passed within half a yard of us

'Joanna Neary's Magic Hole', George Street, 5pm, 3-24 August

1997: Dan Antopolski, comedian

I performed in a mawkish production of The Seagull in Marco's leisure centre. While there, Tom Fynn and I organised a 10-day run of a comedy sketch show at 1am in C Venue – which we performed to baffled silence. It set the template for years to come.

'Dan Antopolski's Penetrating Gaze', Underbelly, 8.50pm, 1-19 and 21-24 August

2001: Mark Watson, comedian

One of my defining Fringe moments was seeing Emo Philips, before I had ever done a stand-up gig. He talked in a strange voice and reeled off jokes at a remarkable rate. I thought, "I'd like to have a go at doing one, or both."

'All The Thoughts I've Had Since I Was Born', Pleasance Courtyard, 8pm, 3-11 and 13-25 August

2003: Roger Lloyd Pack, actor

My first performance was a very esoteric Polish piece with a cellist and me, reciting this text around an art gallery. Quite a lot of people do that sort of thing now, but it was quite trend-setting, quite ahead of its time. There's a lot of good stuff at the Fringe, but then there's a lot of dross.

Andrew Lawrence, comedian

It was my final year at uni, and I speculatively entered the "So You Think You're Funny" competition. I reached the final and had to stay in a nasty B&B for two days. I ended up second. Out of that a woman offered to manage me, and that in turn opened up this whole new world of possibilities and showed me I could have a comedy career, which I'd never believed. It was a genuinely life-changing experience.

'Don't Just Do Something, Sit There!' Pleasance Courtyard, 9.45pm, 3-12 and 14-24 August

2005: Jim Bowen, comedian

Back in November 2004, I complained to my producer that he was doing nothing about my career. Next thing I know he'd booked me in to Jongleurs Comedy Club at the 2005 Fringe. I thought then that the Edinburgh Fringe was something a Scotsman wore round the bottom of his kilt. It was the best summer season I've done in years. We haven't looked back since.

'Look What You Could Have Won', Udderbelly's Pasture, 12.30pm, 3-25 August

Mark Allen, comedian

I went up with my first solo show called Quite Good Britain, about British identity. It was my best ever experience there. I had no idea how many people would come. I stood on the step and watched as people slowly trickled in and the place packed out. I did better that night than I did for the whole run. I found the whole experience very moving.

'Mark Allen's Pet Project', Underbelly, 1.35 pm, 3-23 August

2007: Shazia Mirza, comedian

Last year, there was a fire alarm in the middle of my show. We all had to run out, but the audience were worried they wouldn't see the end, so they asked me to do the show in the middle of the street. That was quite a laugh.

'Portrait of Shazia Mirza', Pleasance Courtyard, 9.35pm, 3-25 August

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