Comeback kids: Edinburgh stars

They are the old hands taking Edinburgh by storm. But why is the Festival Fringe the favourite place to re-energise a lengthy career? Paul Bignell finds out
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The Independent Online

Joan Rivers, 75, Comedian and broadcaster, appearing in 'A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress'

"Does Edinburgh help your career? I don't know... it's gotten so big that it's such a rat-fuck now. I feel so sorry for everyone out in the street saying, 'Come and see us, come and see us.' But it is a great way to be seen, for directors to see you and producers to see you. It's a wonderful thing that way.

"'A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress' is the third play I've written, and in it I really wanted to talk about different things, such as getting older. I was talking about the idea, and someone said that would make a great play. The crowd at Edinburgh are really good to me – so much so that we've added four more shows. Now we've decided to take the show from here to the West End in London. In the United States the crowd will stand up for anything. So it means a little bit more that the crowd are enjoying the show here. The atmosphere is wonderful. I've already been on the Edinburgh Ghost Tour.

"After Edinburgh, I'm going back to New York to do 'The Celebrity Apprentice', the Donald Trump show, with my daughter.

"I'm still enjoying life as much as I did. The showbiz life is great. Everybody wants it, everybody enjoys it – there's no way I'm slowing down."

Michael Barrymore, 56, Comedian, appearing in 'Surviving Spike'

"This is the first time I've done Edinburgh. I started my life round the wrong way. Most people come here first to start their career. Fortunately, it's been really well received. Nobody should be given anything they haven't had to work for – and that's me included. I'm just doing my stuff to the best of my ability. If people want to call it a comeback, so be it.

"I just do what I've got to do. Whatever happens in your life, you've just got to keep yourself in the day and let it take care of itself.

"I came to do 'Surviving Spike' after an agent passed me a script when I was sitting round a table at a social evening. I've often done things not knowing if they would work out, and then I've just added my stuff to it and it has.

"I am also a fan of Spike, which helps. I interviewed him once on 'Barrymore' and he said to me: 'You're off your chump.' I said, 'That's rich coming from you.'

"The play encompasses Spike's depression as well. So there are parallels with my life, I suppose. There's this misconception that comedians walk around smiling all the time. So when you're not doing it there's just loss.... Unless you keep yourself busy, and then get that manic side of it when you're performing, you get this flatness. I get it sometimes. I don't know where it comes from."

Jill Gascoine, 71, Actress, appearing in 'Sister Cities'

"I had actually retired for about the tenth time in my life. I was asked to do 'Sister Cities' and I said, 'Well, I'm not very good with lines any more.' But the producers said you won't have to say much, you'll be lying there and you can't move. So I agreed. Of course, it's a little more than that, but I am only on stage for 15 minutes and I am dying. It's a wonderful play – it's all girls and I am really enjoying it.

"I have played the Festival before, but in the 1950s: I was a dancer for a dance troupe, and then I did it again a couple of years later. The festival has vastly changed since then. There's a wonderful atmosphere now. Never in my life have I got in at four in the morning, but this is what you do here.

"I've been retired for many years now. After playing Maggie Forbes in 'The Gentle Touch' I did a lot of touring and then did '42nd Street'. Then I moved to Los Angeles in 1993. I did one play but I haven't done anything else. I live with my husband [the actor Alfred Molina] here, so I haven't really done much and I'm retired at home. But since doing this show I've got the taste again – which is rather worrying!

"I think doing the festival might be good for one's career. I do lead a different life living in America now, but when I play here I can feel something inside me saying, 'Mmm, maybe I should do this....'

"I think a lot of people thought I was dead! Then they go, 'Ah, you're still here!'"

Simon Callow, 59, Actor, appearing in 'A Festival Dickens'

"It's true that Edinburgh is very good for your career. The entire press depends on Edinburgh, but it's absolutely pot luck as to what they see here. They're either tipped off by someone they know or just follow the course and really like it if they're surprised by something new.

"I actually started my career at Edinburgh in 1973, in a play called 'The Thrie Estates'. But since then I have been back only a couple of times. This time I'm returning after nearly 25 years. Now the Festival is vastly bigger than it ever was and the fringe takes over the whole city. It's really fun and is a great, big popular festival.

"It's great as people are in a real holiday mode and they are all here to indulge in their filthy passion for theatre, which is lovely. I've found my audience to be very lovely, and willing to be moved, which is great.

"Things I've seen? I particularly like one show entitled '1000 years of German Humour.'"

Hazel O'Connor, 53, Actress, singer/songwriter, appearing in 'Beyond Breaking Glass'

"Playing Edinburgh has been great for my career. To be honest, initially I never dreamed of doing it as I didn't come up through the ranks of the art circuit, but I was convinced to do it by someone I knew.

"This will be my third Edinburgh performance. I did it for the first time 10 years ago and it spawned a whole new direction for me. At that time the idea of just myself and a harp player telling a story through song was a totally new idea. I thought it would either bomb or I'd be voted 'What an artist!' Luckily, I was voted 'What an artist!'

"Because of the quick turn-around, you get to see your audience and I saw these people who had wonderful tattoos and piercings, and looked liked they had come to see an original Hazel O'Connor show. I had to tell them it was just me and a harp player. Luckily, they said, 'Great! No problem.' Now they're our friends.

"Part of my show is a kind of revenge in a comedy style, aimed at the bastards that signed me to their record company. I had real problems with them a few years ago."

Jim Bowen, 70, Comedian and game-show host, appearing in 'Look At What You Could Have Won'

The ex-'Bullseye' host wanted money to speak to us. Cheek! We declined, even if we think he is "super, smashing great!"

Britt Ekland, 65, Actress, appearing in 'Britt on Britt'

"Last year I did 'Grumpy Old Women', and my director for that show just asked me one day whether I'd thought of doing a one-woman show. I knew it would take a lot of effort but I said, 'Yes, I'd like to do it. I never thought in a million years I'd be doing this. Even less I thought it would be a fantastic success for us.

"My show is very candid. There's no point in doing this if you're not honest, as the audience can see right through you. Most of the people I've spoken to backstage after the show seem to think that I've had the most incredible life. I never thought anything about my life – now having gone through it again, so to speak... yes, it does seem very interesting. It doesn't happen to everyone the way my life happened.

"I don't expect to go further than this. It would be fantastic to do a West End show, but we haven't come that far yet. It's been a revelation for me and I think people are surprised that I've done this.

"It's incredibly brave – you take any actress in their sixties and tell them they're going to be performing on stage by themselves and no one else ... well, it's hard enough to remember lines when you're with someone else, but by yourself it's very tricky."