Edinburgh Festival: Banned professor back to stage macabre body show

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The Independent Online

The controversial anatomist Professor Gunther von Hagens is to display one of his preserved corpses in Edinburgh during this month's festival - two years after his macabre exhibits were barred by the city.

The German doctor achieved notoriety for displaying dozens of real human bodies, with skin peeled back to expose muscle and bone tissue and arranged in bizarre poses, at his "Body Worlds" exhibition. He also performed the UK's first public autopsy for 170 years, which was televised by Channel 4 in 2002.

Now Professor Von Hagens is to bring one of the bodies to the Edinburgh International Television Festival, where he is to speak in a debate about the portrayal of death and terminal illness on TV.

The medic devised a process called plastination, in which the body fluids of corpses are replaced by a solid plastic that preserves them and allows them to be displayed in different positions. He has toured his bodies around the world, but a bid to stage it in Edinburgh in 2003 was blocked by the city council.

He had wanted to display the corpses of three adults and a child in Princes Street Gardens during the festival, but the council refused permission.

A council spokeswoman said: "We thought it was not the most appropriate place to have an exhibition of this nature ... there may well have been people that could have been offended."

The council will not be opposing the latest attempt to show a body because it is a behind-closed-doors event for registered delegates who will be aware of the content.

Professor Von Hagens, who sees his exhibits as educational, said: "For decades the movie industry and television nurtured the public more by sensationalising the dead body with crime stories and the horror of decay, rather than using the body for a route of knowledge."

A spokeswoman for the TV festival said: "We feel the portrayal of death on screen merits a serious discussion about what is and is not appropriate to broadcast, and Gunther Von Hagens is clearly a key voice in this debate."

FESTIVAL DIARY

Giving hope to us all, The Independent on Sunday's former theatre critic, Robert Butler, has his new play on at the Pleasance. But he didn't realise until he got to Edinburgh that the Pleasance is a comedy-oriented venue. His play, Our State Tomorrow, is a tense war-time thriller.

This year's hot comedy topic? Not terrorism, not sudoku, but ... the Pope. Benedict - or "Creepy", as Andrew Maxwell calls him - is the subject of one of Maxwell's routines, as well as being the unwitting star of video sequences in both Adam Buxton's and Alex Horne's shows.

Heather Pilkington, of the male-female double act Lick & Chew, was heard trying to persuade two Scotsmen to buy tickets for her show, but the lads had some very specific criteria in mind. "Will we get to see any boobs?" asked one. Pilkington replied: "Well, there is a bra on display." She didn't mention that it's her comedy partner, Chris Fitchew, who wears it.

The two prospective punters might want to go to Spank, the Underbelly's late-night comedy cabaret. The hosts have promised that any Fringe company can have a minute onstage to promote their show - but only if one of the performers is naked.

As any Edinburgh Fringe veteran will tell you, when it comes to publicity you can't afford to be picky. Omid Djalili has noticed audiences for his show swelling - possibly in more ways than one - ever since someone put his picture on an Italian gay porn website designed for those with a penchant for fat, hairy men. Djalili was flattered to have been selected, he said.

Will Smith's superb show revolves around his obsession with Marillion, so it was a huge honour for him when Fish, the band's erstwhile lead singer, came to watch. "It's the first time he's seen me live," Smith told me. "Sixteen more times and we'll be even."

Nicholas Barber

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