'Me' generation takes Fringe by storm

Real-life tales of success, excess and misfortune are taking over this year, irking professional comics
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The Independent Online

It has been dubbed the year of the "me" show. Entrepreneurs, a publicist and a former pop star are among the figures who have turned their real-life tales of success, excess and misfortune into stage shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. They risk the possibility of financial loss, empty seats and a critical drubbing to relate their tales among the bewildering array of 1,700 different shows at the annual festival that kicks off today.

The rise of the "me" show has prompted eyebrows to be raised. Jenny Eclair, the 1995 Perrier Award winner and professional comic, admired the "amateurs" for having the courage to perform at the Fringe but quipped: "They are amateurs coming into our theatres with their business nous. It's cheating."

She added: "These people could probably be in the Maldives with their families so I respect anybody who risks these sort of financial difficulties and mental torture."

Simon Woodroffe, the multi-millionaire businessman who founded the Yo! Sushi chain, is one of the prime movers of the "me" generation. He will do a three-week stint of his motivational show with music, which developed from his success on the after-dinner circuit.

"It's the trend of the year - the 'me' shows," said Mr Woodroffe. It is not the first time he has crowed about his achievements, having recorded an LP two years ago with Ian Dury's backing band The Blockheads, called How I Got My Yo! - also the title of his new show.

"Not that I could sing," Mr Woodroffe said, "but neither could Ian Dury. The Blockheads have said it's the best stuff they've done since the heyday of Ian Dury, so I started thinking I could perform some of the songs in the show."

Other unlikely Fringe performers whose talks draw heavily on their own lives are Simon Donald, the co-creator of Viz comic, leading PR man Mark Borkowski, American news anchor Bob Wiltfong, and Colin Hay, the former lead singer of Men at Work.

Broadcaster, writer and Independent on Sunday columnist Janet Street-Porter is being partly credited with reviving interest in the autobiographical show after the success of her Edinburgh debut last year, All the Rage.

"She helped to focus on this type of thing when she was on last year," said Mr Borkowski. His show, Son Of Barnum: A Stunt Too Far, looks at the tradition of great publicity coups and how his own efforts fit into the tradition.

"There's a whole generation of people who don't know about these groundbreaking figures who were years before their time. I see this as putting these people on the record," said Mr Borkowski, an Edinburgh virgin whose past performing experiences have consisted of sales pitches and talks to students."

Mr Donald, who has left Viz to write for television, devised an early version of his show - which he performs with colleague Alex Collier - as a means to a weekend away. "We were invited by a literary group in Dublin and they wondered if anyone from Viz could come and speak to them, have a little natter about the history of the comic. We thought we'd go and have a free weekend and a bit of a piss-up ... we didn't have any idea what we were going to talk about."

That early show has developed into Swearing Is Big and Clever, which his agents suggested he take to Edinburgh. "We hope it is informative enough to keep the Viz trainspotter types happy, but also entertaining enough for everyone else."

Mr Woodroffe said he was approached to turn his book - The Book of Yo! - into a stage act for the festival, which is dominated by comedy and theatre.

"When a promoter came to me with a contract, I signed it without thinking too much about it, which is often the best way. It's not a typical festival show, but why not? I'd like people to come away from the show thinking, 'he's an ordinary bloke and he did it, so anybody can do it' ... If you want to be successful, copying other successful people is a good way to learn."

Mr Hay, who topped the charts two decades ago with "Down Under", is another performer whose life figures large in his act.

"It is about what happened to me in the past 20 years," he said. "I started playing acoustic stuff after I was dropped by a major label in 90/91. I just did it as a temporary measure ... I thought I'll just go out and play live, and it developed from there.

"It got me through a very rough period of my life. Without wanting to sound too cosmic about it, you find out who you are through these kinds of performance."