Poor old telly cuts the Fringe too short for comfort

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The Independent Online
I DON'T think I have ever seen the Edinburgh Fringe portrayed properly on television. This is for a very simple reason. Television researchers and directors descend on Edinburgh in taxi-loads to scurry round the shows and find something good which will reflect the spirit of the Fringe, and then fillet out a bit of each show and serve it up on TV in a sauce of clean graphics and nice studio presentation.

By doing so they have lost all the ambiance of the Fringe, the queuing, jostling, beery post-mortems, long walks through cobbled streets to seek out tickets, the word-of-mouth buzz about the quality or dreadfulness of some show or other, the crash and rise of reputations . . .

(The people of Edinburgh must feel equally hazy about the Fringe if all that they see is the odd passing company in the street drumming up publicity. There are plenty of plays with interesting costumes whose actors can catch the eye. It usually turns out that these plays have one song in them, so the actors go round town endlessly singing it, leaving the people of Edinburgh with a one-sided view of the whole thing.)

The only time I ever saw the feeling of an act faithfully transferred to TV was when they first put Gerry Sadowitz on the screen. Sadowitz was (and is) a brilliant comedian with a line in bawdy misanthropy which meant that every other joke was so bitter or hostile or obscene that you couldn't air it on public TV.

Some TV director hit on the ingenious idea of filming Sadowitz in performance and fading round the naughty bits so that every time an un- transmittable line was coming up the screen would go wavy, Sadowitz would half-disappear like cheese melting, then reappear 20 seconds later. It made it very pacey and zappy, and funny just to watch . . .

There are many other things that the TV camera doesn't catch - the insane optimism and pessimism of the performers, for instance, who greet each new rise in ticket sales as a sign that 'the Festival is finally beginning to take off' and each new dip as the end of the world, and a sign for more frenzied leafleting . It doesn't catch the frenzied change-over in dressing-rooms - as each act comes over with applause tinkling in their ears, there is already a grim-faced or hung-over new act in their dressing-room, nervously twitching to get on and sort the microphones out.

The camera doesn't catch the audience, and that is precisely what oozes over so well on radio, which in many ways is better equipped to deal with the Fringe. Almost every night in Queen Street, outside the HQ of the BBC in Edinburgh, there is a queue to go and see 'Usual Suspects', which is the daily pick of the Fringe. Acts come on and off, reviewers appear and review, performers are interviewed, bands play, singers sing, and all to an audience of 200 or more. Although there is something sobering in the idea of 200 people silently watching a reviewer read out a review of a play he's been to see, the show is for the most part lively and accurate about the Fringe because it is another Fringe show in its own right.

I'm sure a lot of these people never go to any other Fringe events. For them, 'Usual Suspects' is the Fringe, in the same way that the nightly programme which used to be presented by Brian Matthew was, for all that it was Radio 2, a much better representation of the Fringe than anything on telly. These radio shows don't feed off the Fringe - they also recreate it, and the feeling backstage where the different performers are jumbled up is as motley and enforced friendly as anything on the real Fringe.

There is, curiously, one show on the Fringe itself which follows (or possibly precedes) the radio programme formula, and that is Mervyn Stutter's lunchtime show at the Pleasance called Seen Anything Good? Entirely composed of bits from other Fringe shows strung together by Mervyn's immensely likeable chatter and songs, it's a great way for acts to advertise themselves; a great way for punters to get a cross-section of unseen acts; and also a brave way for Stutter to make people listen to comedy and serious drama and music.

The last time I went there was a stomping folk group called the Joyce Gang, a wonderfully rude comedienne called Mandy Knight, and a moving extract from Answering Spirits, a serious play at the Pleasance, an extraordinary five-minute appearance by Judas Iscariot from a show called Guerrilla, and an even more effective extract from a one-woman show by a South African based on her own experience of date rape - quite chilling. And it all hangs together.

It's the best TV programme ever made about the Fringe. And if you put it on TV, it wouldn't work. Poor old TV.