Pure Fringe: lutes, clowns and the BBC

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The Independent Online
When I first got up here for the Edinburgh Festival 10 days ago, I was rung up by a BBC TV producer who excitedly said they were doing an item on this George Steiner thing, and would I take part in a brief discussion about it?

"What George Steiner thing?" I asked.

My first reaction was that it must be a priceless art object. Normally, at festival time, the Scots are trying to raise money to keep something in the country, which is so much a part of the national heritage that nobody has ever heard of it. Two years ago it was the Three Graces. This year it is a priceless early Italian painting by Lambrusco. Or Lamborghini or someone. Usually you can see the Scottish art supremo Tim Clifford doing his help-save-this-thing-for-the-country-act, and a very good act it is too....

(Maybe it is an act. Maybe Tim Clifford is listed somewhere in the Fringe programme as a separate entertainment in his own right. Maybe there is an entry I have missed that says: "Tim Clifford and his Amazing Art-Saving Act! First Week of Festival Only! Must raise Twenty Million Pounds by End of Week or Tim Clifford Implodes....!")

"What George Steiner thing?" I said.

"Oh, this speech he has made, about the Edinburgh Festival. Everyone's talking about it."

There, I'm afraid, she was wrong. In the past 10 days I have been caught up in many conversations and not one of them has even got near to the George Steiner thing. The Fringe doesn't give a fig for generalities. It talks about reviews and venues and lighting problems and the price of taxis....

"What has he said about the festival?"

"That it might be getting too big."

Oh dear. There's a novel thought. I first came to the festival in 1963, and although there were only about 60 shows in the Fringe then, most of them student drama and revue, there was a feeling that it might be on the big side. Now there are 1,300 shows and people still feel it might be getting too big. It's a pointless discussion, because there is nothing you can do about it and it will go on growing for ever unless it fragments or explodes.

If George Steiner were up there with James on the giant peach, he might well make a speech saying that the peach ought to stop growing, but it wouldn't have much effect on the peach....

"So," continued the producer, "we would like you to come and chat about it with James Walters, who is associate director of the festival, on Calton Hill at 7.25am."

One of the first rules of the festival is that you never turn down a media appearance because at least you can give your show a plug (Death of Tchaikovsky, Pleasance Attic, 10.50pm, advt), so one sunny morning I pedalled blearily up to the top of Calton Hill, where, apart from the spectacular view, there were four dancers arranged in the columns of the unfinished Acropolis, as well as two Chinese musicians on the grass and two clowns trying to control a yellow balloon 12 feet high.

"On air in 10 minutes," said a voice. "Could the dancers start dancing, please?"

This was the BBC's idea of what a Fringe background should look like. Dancers, clowns, musicians. Well, fair enough, it is everyone else's as well. It just looked a bit crazy at 7.30am, that's all, these silent cavortings on a sunny hill. I met James Walters.

"I don't know about you," Walters told me, "but I intend to say that as far as the Fringe is concerned, there is absolutely no point trying to control it. The more the merrier. Don't impose any controls."

"Exactly my feelings," I said. "This could be a very brief TV discussion," said Walters.

I think it was. I can't remember. What I do remember was, just before we went on air, an assistant director shouting to the Fringe artists "Could we clear EVERYONE except the lute player, please?" and thinking what a very Fringe thing to say that was, and realising, as I looked round this sunny hilltop perched above Edinburgh with its BBC Breakfast Show van, and the clowns running down hill to retrieve the balloon that was flying away, and the dancers shivering because they were bare-chested - realising that this, too, was a Fringe event, and that if the BBC thought it was talking from a great height about the Fringe, it was quite mistaken, because it was being sucked in and becoming part of the Fringe itself, just another Fringe event.

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