Edinburgh: Cradle of shows that conquered the world

Every act at the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe dreams of making it big, and a special few succeed. As performers gather for the 2010 event, illustrious predecessors tell Arifa Akbar and Harry Morgan about the Scottish nights when their careers took off

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:45

Beyond the Fringe - 1960

The Beyond the Fringe quartet count as one of the most memorable discoveries in Edinburgh history.

Four fresh-faced Oxbridge alumni, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, came from nowhere to take the event by storm. Performing at the main festival, not on the Fringe, they went on to conquer London and New York, catalysts of the satire boom that changed the face of British comedy.

Fifty years on, Miller, now 76, remembers that he took two weeks off his "day job" as a doctor to perform at Edinburgh, with every intention of resuming his profession after the festival run finished that summer. While it transformed his life and career, along with those of his fellow performers, he cannot recall the first night of the show, only the ripples it caused among audiences and critics.

"I can't remember anything about it at all," Miller says. "The four of us just went up. We didn't see ourselves as satirists. We were four funny people and we had some funny ideas for some funny shows; we were outside of the world of showbusiness. I had met the others in London but we didn't all know each other."

The germ of the idea for the show was conceived by Robert Ponsonby, the festival's artistic director in 1960, who sought to bring together the combined talents of the Cambridge Footlights and the Oxford Revue that had, in previous years, performed short runs at the festival. While Moore and Cook were already emerging figures in the West End and on the caberet scene, Miller and Bennett were pursuing fledging careers in medicine and academia respectively when they were invited to join the act by John Bassett, an assistant to Ponsonby.

"Bassett had been to school with my wife and he knew I had done stuff at Cambridge," Miller recalled. "I was a qualified doctor by then. He came to visit me at A&E where I was working as a house officer. He said 'Come up to Edinburgh', and I said 'OK'."

The first show was 50 minutes long and performed after a Chekhov play. "We did it and everyone thought it was rather wonderful," Miller said. "We were among a generation who were reacting to the peculiar changes in the nation as a result of postwar questioning, a group of people who were perhaps boys during the war and had witnessed it rather than having been a part of it, and who broke with tradition in theatre and literature."

Beyond the Fringe swiftly transferred to London where it continued to cause a sensation and then played in New York, where it was seen by, among others, President Kennedy. "When we were invited to take it to London, I thought, I'll put medicine on hold," Miller said. "Then people asked us to come to New York and I thought it might be an opportunity to make some more money to cover me when I went back to being a house officer."

While Cook and Moore had set out to in the world of comedy and showbusiness, Miller said he and Bennett were drawn into it accidentally. "Peter and Dudley were more committed to being in theatre. Alan and I were undetermined academics."

Miller went on to have a career in medicine, TV and opera direction. Bennett, now also 76, continues to enjoy huge success as a playwright. Peter Cook, who died in 1995, wrote and performed throughout his life. Dudley Moore died in 2002 after making a film career in Hollywood.

Jenny Eclair – 1995

Jenny Eclair entered the comedy circuit in the 1980s when she was in her early twenties, but it was not until 1995 when she won the festival's prestigious Perrier Comedy Award – becoming the first woman to do so – that she found critical and commerical success. The exposure at Edinburgh led to television and radio work including BBC 2's Grumpy Old Women and Radio 4's Just a Minute quiz show, as well as a series of books. Eclair recalls: "My material was an amalgam of what I'd done on the circuit that year with a bit of extra stuff. I took it up to Edinburgh and it just gelled. It was a glorious moment – the sort I went into showbusiness for. I wore my black lace dress and I loved the flashbulbs. Just a few seconds before Lee Evans announced the winner, I thought 'I've got this.'"

Although the Perrier award undoubtely opened doors, it provoked mixed feelings for Eclair. "That night, I heard whispers that some hadn't agreed with the choice [of winner]," she says. "I felt guilt-riddled and not worthy – my family weren't with me and I was out of control with drink. I got on stage to sing with Leo Sayer and my feet were bleeding by the end of the night, after I couldn't find a taxi and had to walk home in the rain. When I got back, Simon [Munnery] had pinned a paper crown to my door. Usually with Edinburgh there's a whiff around on who's going to succeed but there was nothing in the pipeline for me. Everyone was caught on the hop."

Jerry Springer – The Opera – 2002

A quirky and irreverent spin-off from the US talkshow, Jerry Springer: The Opera, written by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, first featured at Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms in 2002 and was an instant hit. The contentious nature of the production – which featured Jesus, Adam and Eve, a transsexual and a troupe of tap-dancing Klu Klux Klan members among its cast of "confessional reality TV characters" – brought an added layer of attention from religious groups. It transferred to London's National Theatre in April 2003 to packed houses (and protests on the street outside), and shortly afterwards made its West End debut at the Cambridge Theatre.

When it was shown on the BBC in January 2005 it elicited 55,000 complaints, and Lee would write years later: "Christian groups scared one-third of possible venues off a proposed tour... with threats of prosecution for blasphemy".

The show ran for 609 performances in London from April 2003 to February 2005 before touring across Britain in 2006. It won four Laurence Olivier Awards including Best New Musical. In 2008 it opened at New York's Carnegie Hall, starring Harvey Keitel as Jerry Springer, and has since been performed in theatres across America, Australia and Canada. Lee said that he felt "emboldened... to be able to speak from a position of confidence again, rather than to be on the back foot apologising. The Opera is finally becoming art again."

Black Watch – 2006

Dramatising the experiences of soldiers serving in a Scottish regiment in Iraq, this play was originally conceived while its director, John Tiffany, was working at the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006. He had read an article about the death of three soldiers from the Black Watch regiment in a suicide bomb attack in 2004, which inspired the theatre's chief executive, Vicky Featherstone, to use their lives as a dramatic focal point. Tiffany, who worked with the writer, Gregory Burke, said he felt nervous during rehearsals: "We thought we had the biggest turkey ever," he said. But when it opened at the festival later that year, it was hailed by critics as a cultural landmark of the 21st century.

"We were awed by the response. Gregory [Burke] and I realised after the first few nights that this was bigger than the both of us. It went ballistic. You couldn't get a ticket for love nor money," he said. Tiffany recalled how Sean Connery came to see it, while John Hurt, whose film portrayal of The Elephant Man is mentioned in the play, sent a postcard to the cast.

Because it is a site-specific work, Tiffany was unsure about whether its success could be repeated outside of the festival, as the set would have to be rebuilt each time, but in 2007 it toured Scotland with great success, before travelling to the Barbican, where its run picked up four Olivier awards in 2008. It has since been seen in Los Angeles and Sydney, and is set to be performed in Washington next year.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – 1966

Tom Stoppard's existential tragi-comedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, was first staged at the festival in 1966 by the Oxford Theatre Group, giving Stoppard – then a fresh-faced playwright who had written only three other works – his critical breakthrough. Reviewers at Edinburgh hailed it as that year's sensation and drew comparisons to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. The play debuted in London as a National Theatre production at the Old Vic a year later, after which Stoppard was awarded the Evening Standard Award for "most promising playwright", and it went on to have a year-long run on Broadway from October 1967 to 1968. The play, which was Stoppard's first on Broadway, was nominated for eight Tony Awards, winning four. Its appeal has endured: it was revived in New York in 1987, running for 40 performances, and the American Shakespeare Center has mounted several repertories since 1995. In 1990, Stoppard directed the film adaptation whose cast included Gary Oldman, Tim Roth and Richard Dreyfuss.

Gagarin Way – 2001

Gagarin Way became the most talked-about play at the festival in 2001, transforming the life of former factory worker Gregory Burke. Burke's play – about the disappearance of socialism from an area once defined by political radicalism – was found by the director, John Tiffany, on a "slush pile" of manuscripts speculatively sent in to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. When he read it, he recognised its brilliance and immediately called the writer. Burke said he set to work on his first play out of a sense of failure. "I was turning 30 and I thought: 'What have I done with my life?' Initially thought I'd write a screenplay or a novel, but I sat down and began writing in dialogue, from the voices in my head." The production debuted in Edinburgh before transferring to the West End, where it was nominated for an Olivier award. It has since been translated into 20 languages and has toured the world. Burke recalled the stir it caused at Edinburgh: "The first night was amazing. Everyone gave it five stars. I spent one month drinking!"

The Edinburgh Fringe runs from 6 Aug to 30 Aug, the main festival from 13 Aug to 5 Sept

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