A funny thing happened at the Fringe Festival

Often it's what happened off-stage, rather than on it, that lives in the memory. PR guru Mark Borkowski on the best japes and escapades of years gone by

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:42

The festival of joyous chaos that descends on Edinburgh every summer redrafts its own crazy history each year, as performers and their willing lackeys head north for the bacchanalian revelry that chaotically meanders through the backwaters of the silly season. Nearly all the performers fantasise about triumphant, sell-out runs that will kick-start a glittering career. Most of these desperate hopes remain unrealised. The real treasures for performers to mine are the tall tales, myths and legends born out of glorious failure, scuzzy accommodation, brilliant responses to hecklers, chance meetings and the building of networks in adversity. To commemorate the mayhem that begins tomorrow, here are my top 10 "blue plaque" moments.

Performing in the Hole in the Ground at the Circuit Tent was the Egg Man. His show consisted of a two-hour monologue performed, completely in Icelandic, to an audience of one, in a cave, which was one of the "natural features" of the Hole in the Ground. He would auction the ticket for each show and one reviewer from The Scotsman had to pay more than £50 to watch it. He couldn't understand a word, but it was, in its way, Art.

The late comic Malcolm Hardee persuaded a garden centre to lend him a tractor in return for advertising its business. After six days of Eric Bogosian's heavy-metal music bleeding into his show, Hardee decided to have it out with his fellow performer. He jumped on the tractor, naked, and drove through Bogosian's show. A while later, Hardee heard metal on metal – the sound of a tractor being smashed up with a sledgehammer.

At the Pleasance Theatre, the late Jason Wood paid people to accost those queuing for his 2004 show, asking them to sign up to a show that promised full frontal nudity. That they were Wood's stooges was never revealed. Then, as part of the show, he threatened to read out the names of all those who had fallen for it.

There were two comics. One had just escaped a horrific house fire by crawling out the window and shimmying down. Still shaking, he had gone on to do his gig and, after finishing, was crossing the Meadows when he met the second comic. He recounted his narrow escape, hands still trembling. "That's nothing," said the other comic. "I had a shocking gig tonight. Really, really tough crowd."

One year, the comedian Paul Merton broke his leg playing at a comedy football match. It was put in plaster and he was discharged. Alone in his flat, he became breathless – this was before mobiles and he couldn't make it to the phone. Ivor Dembina fortuitously popped back to the flat, called an ambulance and saved his life. Merton had a pulmonary embolism in his lung caused by a clot in the leg. He nearly died.

At 3.30am, on the Arthur Smith alternative comic Royal Mile Tour, about 30 of us were drunkenly crocodiling when we stopped at a courtyard. Asleep was an elderly homeless man, with one shoe on and the other beside him. Arthur told each tourist to pop a pound note, or more, into his empty shoe. By the time we left, there must have been £200 in it; we then walked off happily imagining the surprise he would get on waking – unless someone nicked it, of course.

An odd little man mingled with the famous at the Assembly Rooms bar, not saying much but grinning and observing. All assumed he was someone and welcomed him to their tables, even buying him drinks. Several hours later, a dozen bar guests realised they'd been pickpocketed and had to go to a police line-up. We found the man but not a single wallet.

The climax of Jerry Sadowitz's 1989 show was an illusion – he appeared from the rear of the auditorium wearing a kilt and a huge plastic phallus, with which he proceeded to spray the audience. His material was "borrowed" by Bing Hitler – aka Craig Ferguson – now star of the Emmy-nominated The Late Late Show, much to the irritation of Sadowitz.

In 2003, the comic and playwright Janey Godley talked a guy down from trying to kill himself on the Grassmarket: "Don't you jump! I have two shows and you will land on me!" The man came down and brought his friends to the show. One of them tried to steal a purse.

An audience at the Gilded Balloon, Cowgate, all threw up in relay after Johnny Vegas spewed on stage after downing a pint of crème de menthe as a dare.

Research by Jeremy Austin, Julie Balloo, Daniel Bee, David Belcher and Alistair Smith

The IoS selects its Fringe favourites


1 Aaaaaaaargh! Malcolm Hardee documentary preview

Arthur Smith, Harry Enfield and Jools Holland tell the comic's story

2 Barry Cryer

Old-timer Cryer shows how it's done

3 Phil Kay: In Tweed

Surreal, strange, often hilarious

4 The Crack

Variety is back, but it's different

5 Emo Philips: Please Witness My Act

First visit since 2001

6 The Nicholas Parsons Happy Hour

He's a legend of radio and television

7 Shappi Khorsandi: The Moon on a Stick

Iranian-born British comedian on the verge of the quite big time

8 John Bishop: Sunshine

Fresh from a sell-out tour

9 John Cooper Clarke

Let the Bard of Salford and punk poet rat-a-tat you out of complacency

10 Nina Conti: Talk to the Hand

Conti is resurrecting ventriloquism


1. All Over a Football - Japanese freestyle team Cube mix acrobatics, music and comedy

2. Death of a Samurai - Shakespeare meets Japanese manga

3. Flawless: Chase the Dream- Britain's Got Talent's 2009 finalists

4. Power of Compassion- Tibetan monks

5. Tea Dance - Drink cocktails and do the foxtrot


1. A Midsummer Night's Madness - Will goes hip-hop

2. Hit Me! The Life and Rhymes of Ian Dury - Dury's life and music

3. Do We Look Like Refugees?! - Created from interviews recorded in a refugee settlement in Georgia

4. Rapconteur - Beowulf, Gilgamesh and Chaucer served up in hip-hop style

5. Up 'N' Under - John Godber directs the Hull Truck Theatre Company


1. John Hegley: Animal Alphaboat - Whimsical and funny

2. Dr Bunhead: Volcano Head - Live volcanoes from TV's Brainiac's mad scientist

3. James Campbell's Comedy and Songs for Kids (suitable for ages 6+) - The only stand-up just for children

4. Pinocchio – Indefinite Articles - Puppets, shadow and illusion tell the tale of the boy with the big nose

5. Carol Ann Duffy and John Sampson - Poetry, music and humour


1. Bartok and Shostakovich Late - The Brodowski Quartet do 20th-century composers

2. Bavarian Brass Band on Tour - A bit of German and Bohemian ooompah – in traditional costumes

3. Mozart and Handel – Scottish Chamber Choir - Mozart's C minor mass and Handel's Let God Arise in a cathedral

4. Orkestra del Sol's Top Trumps - Brass band with a riotous world-music-inspired anarchic twist

5. Soweto Gospel Choir - Grammy award-winners

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