This is the concluding part of my overview of the last week of the Edinburgh festivals.
Stand-up dominates the fringe, and it’s easy to get stuck in the rut of going to endless comedy shows rather than to something a little more cerebral. Not that there was a lack of cerebral comedy at Edinburgh this year. All the same, it’s the most commercialised part of all of the August festivals, with big sponsors and celebrity comedians charging celebrity prices. £37 to see Ricky Gervaise? You must be fucking kidding. At the other end of the scale there are any number of free or low priced shows handing five to ten minute spots to up-and-coming comics, or to more seasoned pros who skip from show to show to do sort of ‘live trailers’ for their own gigs.
I managed to see Robin Ince no fewer than five times in a week – his own stand-up show, as the host of Book Club, as a guest on Fred Macauley’s BBC Radio Scotland show and on Marcus Brigstocke’s Early Edition, and doing a spot at Andy Saltzman’s Political Animal. Luckily he is one of the more freewheeling comics around. He has written routines, but is happy to riff on his material and keep things fresh. His own show was supposed to have an astronomy and science theme, but he kept going off on completely unrelated tangents and had to squeeze the last half of the show into the closing few minutes. It wasn’t the slickest hour of stand-up I’ve ever seen, but it was funny.
The only other pure stand-up shows I saw were Stewart Lee’s and Nick Doody’s. Lee’s show was brave, and fairly experimental, with a few drawn out gags dominating the entire hour. He’s a master of timing, but was seeing just how far he could go with a couple of routines, taking repetition to almost surreal levels. The laughter dipped as the joke became boring, but then rose again as it was drawn out to a ridiculous degree. In between, he remained sharp and droll. Just why he hasn’t had a TV deal in years when BBC3 is stuffed to the gills with cretinous crap is beyond me.
I saw Doody last year and thought it was the best hour of comedy I’d seen for a long time. His current show was more scattergun. He admitted to suffering a kind of comedy ‘second album syndrome’. His previous show was his Fringe debut, and was a kind of ‘greatest hits set’, making it a hard act to follow. Doody’s forte is political comedy, but more aimed at society’s attitudes rather than Politics with a big ‘P’. He’s warm and welcoming which makes it easier to stay with him when he’s riffing on issues such as racism and paedophelia from a point that seems alien to his left-leaning, atheist persona. It’s a way of questioning assumptions, rather than following conventional wisdom and pat attitudes. That said, his latest show was a little uneven in quality. The good bits were very good, though.
I tend to avoid sketch comedy. So many of the post Fast Show / Big Train series on TV are utter drivel. The last Harry Enfield series was awful, and Little Britain and Catherine Tate quickly degenerated into an endless loop of tedious catchphrases. On radio, only Laura Solon and Mitchell and Webb (which was very hit and miss when transferred on to TV) have really successfully breathed life into the genre. Lorna Watson and Ingrid Oliver’s two-handed sketch show was hit and miss, but at its best was inspired and as funny as anything of its kind. Particular highlights were the worker bee as office drone skit, the Last Supper as boozy office leaving do, and a bizarre, no-budget London 2012 opening ceremony. Even the sketches that seemed underwritten sort of worked because of the duo’s charisma and natural comic flair. If they do ever get to do TV, with care they could be as good as Smack The Pony rather than Titty Titty Bang Bang (or whatever that crock of shite is called).
The Book Club was just surreal. It had the feel of “it’s the last day at the Fringe, let’s fart about”. It was still funny, though. Political Animal is one of my favourite stand up shows. Andy Saltzman and guests all do broadly political pieces, so it’s usually a little more thoughtful than a lot of shows, and plays to a liberal-lefty, Guardian-reading, tree-hugging kind of crowd (guilty as charged, milud). All in all, with free shows, street shows etc etc, I’ve no idea how many comedians I actually saw this year. But I was lucky enough to see none that really sucked which is unusual.
I didn’t see much music at all, discounting street performers, and acts on the various Radio Scotland shows I attended. The best of these was the Etno Classic Band who were in town to play the live soundtrack to Vanishing Point’s distopian play Subway. The septet from Kosovo played a couple of pieces on Radio Scotland’s Festival Cafe. Their music blends traditional Balkan folk with European classical music, but the result is a seemless, cinematic, ethnic post-rock that echoes bands like Rachel’s, the Vibracathedral Orchestra, Dirty Three and Clogs. I never saw the play, but would love to see the band do a full set.
Aside from Deaf Shepherd (mentioned previously), the only other purely musical show I saw was Camille O’Sullivan at the Spiegeltent. Combining Weimar cabaret, lyrical rock and even a dash of mawkishness, Camille is a consumate entertainer. She can terrify the life out of some of the audience unlucky (or lucky) enough to sit by the aisles. She combines an almost dominatrix kind of sexuality with a rich, self-deprecating sense of humour. But she also has the voice to back her up. The blurbs described her as a cross between Sally Bowles and PJ Harvey, and unlikely as that sounds, there is an element of truth in the comparison. Nearly half the set was comprised of Brel classics such as “Next”, “The Middle Class” and “Amsterdam”, but there was also more contemporary material from the pens of Nick Cave and (yes) Victoria Wood. The set closed with a storming version of Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream”. The show I was at was packed to the rafters, which is a testament to word-of-mouth recommendations rather than any hype – a refreshing change from the norm.
I spent less time than I would have liked at the Book Festival. Stuff I really wanted to see like Dawkins and Monbiot sold out in minutes. The only event I attended at Charlotte Square was a free Amnesty International thing on the persecution of political bloggers. There was an odd reading of a dissident in Cuba who was jailed for claiming that there was no racism in the US, and that it was a lie dreamed up by Castro. OK, jailing the guy is a bit harsh, but where do you draw the line between dissent and disinformation? It was an odd example to pick when there are plenty of folk in Iran, China, Burma and other places who have far more legitimate grievances.
There were plenty of art exhibitions that looked interesting (and I’m not including that over-praised charlatan Warhol), but the only one I saw was the whimsical life-archaeology put together by Arthur Smith. Some of it was surreal, and some laugh out loud funny, such as the bit of card saying “Damien Hurst” stuck inside a perspex box.
Hopefully I’ll be in Edinburgh in 2008. The Festival experience is one I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t been. There’s always tons to do, and it can be done on a budget if you plan right.