I've performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe almost every year since 1979. The biggest arts festival in the world has given me a platform to write and act in plays, sketch shows, a one-man show, children's shows, a risque dance act, verbatim theatre and lots of impro shows.
Things have changed over the years. In 1979 the pubs were closed on Sundays and there were no standup comedians. The first winner of the Perrier Award for Best Revue was the Footlights Revue in 1981. That show included 2 female writer/performers (Penny Dwyer and Emma Thompson) and the following year the winning show featured Victoria Pile, who went on to create Smack the Pony and Green Wing. The 1982 Fringe programme was the first to have a Comedy section, listing only 15 shows. Then a new generation of acts from the emerging London cabaret scene began to migrate north for August. The rest is history.
The year I thought it might be possible to do it for a living was 1984. The Slattery-Vranch Irrigation System presented a quirky deconstruction of sketch comedy, which was still the dominant format. Me and Tony had already been working together for 3 years so we were relatively experienced. We got a good review in The Scotsman (thank you Katherine Way) and we had some sketches broadcast on BBC Radio. We made about a thousand pounds.
The Fringe became more business-like from then on. Venues got bigger, producers appeared from nowhere and reviewers started to award shows marks out of five. The streets of Edinburgh became a battle ground for rival teams of fly-posters. The only people making money were the printers, the brewers and the street acts. It became very hard for newcomers to make money, but hopefully that's changing with the success of the Free Fringe.
Every year I try to do something I've never attempted before. In the early 90s Arthur Smith, Ronnie Golden, Andy Smart, Tony Hawks and me performed a 5-man strip act called "HUNX." This resulted from a chat in a London pub after a Comedy Store Players show and it pre-dated The Full Monty by several years. Our producer Paul Merton gave us a reassuring pep talk before we went on. We received a raucous reception as we bowed, upstage, naked but for sweaty PVC G-strings. Thankfully this was before the days of mobile phone cameras. I think I still have the G-strings in a carrier bag in the attic.
Some things don't change. In 34 years I've never been able to find the much-publicised Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Goodness knows why hairdressers would choose to hold a Fringe Festival in competition with the Book Festival, the International Festival, the Tattoo and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The Film Festival saw sense and moved itself to June.
I still have the 1979 Fringe programme, in which ticket prices average about £1. The programme has a Farce section with only one entry: "Mrs Tulloch's Players. Tickets: £1.57, Students 42p, OAPs £32.45, Children £16.03." It's the Fringe Box Office poking fun at itself for being "Spontaneous, unrehearsed and unorganised." A bit like the impro shows I'm doing this year: I'm one of Paul Merton's Impro Chums in the Pleasance Grand (our 10th year) and I'll be making my debut in Marcus Brigstocke's Unavailable For Comment in the Udderbelly Cow in the middle week. See you there.