July 25, 2009
The Fringe benefits
The Festival veteran Richard Herring on why Edinburghâs still a blast
This year is my 18th Edinburgh Fringe. I have spent a year and a half of my life at this Arts Festival. Nearly half the Augusts of my life frittered away in the pissing Scottish rain. At least the drizzle hides my tears as I weep over how much money I am bound to lose. At some point every year I consider throwing myself off the bridge that arches high above Waverley train station, with all the bad reviews Iâve had pinned to my clothes. Then stop myself because those heartless vultures who prey on performersâ souls would feel pride rather than guilt if they actually managed to kill one of us. And every additional breath I take can only cause them pain.
Every street, every corner, every building is haunted by the ghost of the younger me: thatâs where I once nearly got in a fight with one of the men from the Flying Pickets; in that building mad actor Keith Allen disrupted my show and moved some crash mats so I had to push a promising young student actor towards possible injury or worse; this is the room where I made an audience laugh more than any other in my life, their heads rocking backwards, tears in their eyes, in pain from laughing as much as they possibly could, with me all the time knowing that I hadnât even got to the really funny bit of the routine yet, wondering if their heads would explode; look, thatâs the spot where I first saw Catherine and fell in love at first sight; and there, thatâs the bench where I sat and grinded my teeth three years later as she passed by, arm in arm with her new love.
Why do I keep going back? Because I am addicted to what must be the most expensive emotional rollercoaster in the world. Itâs like a drug. And like a drug itâs wonderful, terrible, exhilarating and depressing in equal measure. And leaves you penniless, disorientated and feeling like a transvestite dwarf might have shat in your mouth. And if youâve been at the Fringe thereâs no guarantee that that hasnât actually happened.
I was first here in 1987 with the Oxford Theatre Group, 50 students who slept on the floor of a Masonic lodge, which had only one toilet and no bathing facilities. One night I was crying myself to sleep and a future Olivier Award-winning director attempted to cheer me up, by using the hand of an 80-year-old ventriloquist dummy to briefly pleasure me. I laughed through my tears. This incident might serve as the perfect metaphor for the Fringe.
The best friends I made that summer are my best friends to this day. Perhaps I return in the hope that I might recapture the lost magic of youth. The next year, as part of the Oxford Revue, I was booed off stage at the infamous Late and Live bear pit by an audience that consisted almost exclusively of every working stand-up comedian in the country. They hated me for being a public school tosser, even though I went to comprehensive school and only took the gig because I needed the Â£10 I was going to be paid. Perhaps I return to prove to those braying fools that I was better than they prejudged me to be.
I have seen some incredible shows: Jerry Sadowitz blowing my brain apart as he showed me all that stand-up could be; Harry Hill, unknown, but already a master of comedy, reducing a tiny packed venue to helpless giggling heaps of meat; the League of Gentlemen when they still used Sellotape to transform their faces into grotesque characters; Arthur Smith transforming my mood from despair to joy in the space of an hour with poetic madness in a botanical garden. Which stars of the future will I chance across this time? Which stars of the past will return with a triumph? But my favourite memory is walking home from the old Gilded Balloon at 3am and passing a patch of grass on which a couple were noisily, visibly making love. They saw me passing and both gave me a nice wave and a cheery smile (conveniently they were both facing in the same direction) without missing a beat. Most of the best performances on the Fringe are free.
I think I probably keep coming back because this is the best arts festival in the world, filled with wonder and madness and because even after 22 years it is still packed with surprises. You should come along, too. One taste and youâll either leave sick and disappointed (if youâre a square) or be hooked for life (if youâre cool). Come on. You know you want to. Just try it once.
Richard Herring performs his solo show, Hitler Moustache at Underbelly, Aug 6-30. He will also be recording Collings and Herrin Podcast Live! between Aug 19â23 (www.richardherring.com)