Ah, Scotchland – like England only colder, wetter and ever so slightly melancholy. Edinburgh’s nice though, isn’t it? Unlike most other cities I know, it genuinely looks like some thought’s gone into it. The architecture's staggeringly attractive and there’s no sprawling carbuncles – “an oasis of culture in a desert of misanthropic misery”, one might aver (if one were a pretentious arsehole). I’ll simply say that it’s OK if you don’t mind looking at tartan and ginger people all day.
And August in Edinburgh can mean only one thing – the Festival – a unique and frankly unlikely fusion of students and comedy. I’m not one to put the boot into our esteemed modern scholars, but I can’t help feeling the Cambridge footlights crew of yesteryear would have done it better – I’m thinking of a floppy-haired, youthful Fry and Laurie exchanging witty repartee in smoky union bars; Kenneth Branagh performing Shakespearean soliloquies on street corners and a pie-eyed Tony Slattery shouting at the tramps outside the Assembly Rooms.
Today’s students are a bit more annoying and the Royal Mile becomes littered, come Fringe time, with enthusiastic under-graduates - tubby ones in baggy T-shirts skipping manically along the cobbles occasionally bursting into song; sexy ones in tight T-shirts pouting and handing out flyers; and, of course the proper weirdos dressed in masks and body stockings and dancing robotically like shorter, better-educated Peter Crouches.
Needless to say, my friends and I were there primarily for the comedy, but there were inevitable distractions along the way. Highlights included getting slapped in the face in a nightclub for calling a girl “Sugar tits” (a clever homage to Mel Gibson’s recent booze-fuelled put-down of a female Los Angeles police officer rather than a sleazy boys-on-tour bet. Honest); hotel porn; a poor-quality kickabout on a field in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat; and all manner of other hilariously juvenile high jinks.
But I fully appreciate that the shenanigans of four pissed idiots will probably not be as richly entertaining to neutral readers as they are to us, so enough of the holiday diary – here’s who we saw:
Andy Parsons – International Championship Moaning
Not a promisingly titled opener - I was expecting the kind of hackneyed droning waffles that begin “My mother-in-law hates me…”, or “Immigration, eh? What’s all that about?” Luckily Parsons is disarmingly likeable and delivers his rants with a playful half smile and some ticklishly absurd tangents. He was greatly assisted by some distinctly ordinary hecklers who gave full credence to the notion that it’s better to keep schtum at a comedy gig unless you’ve got something devilishly witty to say. More luck appeared in the form of a young couple with a newborn baby. When the mother whipped up her top and began breastfeeding, you could tell Parsons was momentarily floored by the serendipitous arrival of a whole raft of rich new gag potential. Hardly groundbreaking, but amusing nonetheless.
“Smurfing” became a favourite term thanks to Howard’s descriptive microphone activity, and it was one that wormed its way into plenty of conversations throughout the weekend. Googling it later revealed that, disappointingly, it means “money laundering” as opposed to slapping your member against a lover’s face, but Howard seems like a trustworthy fellow so I’ll take his word for it.
A bit of a last minuter, this, but it turned out to be a great decision. Howard is a Perrier (or new fangled equivalent) award-nominee and has youthful spirit and cheeky wit in abundance. He said at the start he was really looking forward to the gig as his younger brother was in the audience, but it took us a while to figure out that the oddball sitting next to us with the Hoffman/Rainman quality and the high-pitched laugh of a hyena full of helium was the sibling in question. It wasn’t long before he was the focus of the entire act and had he not been there laughing the loudest, set-pieces like the story of his erect penis slamming around during an epileptic fit would have had an awkward ring (“I wouldn’t have minded, but as I put him in the recovery position, I realised it was about an inch and a half bigger than mine…” Howard lamented at one point).
I suppose DJ Danny is a clever satire on what would happen if a public school tosser copulated with a dance music tosser and they immersed their unfortunate offspring in wall-to-wall wanky-tosser-speak.
Nice idea, but Danny was the weakest we saw comedically with his nasal Tony Blair-gets-down-with-the-kids delivery and a Jimmy Saville ice-white tracksuit. Still, his show was enormously enjoyable, largely because it was late in the evening and the audience participation was ratcheted up a notch or two. We’d all filled out questionnaires beforehand and laced ours with churlish Back to the Future references which got a few laughs when Danny read them out – indeed, he may not have had many gags, or lightening put-downs to the many idiotic heckles, but his ability to make his obliterated guests feel like comedy kings is genuinely impressive.
Some of the material was annoyingly generic though: Flashing up a picture of James Blunt to get a cheap laugh is hardly pioneering humour, but there were some cleverer moments – notably from Danny’s straight man – a music teacher nerd with a penchant for improvised baritone warbling. I suppose that’s partly the problem: When your stooge is a good deal funnier than you are, you know you’re in trouble.
Late Night Live is an Edinburgh institution. This notoriously raucous stand-up free-for-all fills that all-important 1am-5am slot and all the reviews were promising: Off duty comedians jumping on stage for quickfire improvising sets – rumours of Paul Merton and other big names nipping on stage to road-test new material. In short, an ideal way to finish off the evening. I thought it would have more of a lounge bar feel to it, and was a mite disappointed at the auditorium layout, but the atmosphere was still good if you could fend off the lethargy and get another couple of ales down your neck.
Russell Howard had dragged his brother along again and was compereing proceedings. He trotted out a couple of the same gags from his own show but we’ll forgive him that as he was easily better than the couple of other comics he introduced who attempted to puncture the alcoholic haze without much joy. Sadly the evening was abruptly curtailed before the promised riches materialised – the venue had a burst water pipe meaning the toilets were out of order and the bar forced to close. I don’t care if Paul Merton got up on stage with the entire Monty Python team and recreated the dead parrot sketch – if it’s 3 in the morning and there’s no beer or weeing facilities, it’s probably time to accept the full refund and head home with one’s dignity in tact.
Day 2 started with Breakfast with Jonny Wilkinson at the Udderbelly theatre. We had front row seats for this, and you may think that being showered with Norman Pace’s spittle would perhaps detract from one’s dramatic enjoyment of a play, but his is a surprisingly moving portrayal of a small town northern rugby club secretary who has discovered a prodigal son.
Tension is high as England take on Australia in the Rugby World Cup Final of 2003 and Pace leads an impressive cast through a real-time human drama as the trials and tribulations of the club’s members collide with that memorable sporting triumph on the other side of the world. The prodigy in question is the team’s fly-half (dubbed Wilko thanks to his kicking prowess) and he thinks he has achieved a mystical union with England’s number 10 after superstitiously dashing out on the field to recreate his hero’s efforts at goal. If he scores, Jonny invariably follows suit – a trite set-up, but a compelling one and as the action unfolds you can forgive the silliness and simply enjoy the climax safe in the knowledge that the English, for once, prevail.
The weak lead is bolstered by some excellent supporting work from club captain Nigel (Justin Edwards) and boorish Aussie coach Matt (Michael Beckley) who spar enthusiastically as the match fluctuates, but the star of the show was surely Abi Tucker (a stalwart of Heartbreak High and The Secret Life of Us) if only for the part where she found herself clad in just a bath towel and perched on a barstool merely yards away from us. And so a sad sequence of obsession and (I’m ashamed to say it) stalking began.
Tucker spent much of the next day in the bar beside the venue chain smoking, drinking pints and chatting animatedly with her castmates – we know this because we set up shop at an adjacent table, took sly photos of her and speculated wildly on which of her colleagues was diddling her. Beckley was the favourite for a while, but Pace was by no means out of the reckoning – get in there Norman, you sly old dog.
Robin Ince’s set had appealing credentials – a sell-out, he had a stellar reputation thanks largely to being Ricky Gervais’s warm-up man. Joining him on stage was an accordion player who was the spit of a young John Peel, but while quirkily diverting, the musical interludes seemed a little superfluous. Ince emerged as a man with plenty of material, but little spark – I suppose that old cliché “it’s all in the delivery” kind of defines his performance - The Chuckle Brothers have as much good stuff as Laurel and Hardy but I doubt they’ll be rerunning their classic “To me, to you” antics in fifty years time. Ince has no je ne sais quoi quality and, as such seems destined to follow the Chuckles into obscurity. A tad harsh – Ince seems like a nice guy and has some pleasingly zany observations.
Most likely, I was hampered by a soporific postprandial stupor brought on by an overdose of Mexican food, bottles of Corona and the frankly more entertaining antics of the squawking hen party at the table next to us who all contrived to fall down the steps on the way back from the toilet and land on our laps - and if that’s not the ideal accompaniment to a sizzling chicken fajita, then I don’t know what is.
PS. Did I really just liken Laurel and Hardy to the Chuckle Brothers? I’m very sorry.
Want to look at my long lens, my pretty?
Mike Wilmot – A grizzled pro if ever there was one. Wilmot oozes with sleazy class and his voice sounds just like a filthy comic’s should: Like he chain-smoked Malboros while gargling with drawing pins and shouting himself hoarse at every opportunity. Though he could have happily sustained a high level of amusement with his easy fusion of smutty self-deprecation and slick one-liners for the hour’s duration of
his show, there was the very real possibility that his health may not have held out, and while keeling over with a massive coronary can still have chortlesome qualities (just ask Tommy Cooper…), Wilmot sensibly hires “Special Guests” to break up the action.
The first of which was a bizarre and very short interlude by a potty-mouthed pneumatic blonde opera singer (not a sentence you hear very often outside of the Fringe) who warbled pleasantly enough in between firing off a raft of what film censors would probably call “sexual swearwords”. I suppose it was the kind of performance one might encounter at the Royal Albert Hall if Leslie Garrett was a good deal prettier and hand a fondness for the word “cunt”.
She was followed by a highly amusing inebriated Canadian called Tony who was evidently a mate of Wilmot’s and, it must be said, not necessarily a professional comedian. His most noticeable contribution was to pick an irrational fight with a humourless guy in the front row who eventually stormed out to the biggest round of applause of the night.
Then there was dismay when the smug Jeff Greeen rocked up. We had purposefully avoided his show, so felt a little short-changed when he was announced unbilled. Green looks a bit like Steve Punt but isn’t as funny, so it was gratifying when he took to the stage and promptly bombed.
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