"Aye, I saw a couple of those Festival shows once. Bloody rubbish! I won't go again." Actual old Scottish people heard on the Royal Mile in 1990, there.
My second visit to the Edinburgh Festival: notable for commencing just ten days after I'd moved into my flat, meaning I spent the whole time panicking that the place would be ransacked when I got back. After 1989's initial experiment, I was still up for a full fortnight of Festival action, but this time I decided to break it up a bit. So for the first week, I would be on my own in a B&B: then for the second week, I'd meet up with four of Spank's Pals and we'd move to self-catering accommodation out of town.
So how did it all work out? I was still keeping a diary back in the summer of 1990, so the recollections here are pretty much how I felt about things at the time. Make the most of it, because after this year the reviews will all be memory and guesswork...
Saturday August 11th
6.00pm: Sweeney & Steen, Gilded Balloon
9.15pm: Julian Clary, Assembly Rooms
11.15pm: Robocop 2, Odeon Clerk Street
First week of the two was spent at the Elas Guest House in Claremont Crescent: a little further out of town than I would usually like, but the people there seemed jolly enough, and that's always a good thing. My first trip into central Edinburgh had two rather pleasant outcomes. Firstly, I went to John Lewis and bought myself a Pentax camera, as I'd been threatening to get myself a proper one for ages. (Of course, the first day of a holiday is the absolute worst time to buy a new camera, as you spend the first few days taking rubbish pictures while you learn how it works. Never mind.) The second nice thing happened while I was standing outside the Gilded Balloon looking at the shows on offer. Comedian Stu Who? started reading the board alongside me - I knew who he was from the comedy circuit, but he presumably had no idea that I knew that. We spent a pleasant ten minutes or so discussing the various acts on offer, and at no time during the conversation did he attempt to plug his own show at the venue, which I found rather charming. As for the acts I saw that day, Jim Sweeney and Steve Steen started off my Fringe in fine style with Play By Ear: an improv whodunnit, which meant that the climax could contain lines like "yes, I used the Hoover to kill his Lordship: I also use it to put all my drugs in and smoke them." Julian Clary had given up on the Joan Collins Fanclub monicker he'd been using the year before, but the jokes were still much the same: "is that a gun in your pocket, or is your penis engorged with blood?" Robocop 2 wasn't actually part of the official Film Festival, but was one of a series of advance previews scheduled to coincide with it. The film itself was a bit of a mess, and its half-arsed Frank Miller script was possibly the first hint that he wasn't infallible, a good 18 years before he directed The Spirit.
Sunday August 12th
12.45pm: Happy Birthday Bugs, Filmhouse 1
2.30pm: Festival Cavalcade, Princes Street
8.45pm: Hidden Agenda, Cameo
No idea if they still do this in 2009: but in 1990, the staff at the Elas Guest House actually brought your breakfast up to your room. Ostensibly this was because they didn't have a dedicated dining room, but I like to think that it was really because their standard breakfast plate included eight different fried food products, and there's no way you could have safely climbed stairs after eating it. As in 1989, the Film Festival was running themed lunchtime programmes of animation: Happy Birthday Bugs was a celebration for Mr Bunny's 50th anniversary, with nine of the all-time classics and free cardboard rabbit ears for every attendee. The Festival Cavalcade was the usual dull parade, but it gave me the opportunity to shoot off an entire reel of film to get used to the Pentax. Hidden Agenda was Ken Loach's attempt at cramming all the Stalker/Wilson/Heath conspiracy theories into a single fictionalised movie, and was a fairly big deal back then, as it was his first film in ages to get proper theatrical distribution. Even the trailer looks surprisingly ballsy when held up against his later work - my main comparison point at the time was Costa-Gavras' Missing.
Monday August 13th
2.00pm: Schlock, Filmhouse
5.45pm: Some Like It Hot, Pleasance
8.00pm: Why I Stopped Being A Stand-Up Comedian, Pleasance
10.00pm: Hail Eris, Theatre Workshop
12.00am: Comeuppance Rising, Hill St Theatre
John Landis was one of the guests of honour at the 1990 Film Festival. And why not? By now he'd assembled a fairly diverse body of solidly constructed comedy movies, working in a variety of registers. Schlock was his little-seen 1971 debut, with Landis himself playing the title creature, a hairy monster whose relationship with a little blind girl is sadly misunderstood by the rest of the world. As a bonus, we also got a supporting feature - again directed by Landis - with a similarly misunderstood leading man, or so he'd like us to believe. Some Like It Hot wasn't some sort of spin-off from the movie, rather a guitar and fiddle duo who I apparently quite enjoyed at the time (though I can't remember a damn thing about them now). The day was wrapped up with three one-man shows. Firstly, John Dowie gave an entertaining lecture on why he stopped being a stand-up comedian, which is reproduced in full on Dowie's website: interesting to see that every other comic in Edinburgh appeared to be in the audience on the night. Then, having enjoyed Ken Campbell's Furtive Nudist the previous year, it was delightful to catch him again in Hail Eris!, a string of anecdotes relating to his epic theatrical production of The Illuminatus Trilogy (some of which he wheeled out again around the time of Robert Anton Wilson's death). In a typically theatrical touch, the show ended with him leading us all through the midnight streets of Edinburgh to catch Neil Oram's show (directed by Campbell), a rambling but mesmeric tale of Crowley and travelling hippies that lasted until quarter past two in the morning. And yes, I'm using 'mesmeric' as a euphemism for 'fell asleep during part of it'.
Tuesday August 14th
2.00pm: My Army 2, Pleasance
4.00pm: Asking For It, Greyfriars
6.00pm: Lulu, Pleasance
8.45pm: Life Is Cheap... But Toilet Paper Is Expensive, Filmhouse
Interesting to read the diary bits in between the shows, and learning - for example - that in 1990, my favourite location for plotting out the Fringe day was the cafe in John Lewis, looking out over the city. Not that it appears to have been that inspiring a view, as today appears to have been a day for seeing things from the makers of other things. My Army Part Two was a straight sequel to Tim Barlow's army tales from last year, but none the less enjoyable for it. Asking For It was a pair of short plays by three writer-performers: Neil Monaghan's The Ultimate Performance was a slightly overwrought parody of the excesses of avant-garde theatre, while Gary Drabwell's Fist Of The Dragonfly was a more straightforwardly enjoyable kung-fu movie pastiche with some splendidly choreographed fight scenes. (Fun to see them later on recreating the fights in the street along the Royal Mile, too.) Red Shift Theatre's adaptation of Lulu drew me in because of their splendid work with Frida And Diego last year: but curiously, it was lacking in the passion and visual excitement of the earlier production, which is quite an achievement if you know Frank Wedekind's original story. Finally, Life Is Cheap... had Wayne Wang (last seen here at the 1989 LFF) going batshit crazy in what was possibly the first film to address the pre-handover panic in Hong Kong. On-screen chicken killing, limb removal, shit eating, and an eight minute foot chase filmed in a single hand-held take that's literally impossible to watch: I'm not entirely convinced it was a good film, but I wouldn't mind seeing it again some time.
Wednesday August 15th
2.15pm: The Glass House, Pleasance
3.45pm: I Can't Get Started, Pleasance
5.30pm: Trouble In Paradise, Pleasance
7.00pm: Hardie And Baird: The Last Days, Traverse
10.00pm: Attila & Otway, Marcos
Three in a row at the Pleasance, and all in Pleasance Two at that. (Amazingly, in 1990 the Pleasance consisted of just four venues, rather than the several dozen it sprawls over today.) Polkatz, a youth theatre company who I think are now better known as Polka Theatre in Wimbledon, blew me away with the sheer visual style and emotional wallop of Gerry Nowicki's play The Glass House: so much so that I bought the promotional sweatshirt on the way out and wore it round town for the next couple of days. I Can't Get Started was a production by Ireland's Rough Magic Theatre based on the love affair between Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellmann, all played out in smart Hammett-style one-liners. Trouble In Paradise, meanwhile, was a wicked combination of mime, sketches and satire from a group called Talking Pictures. Hardie And Baird was a play by James Kelman (four years before he hit the Booker big time with How Late It Was, How Late) set against the Scottish Insurrection of 1820. For some reason, all the best plays at the Traverse around this time seemed, like this one, to be set in prison: maybe that was just what worked best against the stone walls of the old venue. Finally, two underground music legends in collaboration: Attila The Stockbroker was in fine form, John Otway sadly less so, though even then his deconstruction of the lyrics of Bobby Goldsboro's Honey was a sight worth seeing.
Thursday August 16th
10.45am: Arrivederci Millwall, Filmhouse
12.45pm: Pixels And Stories, Filmhouse
2.00pm: Kentucky Fried Movie, Filmhouse
4.00pm: The Complete Works Of Shakespeare (Abridged), Pleasance
7.00pm: Mark Hurst, Gilded Balloon
8.30pm: Brand, Marber & Macabre, Gilded Balloon
10.15pm: No Cure For Cancer, Assembly Rooms
Three sessions back to back at the Filmhouse to start the day. Arrivederci Millwall isn't listed in the Film Festival programme, so I can only assume it was a last minute addition: I said at the time "a sharp look at football hooliganism, with some nasty violence filmed so you couldn't enjoy it." Pixels And Stories was a study of the state of computer animation as it stood in 1990, which was this: on one side you had Japanese experiments in recreating reality, and on the other you had Pixar, and there was nothing in between. And continuing the John Landis season, Kentucky Fried Movie, which I have a certain fondness for as it was my first ever X film. (If you don't count the tatty all-star British sex comedy Adventures Of A Private Eye that played in support.) After that, it went downhill for a bit: I'm proud to say I was telling people that the Reduced Shakespeare Company were shit years before they became famous for their Complete Works (Abridged). I admit the loud American tourist behind me proclaiming before it started "this is gonna be rilly funny" had me on edge early on, but the smug terribleness of all their jokes just killed the whole show for me. I cheered up a little after that with Mark Hurst (who was Mark Miwurdz twelve months earlier): and cheered up a lot after that with the unlikely triple-bill of Jo Brand, Patrick Marber and James Macabre (who I've only just discovered was Brand's boyfriend at the time). Their three-way version of The Lady Is A Tramp still tickles me to this day - see if you can work out who got which line:
She gets too hungry for dinner at eight
She loves the theatre but doesn't come late
I hit small children when my period's late
That's why the lady is a tramp
And to wrap up the day, we had Denis Leary, the Happy Shopper Bill Hicks (although none of us really noticed this at the time, and enjoyed him regardless). "OK, you had Thatcher, we had Reagan. But at least we tried to kill Reagan..."
Friday August 17th
12.45pm: Halas And Bachelor, Filmhouse
2.00pm: An American Werewolf In London, Filmhouse
7.30pm: King Lear, King's Theatre
12.00am: Doug Anthony Allstars, Playhouse
Sometimes, it just pays to hang around film festivals and see what happens. Case in point: I'm booking for a rather fine lunchtime programme of Halas & Bachelor animations (with a surprise last minute appearance by John Halas himself), when I find out from the box office that tickets for the afternoon screening of An American Werewolf In London are going for free. Why? Because one week into the season, they've finally persuaded John Landis to come over and do an introduction, and they're terrified he'll be playing to an empty room. It's his best film, so I was happy to help them out, even though I must have annoyed Landis immensely by taking around twenty or so photos of him with my newly-acquired flashgun. He was chatty, funny and ruthlessly pragmatic, revealing that he only made American Werewolf because he could get a tax break from the British Government. "All major developments in the movies happen because of government funding. You think all the guys in the German New Wave just woke up on the same morning and thought 'hmmm, think I'll change cinema'?" Then it was off to the first of two International Festival productions from Kenneth Branagh's company, this one being the one with Richard Briers as Lear. And he was great in the role, too: my main fear was that you'd stop concentrating on the play every thirty seconds or so to think "bugger me, that's Richard Briers," but it didn't happen. Finished off the day with a late night show from favourite Aussie filthmongers DAAS, telling tales of their Auntie Jim who mixed and baked cakes inside her uterus. For some reason, I thought that one was worth making a note of in my diary.
Saturday August 18th
7.30pm: A Midsummer Night's Dream, King's Theatre
11.45pm: Tom Robinson, Assembly Rooms
Checked out of the Elas and straight into a launderette, and then met my companions for the second week at Waverley Station. Diane and Old Lag, you know already: John and Adrian are currently residing in the Where Are They Now? file. (The plan was for Seapea to join us too, but she'd just moved job and had to back out at the last minute: some things never change...) It transpired that Adrian was held up elsewhere and would have to join us later in the week, so it ended up being Diane, Old Lag, John and myself making the long journey to our six-bedroom student self-catering flat at Heriot-Watt University. A similar sort of arrangement to the one that kept us going at Napier between 1998 and 2008 (yeah, we probably should talk about that some time), except the Napier flats are nice and central while the Heriot-Watt ones are seven miles out of town and only served by an hourly night bus. Still, we were young and didn't care about that sort of thing: so we headed into town to see Branagh's troupe perform a rollicking version of the Dream, and Tom Robinson play a late-night set of all the old favourites. And then we waited an hour and a half for a taxi that could take us back home, not getting to bed till four in the morning.
Sunday August 19th
1.00pm: Fringe Sunday, Holyrood Park
6.30pm: Newshounds, Filmhouse
10.00pm: Cabaret, Fringe Club
This is the first Sunday I ever spent in Edinburgh with Spank's Pals: it pissed down with rain for most of it. It's rained every Sunday I've spent in Edinburgh with them since. Coincidence? Maybe. Unfortunately, we'd committed ourselves to spending an afternoon in Holyrood Park with the free open-air entertainment of Fringe Sunday. It was a bit of a scrum getting into the various tents, but we were rewarded by good free performances from the likes of Three Blokes And Their Jokes, Ennio Marchetto and (on much better form than earlier in the week) John Otway. Newshounds was a new British film from Les Blair, the Happy Shopper Mike Leigh: a sharp improvised comedy about the evils of the tabloid press, slightly ruined by the post-screening revelation that they'd be showing it for nowt on BBC2 just two weeks later. We wrapped up the day at the Fringe Club (in Teviot Hall, where the Gilded Balloon lives nowadays): a mixure of late-night cabaret acts, the best of which was a musical collaboration between guitar, banjo and digeridoo.
Monday August 20th
3.00pm: Prophet Bites Dog, Gilded Balloon
6.00pm: Pieter Dirk-Uys, Assembly Rooms
8.45pm: The Garden, Cameo
11.30pm: Depravity, Netherbow
Well, I guess this counts as the hangover day, after two cripplingly late nights out with the Pals. A late start, and only four shows seen. Prophet Bites Dog was a comic monologue by Ben Keaton, who'd previously won the Perrier for his Intimate Memoirs Of An Irish Taxidermist. The programme says his new show was about "the deeply perverse life of St Pedimus Of The Comfortable Sandal", which I certainly couldn't have told you without looking it up. Pieter Dirk-Uys' one-man show made more of an impression, as he was (possibly still is) one of the few South Africans willing to alienate an audience with his tales of the horrors back home: a sequence where he played a white wolf killing a black baby made the audience go very quiet indeed. Derek Jarman's The Garden was one of his plotless artier efforts: a bit like his earlier The Last Of England, with added coherence, some ham-fisted satire, and the ravishing look he gave to everything he filmed. Finally, a bit of late-night fun for myself and fellow comics fan John, with a play by comics writer Grant Morrison. Depravity covered the life and work of Aleister Crowley with Morrison's usual wit and invention. "People pronounce it Crowley if they wish to treat me foully: those who consider me holy pronounce it Crowley." Hmmm, that doesn't really work written down. Fascinating and spooky, anyway.
Tuesday August 21st
1.00pm: L'Amfiparnaso, George Square Theatre
4.15pm: David Puttnam, Cameo
8.00pm: Take Them To The Garden, Pleasance
10.15pm: Mark Steel, Gilded Balloon
Part of the problem with living so far out of town was the hassle of getting to the first show of the day on time: today, for example, I had to use a combination of bus and taxi to get to George Square just as the lights were going down on L'Amfiparnasso. Another of Trestle Theatre's entertaining mime pieces, this one charting the lives and loves of the staff of an Italian restaurant, with plenty of laughs to be had. Puttnam was at the Film Festival to give a lecture entitled The Moral Imagination, roughly on the theme of Why American Cinema Is Crap And I'm Not Just Saying That Because I Ballsed Up At Columbia Pictures Honestly. He generally talked a lot of sense, but when he started going on about how cynicism was a bad thing, I couldn't help but think he'd been in America too long. John had to leave us this evening, but his stay climaxed with a pretty good show - John Dowie's second one-man performance of the year, a personal look at the writings and thoughts of Philip K Dick. (As Ken Campbell's Pigspurt would demonstrate a year or two later, there are a lot of Dickheads on the comic monologue circuit.) As John headed off on his overnight journey back to London, the rest of us caught a chummy set by Mark Steel, including a joke about students that simply doesn't make sense any more: "oh no, I was going to buy a house with my Access card, but I've accidentally used it as a roach."
Wednesday August 22nd
12.00pm: Romeo & Juliet, Assembly Rooms
3.45pm: Halliwell's Hell, Bedlam
6.10pm: Macbeth, Roxy
8.30pm: Earl Okin, Greyfriars
10.30pm: Jools Holland, Queens Hall
Stunt casting ahoy! Hull Truck's production of Romeo And Juliet was notable for having Roland Gift from Fine Young Cannibals in the role of Romeo. I'd seen him acting before, in Scandal: unfortunately, my memories of that movie meant that I kept expecting him to yell "Woman! I want you now!" in a crap Jamaican accent. Actually, he was fine: a bit shouty in the early scenes, but he settled down nicely after that. Couldn't tell you about anyone else in the cast at all, though. Halliwell's Hell was one of a whole slew of plays and films doing the rounds at the time depicting the doomed relationship between playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell. This Edinburgh University Theatre Company production went down the neat route of playing out the tragic events with the wit, speed and complexity of an Orton farce. I'm sure the man himself would have approved, even with that big lump missing out of his head. Macbeth was another production by youth theatre group Polkatz, whose Glass House had impressed me so much a week earlier. Here, they bolted through the play in 90 minutes flat, and had Macbeth literally baptised in blood with such enthusiasm that they wouldn't let people sit in the front three rows because of the mess. Finally, a couple of very different guys at the piano - Earl Okin and Jools Holland - doing exactly what you'd expect in their own unique styles.
Thursday August 23rd
1.30pm: The Home Service, Assembly Rooms
6.00pm: Shivers, Filmhouse
8.00pm: A One Night Stand, Gilded Balloon
10.00pm: Jimmy Tingle, Assembly Rooms
I appear to have taken the Perrier shortlist very seriously back in 1990. When it was announced this morning, I took the decision to try and see all four nominees to work out for myself which one was best. Luckily, this year I'd been sensible and left lots of gaps in the schedule for last minute booking. I'd seen Dillie Keane do her show in London earlier that year, so I felt I could skip her: Old Lag and I couldn't get into The Hangover Show on time, but managed to get tickets for Friday instead. With the remaining nominees booked in for the tail end of the day, my first show was Anthony Davison's play The Home Service, a beautifully written family comedy that mutated very slowly into a horrific account of child abuse. Film of the day was Shivers, Wojciech Marczewski's 1981 film about a young boy sent to summer camp in 1950s Poland. It appears to have been a bit like being in the Cubs, except I don't remember ever getting black marks for lack of political vigilance. Darkly funny with it, anyway: visiting director Paul Bartel was in the front row chuckling away. Then off to my two Perrier nominees of the night. Sean Hughes, the - SPOILER! - eventual winner, had a splendid opening where he described the morning after a colossal bender, waking up to find 'Sam' and a telephone number written on his hand, and phoning it to see if he could find out what he did the previous night. "What do you mean, the Samaritans?" Jimmy Tingle may have disappeared off the UK comedy radar since his nomination, but he was one of the few comics that summer acknowledging the military buildup in Iraq and the rumours of chemical weapons. "So what was napalm, then? Skin moisturiser?"
Friday August 24th
12.00pm: The Hangover Show, Assembly Rooms
2.15pm: White Hunter Black Heart, Cameo
4.30pm: Clint Eastwood Guardian Lecture, Cameo
6.30pm: Silent Scream, Filmhouse 1
9.15pm: Visiting District Milligan, Assembly Rooms
12.00am: On The Fringe Of Hysteria, Playhouse
Remember Adrian? The guy who couldn't make it at the start of the week? Well, we came down to breakfast this morning to find him in the kitchen. He'd driven up overnight on Wednesday, and spent the whole of his stay in Edinburgh operating on an entirely different time clock from the rest of us. Old Lag and I left him dozing over his cornflakes to catch Pete McCarthy's The Hangover Show, as promised. McCarthy's storytelling skills were at their peak at this point, covering the horrors of hangovers and the possibly worse horrors of their cures. This was the first time I'd ever heard about the Scottish delicacy that is deep-fried pizza: and on a similarly unappetising note, he discussed Kingsley Amis' suggestion of vigorous sexual intercourse as a hangover cure. "Let's face it, the idea of vigorous sexual intercourse with Kingsley Amis would sober you up like that." A screening of Clint Eastwood's splendid White Hunter Black Heart (with one of my favourite movie endings of all time) was followed by an on-stage interview with the man himself. You know instinctively what an Eastwood interview would be like - laconic, relaxed, funny - and that's exactly what it was. Even when an audience member asked threateningly "are ye gonna dae a sequel tae The Ootlaw Josey Wales, caws it's mah favrit?" (sorry, can't do the accent), Eastwood calmly revealed - to wild applause - that he had a new Western in pre-production as we spoke. (Which turned out to be Unforgiven, of course.) More excellent movie action later on, with Iain Glen stomping around the Bar-L in prison drama Silent Scream. At a time when British films didn't have much call for style, David Hayman's directorial debut had visual flair by the ton: it's a shame he's done so little for the cinema since. (Too busy acting, I guess.) Visiting District Milligan was a gentle show from Spike himself, with poems, readings, and the odd audience question. "Why did you take so long to come to Edinburgh?" "I walked." Finally, in the late-night blow out to end all late-night blow outs, a Terence Higgins Trust all-star benefit show that dragged on till four in the morning.
As for Saturday 25th: in bed by 4.30am, up again by 8.30am, out of the flat by ten and straight to the station. From what my diary says, it would appear that we hadn't booked seats on the train, so we didn't get to leave Edinburgh until 1.30 in the afternoon. Still, can't complain: it was a good second festival, and the presence of the Pals doubtless helped. Which makes it baffling to me why I did the next five festivals on my own, and didn't have the Pals back until 1998: maybe finding a more central location for our self-catering flats helped.
But I can't help thinking of the final lines of Ken Campbell's Hail Eris!, where a colleague explains to him all the good things that have come out of his hellish production of Illuminatus, climaxing in "...and [you've] a tale to tell." And it has to be said, having the Pals around does certainly give you tales to tell. Which I think has to be a very good thing. Being a monkey, and all.