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SPANK GOLD: Edinburgh Festival 1991

After 1991, the Fringe Programme covers started to look a little less - how can I put this politely? - naive. See future posts for details.Well, don't say I didn't warn you: this post marks the point where Spank Gold goes a bit wonky. For the 1989 and 1990 festivals, I had contemporary diaries to work from: from this point onwards, all I have are lists of events in appointment diaries, brief event summaries in festival programmes, and my own fading memories from up to eighteen years ago.

And here's the annoying thing: I'm pretty sure I made some detailed notes on this particular festival back in 1991. After all, I'd documented my first two Edinburgh Festivals in a diary, so it makes sense that I would have done the same for my third. I remember using a spiral-bound reporter's notebook for the week, and even writing an early terrible version of the Benjamin Zephaniah joke that appears below in slightly less terrible form. Did I keep those notes? Did I buggery. So, you'll have to rely on whatever memories are jogged by my appointments diary.

After the 1990 visit with Spank's Pals, this one was back to being a solo flight. I'd realised by this stage that spending two weeks at the Festival was both physically and financially crippling, so this marks the point where I started cutting my time there down to a single week. Can't remember exactly where I was staying: during this period I tended to book into bed and breakfast places via Visit Scotland, leaving it quite late so I could plan my visit around the best days for the Film Festival. Booking Edinburgh accommodation in July means that you tend to end up on the outskirts of not-yet-fashionable Leith and having to commute in by bus or taxi, but it seemed to work out okay. As for the shows, well, see below.

Saturday August 17th
2.30pm: Tango At The End Of Winter, King's Theatre
6.00pm: The Reconstructed Heart, Assembly Rooms
7.30pm: La La La Human Steps, Playhouse
9.45pm: The Czecks, Assembly Rooms
11.15pm: Meet The Feebles, Filmhouse

In an interesting piece of structuring, this was the only day this week when I caught any of the International Festival's programme: and Tango At The End Of Winter made for one hell of a start.  I suspect the main thing that drew me to the play at the time was Alan Rickman, in the leading role of an actor re-assessing his life in a disused cinema. I was impressed enough to catch it again several months later during its London run, but one part of it sticks in my memory now: a visually astonishing climax where the entire set rips apart and everyone starts dancing. The director was Yukio Ninagawa, and I've adored his opulent style ever since - coincidentally, later this month I'll be seeing his kabuki adaptation of Twelfth Night at the Barbican.

After that flying start, the rest of the day was a bit less full-on. The Reconstructed Heart was a fine comic lecture by Robert Llewellyn, back in the days before any performance of his would be flooded by Red Dwarf fanboys. Like his play Onan two years earlier, it explores the theme that no matter how lefty and woman-friendly us blokes try to be, there's always a Loaded reader lurking underneath. (This was a few years before Loaded actually came into being, and took us to a post-ironic place where this lecture simply wouldn't work any more.) La La La Human Steps' dance piece Infante C'est Destroy was fabulously trendy at the time, with lots of raw physicality (in the form of people smacking into each other or onto the floor) and the odd bit of raunch. I recall the more traditional dance fans at the International Festival being very upset by it, though. The Czecks (the Australian cabaret band formerly known as The Bouncing Czecks) haven't stuck in my memory at all: unlike some New Zealand bloke called Peter Jackson, whose filthy puppet romp Meet The Feebles brought the house down at a late night Film Festival screening. If you'd told the audience back then that he'd be winning Oscars a decade later, we would have laughed in your face.

Sunday August 18th
11.30am: Lindsay Anderson, Cameo
2.15pm: Hearts Of Darkness, Filmhouse
6.00pm: Jimmy Tingle, Assembly Rooms
8.30pm: Archaos, Leith Links

Lindsay Anderson on stage! Back when he was still alive and everything! Of his films, I'd probably only seen If... and Britannia Hospital by then - actually, thinking about it, that's still the case. It was probably more a question of liking the idea of being in the same room as one of British cinema's undeniable legends. I'd imagine he was grumpy, especially that early on a Sunday morning. Hearts Of Darkness was a must-see for me, being the making-of documentary for my favourite film of all time. Very much a throwback to the days when a large-scale epic required actual physical hardship to pull it off, not just computing cycles. Jimmy Tingle returned to the scene of his Perrier nomination success in 1990, not that I can remember anything he said. Archaos, though, were as fabulous as ever: their OTT circus extravaganzas were always required viewing in Edinburgh, London or anywhere else.  It's a shame they got so big as to become financially unviable, but at least I got to watch them getting that big.

Rory McGrath, Billy Jean 'Hotbox' Cody and Philip Pope. A fairly terrible scan from the Fringe programme, but I think we can still take a reasonable guess at where McGrath's left hand is. Monday August 19th
12.00pm: The Devil And Lenny Bruce, Gilded Balloon
2.15pm: Snap!, Celtic Lodge
5.00pm: Ian Hislop, Book Festival
7.40pm: The Cutting Edge, Gilded Balloon
9.00pm: Friends Of The Famous, Gilded Balloon
10.45pm: At Last 'The Death Of Country', Gilded Balloon

Always a popular move at the Fringe: draw the comedy audience into straight theatre by putting on a play about a legendary comic. Can't remember too much about Ray Hanna's portrayal of Lenny Bruce: to be honest, aside from one album of Bruce's cleaner material, the only thing I had to compare it to was Dustin Hoffman's portrayal in the movie Lenny. Snap! was a new play by Neil Monaghan, who was responsible for half of the Asking For It double bill in 1990. A comic clash between a New Man and a female peace campaigner (according to the synopsis), it sounds very much of its time: still, nice to see that Monaghan continues to write to this day, and even has a movie in the pipeline.

Ian Hislop was at the Book Festival talking about satire in general, and (of course) the Eye in particular. The Comedy Store are still doing their Cutting Edge topical show on a weekly basis, and in 1991 they sent a pretty solid line-up up north: Bob Boyton, Dave Cohen, Richard Morton, Linda Smith and Mark Thomas all sharing the same stage. Friends Of The Famous ("winners of the Scottish Daily Express 'New Names of '90' Award") were truly shocking, mixing comedy, music and camp in precisely the wrong proportions. Death Of Country was a more palatable proposition, even though you know exactly what country songs written and performed by Rory McGrath and Philip Pope would sound like. Still, they kept this schtick going for a good few years, helped by a damn sharp backing band.

Tuesday August 20th
11.00am: The Edinburgh Years, George Square Theatre
12.30pm: McLaren Animation 4, Filmhouse
4.30pm: Our Day Out, Marcos
7.00pm: Truly Madly Deeply, Cameo
10.15pm: Cheryl The Rock Opera, Marcos
11.45pm: Stomp, Assembly

For some reason, I didn't catch the Doug Anthony Allstars live this year: instead, I made do with this premiere screening of their movie. The Edinburgh Years was a documentary following them around during their previous Fringe visits, with a show-stopping cameo from their mate Bob Downe. Back in the world of real film, the McLaren animation programme I plumped for this year (out of five possibles) wasn't terribly inspiring, apart from a Brothers Quay short I'd seen at the previous year's LFF. Our Day Out, like Blood Brothers, is a Willy Russell musical that ensures you'll be humming the tunes on the way out by only having three of them and repeating them over and over again. Still, The Durham Revue made a decent job of it (especially the kids), and two of those three tunes are back in my head again even as I type this.

I started with Alan Rickman on Saturday, so it seemed a reasonable idea to catch his new movie in the Film Festival. (Not that new, actually: it played at LFF '90, albeit under the soon-to-be-replaced title Cello.) When people talk about Truly Madly Deeply they tend to focus on the sentimentality, and the way that Juliet Stevenson dissolves into a huge bubble of tears and snot roughly five minutes into it. I've always had this theory that it's wrong to simply dismiss it as a British version of Ghost: if Rickman's character really was a ghost, there would be scenes where Stevenson has to explain around him to other people, because that's what happens in ghost comedies. But nothing like that happens, so it's obviously a Bergmanesque drama about a woman going batshit insane with grief. Shut up. Cheryl The Rock Opera was another collaboration between Attila The Stockbroker and John Otway: more of a song cycle than an opera, inevitably, with some recycling of old material, but still fun for all that. I'm sure you can still buy the CD at gigs for less than the £85 Amazon currently wants, though. Finally, I can boast about attending one of the earliest performances of Stomp: you could tell even then that the show could only get bigger, though you couldn't ever predict the humongous global franchise it is today.

Wednesday August 21st
12.30pm: Getting Animated In Edinburgh, Filmhouse
3.15pm: Sexual Perversity In Chicago, Gilded Balloon
6.00pm: Eddie Izzard, Counting House
7.45pm: Rebels With A Chord, Pleasance
9.00pm: Mark Steel, Gilded Balloon

Another lunchtime animation programme: this one was a ten year retrospective of the work of The Animation Workshop, which taught filmmaking skills via schools and evening classes. It'd be nice to look through the list of contributors and see if any of them had subsequently made it big, but that doesn't seem to have been the case. Sorry. Sexual Perversity was the Mamet play that was subsequently beaten down into the much tamer movie About Last Night: Glasgow's Arches Theatre made it one of the few straight drama productions to appear on the Gilded Balloon's main stage, albeit one with all the bitter laughs Mamet can provide when he's on form.

Eddie Izzard was the big catch of the day, of course. He'd been coming to the Fringe for several years, and was just starting to make a name for himself. This was an hour of his usual off-the-top-of-his-head standup, performed in a room of a size he wouldn't even consider for a toilet these days. Which was nice. It was comedy for the rest of the day after that. Rebels was a split show shared between song parodists Skint Video and accordionist John Moloney, the latter desperately trying to persuade us that his instrument had The Funk. "Get up! Get on up! Stay on the scene! Like an accordion player does!" The day finished with Mark Steel doing his usual thing, although I suspect for me he'll never top his performance at Time Out's 20th birthday gig in 1988, where he overran by twenty minutes and took a childlike delight in how nobody could stop him.

As if he doesn't look like a cartoon already! Angela Finocchiaro and two versions of Maurizio Nichetti in Volere Volare Thursday August 22nd
12.30pm: Propaganda And Agitation, Filmhouse
3.15pm: Cook Dems, Traverse
5.30pm: This Savage Parade, Greyfriars Kirkhouse
9.00pm: Volere Volare, Cameo
11.15pm: Social Suicide, Filmhouse

So it looks like I was spending most lunchtimes at the Filmhouse watching cartoons this year. This was a particularly good collection, though: a variety of political themes were covered, the inevitable highlight being the film Jan Svankmajer had waited decades to make, The Death Of Stalinism In Bohemia. Amazingly, I only went to the Traverse once in 1991, to catch one of Bobby Baker's food-based performance art monologues. Cook Dems is short for 'cookery demonstrations', and not a Benjamin Zephaniah poem like you thought. (According to the programme, "the Brother HI-SPEED Cooker which Bobby uses in the performance was kindly loaned by Jones and Brother.") This Savage Parade is a play by Anthony 'The Wicker Man' Shaffer, telling the story of an impromptu war crimes trial held in a Tel Aviv cellar in 1962. This particular production was the work of The Hoxton Firm, an East London theatre group that I believe regular correspondent Old Lag used to be involved with back in the day. Funny how in 1991 The Hoxton Firm seemed like quite a hard-arsed name for something, before the image of Hoxton was tarnished by the Shoreditch Twats

A couple of films to finish off the day. The Film Festival had a hefty subsection this year dedicated to Italian comedies, and out of them I chose Volere Volare, the latest from Maurizio Nichetti. Like his earlier Icicle Thief, it's based around a visual gimmick - in this case, Nichetti's character gradually turning into a cartoon. The whole thing plays out like Roger Rabbit with added sauciness, if that's possible. The late night screening of Social Suicide that followed was much less impressive, unfortunately. The programme promised some sort of mashup of the best bits of Heathers and Metropolitan, but ended up as a big old pile of nothing whose most memorable moment was the flooding of a posh prom night with a tanker full of guacamole. A bit of web research suggests that after a few film festival screenings that were possibly as dismal as this one, it crept out on VHS five years later under the hamfisted title Primadonnas - Rebels Without a Clue. No sign of a DVD release yet, unsurprisingly.

Friday August 23rd
12.30pm: Essential Viewing, Filmhouse
3.20pm: Adele Anderson, Pleasance
4.45pm: At Last Close-Up Magic And Card Tricks, Pleasance
6.00pm: Chris Lynam Is Lord Byron, Assembly Rooms
8.15pm: The Erpingham Camp, Bedlam
10.30pm: Edinburgh Live '91, Assembly Rooms

Not sure why they considered today's animation programme 'essential' - the one link between all the films was, according to the programme, "animation going all the way and maybe sometimes too far." Still, any excuse to watch some Bill Plympton is good enough for me. Adele Anderson was going through one of those periods when she wasn't in Fascinating Aida (she's back with them now), so this was a very welcome show from the singer. She used to be a bloke, you know. Close-Up Magic gave very little away in its programme listing, but word was soon out on the street that it was our old mate Jerry Sadowitz performing magic tricks in one of the tiniest rooms at the Pleasance. At that distance, you can tell he's genuinely brilliant at what he does, but you do get to feel the full force of his invective from just a foot or two away. Although this particular performance was notable for one of those rare occasions where Sadowitz let the mask drop briefly. I'm paraphrasing here: "Fuck fuck fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck... hang on..." [gets up, walks to opened window, closes window, comes back] "Weans. Where was I? Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck..."

Chris Lynam's regular act used to climax with him taking all his clothes off and shoving a lighted firework up his arse. So it was inevitable that his musical biography of Lord Byron would always be heavier on theatrical stuntery than historical detail. In fact, it all just about worked: sure, Lynam recreated Byron's swim across the Hellespont by surfing over the heads of the entire audience, but you got songs and proper jokes as well. The Erpingham Camp is one of Joe Orton's one-act plays: not as frequently performed as his three biggies, but director Stephen Plaice and his Alarmist Theatre company thought that 1991 was a good year for reviving a play about the overthrow of a tyrannical leader. (A holiday camp manager in this case, but the political parallels were always there: Orton wrote this the year Churchill died.) Finally, Edinburgh Live '91 was a live broadcast for Channel 4, with Fred MacAulay introducing acts from this year's Fringe. Don't remember who was on the bill: but I do remember watching the show on video when I got back home, and not seeing myself in the audience. Which is the only reason why we go to these things, surely?

Saturday August 24th
10.30am: Paul Gravett, Central Library
12.30pm: John Hegley, Book Festival
1.45pm: McGough & Patten, Book Festival
3.00pm: Gravett, Morrison & McKean, Book Festival

An unusual finish to the week: an entire day spent at Book Festival events. Part of that was down to a focus that year on comics, given that British writers and artists were currently taking over the world: Paul Gravett's lecture at Central Library was a copiously illustrated introduction to the history of the medium for newcomers. During a discussion of Alan Moore's aborted series on chaos theory and Northampton, Big Numbers, Gravett noticed that I was wearing a Big Numbers t-shirt and pointed it out. This will become relevant later, promise. Back at the Book Festival site in Charlotte Square, I saw two poetry sessions from people who were also performing on the Fringe that year. John Hegley did his usual warmly funny business, while Roger McGough and Brian Patten read highlights from their classic 1960s anthology The Mersey Sound. Finally, Paul Gravett returned to interview the men behind the hit Batman graphic novel, Arkham Asylum: writer Grant Morrison and artist Dave McKean. As I mentioned last year when McKean returned to the Book Festival, he was lovely and charming while Morrison was a bit cool and standoffish: but they both signed my copy after the interview, so I can't really complain.

Which is officially the end of my Festival for 1991: but there's one more tiny piece of magic still to come, and it happens on the train back to London that evening. It's crawling along owing to the inevitable Bank Holiday engineering works, and the buffet has run out of food before we've even left Scotland, so I'm not particularly happy. But Paul Gravett's in the same carriage as me: he recognises me from the Book Festival events, and comes over for a chat. Pointing at my Big Numbers t-shirt, he says, "so you're an Alan Moore fan, are you?" Which is how I get to spend the rest of the journey to London avidly reading Gravett's pre-publication copy of Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate's new graphic novel A Small Killing, over a month before it reaches the shops.

You know, it's all well and good going to these festivals on your own. But I always find that it's when you meet people that the really good stuff happens. Being a monkey, and all.



Man, I wish I'd kept my 1991 programme. It was my first Fringe, and I'm struggling to remember what I saw where.
I certainly saw Adele Anderson, Attila/Otway's Cheryl, Jim Tavare, Bob Downe and a production of Oh What A Lovely War and some blues band somewhere, but I can't remember the venues.
YOu say Adele Anderson was on at teh Pleasance, but I have vague memories of a basement bar :S

David Cameron

Loved your article! Appreciate for all your detailed mentions!

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