In the old days, of course, we'd do this in a pub. Once the programmes for all the Edinburgh festivals were published, Spank's Pals and I would arrange to meet in some London dive or other and pore over them together, occasionally yelling out the name of a show to see if anyone else was interested in coming along. Nowadays, we're all a lot busier and more geographically spread out, so we tend to just come up with wishlists and mail them out to everyone else. And yes, it's true, I'm normally the first one to come up with a list.
This year, as you may be aware, I'm taking one of my regular years off from Edinburgh. And yet the Pals are still asking me what I think is worth seeing. Happily, the programmes for all three festivals - yes, I'm certain it's just three, always has been - are now available online. There are simple PDFs downloadable for the International Festival (9.93MB) and Book Festival (2.77MB): the Fringe, meanwhile, has a more complex arrangement involving a replica of the programme in a Flash reader. (Useful undocumented tip: click on a selected bit of the page to first make it bigger, then smaller again. Don't drag the page around with your mouse, it'll just mess it up.) This reader also has the option to convert sets of selected pages into a PDF. Be warned that if you go for that option and select all pages, the resulting PDF will be 212MB in size, and your computer's brain may well explode when it tries to either download or open it: you may be better off selecting smaller subsets of the 292 pages at a time.
Anyhoo, the list below is the result of one afternoon looking at electronic versions of the programmes online and picking out shows that I think look interesting, bearing in mind that I have no intention of travelling to Edinburgh and seeing any of them. (Links in bold are to official show pages, including online booking where available.) Note that as this list is being compiled primarily for the benefit of the Pals, I'm focussing exclusively on performances during the week before the August Bank Holiday, which is when they'll be in town. Other dates are available.
International Festival: Usually, the most interesting shows in the Proper Festival involve new work from largely established names. For that reason, I'm intrigued by Monteverdi's opera Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, because the main people involved are the Handspring Puppet Company, whose War Horse is still pulling in the crowds in London. Similarly, given that the best theatre on the Fringe tends to come from the Traverse, it'll be interesting to see what happens when they collaborate with the EIF on a production of Rona Munro's The Last Witch. If you're looking for baser pleasures, the Romanian adaptation of Faust has all the right buzz-phrases in its blurb: 'prepare to be assaulted', 'over 100 actors and musicians', 'a section of this production is promenade', 'contains adult content and nudity'. Alternatively, if you're looking for free entertainment, go to the soon-to-be-announced locations in Edinburgh where artist Juan Cruz will beam you site-specific stories via Bluetooth.
Book Festival: Not a massively inspiring line-up this year, it has to be said. Most of the big names are writers generally more famous for doing something other than writing (Frank Skinner, Vince Cable) or the usual Edinburgh authors popping in for their traditional annual appearance (Irvine Welsh, Alexander McCall Smith). Possibly the most intriguing name is that of David Peace, who's become big news over the last couple of months thanks to the one-two punch of Red Riding on telly and The Damned United in cinemas, both based on his novels. Sadly, the Pals will be leaving town just before the appearance of David Simon, revered throughout the civilised world as That Bloke Who Invented The Wire.
Fringe Kids: Always difficult to recommend any of the Fringe childrens' shows without coming off as a suspected paedo, of course. But the sheer balls of Sleeping Beauty And The Time Lords has to be applauded, as Spotlites Theatre attempt to combine fairy tales with Doctor Who, while carefully skirting around the fact that they obviously haven't got permission from anyone to do so. "Disable the Exterminators," you say?
Fringe Comedy: I probably wouldn't have counted if I was looking at a paper copy of the programme, but looking at online thumbnails brings it home to you: there are 96 pages of comedy listings in this year's Fringe guide. How the hell do you sort through that? Well, let's start with the cast-iron certainties. Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe always makes for a fine start to a Fringe week, giving you the chance to make some decisions on other people to see. (Note that it's in a new venue this year - the Underbelly Hullabaloo, the George Square replacement for the missing-in-action Spiegeltent.) Old favourites Lee and Herring are back as usual, with Stewart Lee sporting a magnificent pull quote on his adverts ("his tone is one of complete, smug condescension" - Birmingham Sunday Mercury), while Richard Herring has to make do with sponsorship by dozens of publicity-seeking fans, including yours truly. Herring can also be seen with colleague Andrew Collins recording five daily editions of The Collings And Herrin Podcast, which will be available for download a few hours later. Other comics that'll be familiar to regular readers of the diary include Daniel Kitson (whose late night show at the Stand may or may not be as unmissable as The Honourable Men Of Art last year), John Bishop (having an Elvis-related midlife crisis), and Mark Watson (who'll be doing his last ever 24 hour show the week before).
The comedy section of the Fringe programme is probably the key one to focus on in these economically embollocksed times. Several venues are doing interesting deals: The GRV is running a self-explanatory Five Pound Fringe, and Underbelly are selling tickets for £6.50 on Mondays and Tuesdays (that's what they cost when they first opened in 2000). Frank Skinner is bringing his successful ten pound Credit Crunch Cabaret up from London, while Al Murray is performing what amounts to The Pub Landlord's Greatest Hits for a mere fiver. But as with last year, the two main Free Fringe organisations provide the best value of all: PBH's Free Fringe and Laughing Horse's Free Fringe Festival both have dozens of shows available for absolutely nowt (but it'd be nice if you put a few quid in the bucket at the end). A few highlights from the free programmes include Robin Ince geeking out over scientists in Carl Sagan Is My God, Oh And Richard Feynman Too: pop songs from Kunt And The Gang as irritatingly catchy as they are violently obscene: Peter Buckley Hill abusing the 40 Words limit of his programme listing: and the Cambridge Footlights in a bonus free show called And Bosnich Is Off His Line..., gloriously lowering your expectations with the promise "watch the Steve Punts of tomorrow!"
Fringe Dance: Staying with the freebie stuff, Miss High Leg Kick's Fashion Bus has the burlesque favourite literally taking her show on the road in a big red double decker. More expensively, Red Room is a rare outing into the dance field for the Traverse Theatre, as David Hughes and Al Seed adapt The Masque Of The Red Death. They've already cancelled the one other dance show that I thought looked interesting: Mother, Darren Johnson's large-scale piece based on Goldie's hour-long drum 'n' bass symphony. I've just realised I've only ever played that record once, which may partly explain why they've cancelled it.
Fringe Events: The Events section generally includes talks by performers, or talks for performers. In the latter category, I'm rather touched by the idea of the One Person Production Support Group, in which people who are performing in one-person shows can get together and console each other. Although The Belated Birthday Girl points out that for some people, the phrase 'One Person Production Support Group' just conjures up images of a hideously overworked IT team.
Fringe Exhibitions: Oh, there's a nice idea. The C venue is running a Fringe Film Festival, playing short movies all day. Funny how nobody's ever thought of showing films during the festival month before now. In more conventional arts, there's lots of stuff out there, but I'd be most interested in the first Edinburgh solo show by Jane and Louise Wilson, who impressed me greatly at the 1999 Turner Prize exhibition.
Fringe Music: For the second year, popular music at the Fringe is under the auspices of The Edge Festival. Their programme is still under construction at the moment: of the shows announced so far, I'd be interested in Andrew Bird after seeing him do this in the film Largo last year, while Amanda Palmer may be of interest to those of you who remember her from her Dresden Dolls days. (I only found out the other day that she's going out with Neil Gaiman. Golly.) In less Edgey territory, I can warmly recommend the geeky comic stylings of Kenny Young And The Eggplants: the Taiko Dojo Drumfest, featuring some of our mates from the Mugen Taiko Dojo: and what's apparently a farewell performance by Eric Bogle, writer of my two favourite folk songs ever. Finally, for those of us with fond memories of the times when Rob G's tried to get us all to finish off the day with a nice warm mug of cocoa rather than the usual umpteen pints of beer, there's a show called Hot Chocolate At 10 which formalises the process.
Fringe Musicals & Opera: The kids from the American High School Theatre Festival have put on some fine musical productions in recent years: the one to watch this time may well be Curtains, the European premiere of a 'musical comedy whodunnit' written by Kander and Ebb of Cabaret and Chicago fame. Meanwhile, if you missed out on Jerry Springer The Opera first time round, then you could try catching its first major revival here.
Fringe Theatre: Start, as always, with the Traverse. It's usually difficult to second-guess which of their shows will take off each year: but The Interminable Suicide Of Gregory Church is the latest in a series of Daniel Kitson monologues that always tend to go down well, while The World Is Too Much attempts a re-run of the breakfast theatre experiment from a couple of years ago, with several playwrights working on rapid-response theatre rather than just Mark Ravenhill on his own. Previous hits coming back to the Fringe for another go include Faulty Towers: The Dining Experience from last year, and Gagarin Way from 2001. The latter's another production by Phil Nichol's Comedians' Theatre Company, whose School For Scandal has a star-studded cast with the extraordinary prospect of Stephen K Amos and Lionel Blair sharing a stage.
And to wrap up, a few bits of the sort of theatrical gimmickry that normally sets The BBG's teeth on edge: luckily, she'll be well away from these when they happen. The Wicker Man is a stage adaptation of the film - yes, the good film. It'll include Paul Giovanni's original songs, so there'll doubtless be a lot of people in the audience keen to see how their favourite musical number holds up. Plane Food Cafe will be serving up airline meals to you and insisting they taste different when you're on the ground. Internal puts its five-person audience through a round of speed dating, while Foot-Washing For The Sole has Adrian Howells washing your feet. Is it wrong to find it funny that the last one of those is playing at The Arches? Finally, at least one of the crew going up there this summer should note that Arkle Theatre Company's Taming Of The Shrew is offering you a £1 discount on the door price if your name's Kate. (Or Petruchio.)
All the press will be slavering over Denise Van Outen's Basildon Blonde (actually, they already are), but that doesn't mean you have to. Although a couple of the above shows probably need booking asap - I'd suggest the Frank Skinner and Al Murray cheapies, and any of the one-day-only events under Book Festival and Fringe Music - in the vast majority of cases I'd suggest you just go up there, see what people are talking about, and decide for yourself. There, see, I didn't need to write this after all.