Previously on Spank Gold Edinburgh: after four years of going to the Festival each summer, I was starting to find things a bit samey. Inspired in part by a desire to do something reckless for my 30th birthday, I took a year off from Edinburgh in 1993, hoping that when I came back in 1994 my interest would have perked up again.
Did it work? Yes, I believe it did, which is why I've been taking one year off in three or thereabouts ever since. Looking back at my writeup of 1992, I'd started to get into a series of predictable ruts: seeing the same few people over and over again, even going out of my way to watch acts that I could catch in London any other time of the year. There are still a few old familiar names propping up the list below - and in the case of Lee and Herring, the first appearances of some names who've become regulars on my Fringe calendar ever since - but there was enough freshness in my selections to make it a much more worthwhile enterprise.
If anecdotes are the currency of a good Edinburgh, then 1994 was one of the most profitable in living memory. Even the journey there and back had its moments - the rail service was in the middle of some sort of strike action, which meant I ended up travelling midweek by overnight coach. Which conveniently leads me into the first of those anecdotes...
Wednesday August 17th
11.45am: This Morning With Richard Not Judy, Pleasance
2.00pm: McLaren Animation 4, Filmhouse
8.45pm: Clerks, Filmhouse
10.45pm: Killing Zoe, Cameo
Stepping back a little: it's late night on Tuesday August 16th, and I'm on a coach heading north without a hope in hell of getting any sleep during the journey. I've taken a small portable radio with me, and I'm listening to Mark 'n' Lard, who were kings of the ten-till-midnight slot on Radio 1 back then. They're actually presenting their show from Edinburgh, and have Frank Skinner on as a guest. Skinner obligingly points out that although tickets for his solo show are impossible to get hold of, he's also doing guest slots all over town: for example, at Lee and Herring's early show the next day. My coach will arrive into Edinburgh around breakfast time that morning: I now know what my first show at that year's Fringe will be.
So a couple of hours after arrival, still carrying my clothes for the week, I'm at the Pleasance watching Lee and Herring developing the slightly shambolic sketch show that would eventually become TMWRNJ (termurwernjer!) on telly. Skinner is there, as promised: the boy Lard is spying on proceedings from a side seat: and regular collaborators Sally Phillips and Peter Baynham are helping out here and there. Baynham is present as his slobby Peter character, demonstrating how you can make trifle in your mouth by cramming biscuits, jam and sherry into it simultaneously. This is relevant to the proceedings, because towards the end of the show I had to copy him.
To cut a long story short, there was an audience quiz: and thanks to a lucky guess at a question involving a Fringe comedian's previous conviction for GBH, it was down to a face-off between me and some young guy in the final. We were given Peter's jam, biscuits and sherry, and told that the one of us who made the best mouth-based trifle would win. The other guy went first, and he ate all the jam, the bastard, leaving me with very little I could do when it was my turn. (In a burst of esprit de l'escalier, it later struck me that I could have leapt on Baynham and sucked on the jammy stains down the front of his t-shirt. But I didn't.) So the other guy was proclaimed the winner, and was led out into the Pleasance courtyard to receive his prize. Which was revealed, at that point, to be a car. A used one, admittedly, and worth only £350, but a car nonetheless - I didn't even get any jam.
Still, it's a story, and one that I've dragged out regularly over the last 15 years when discussing wild Edinburgh happenings. After that, the rest of the day was film-heavy and a little quiet by comparison: a McLaren animation programme mainly notable for the animated short that eventually got expanded into the Crapston Villas TV show, the British premiere of Clerks (with both Jay and Silent Bob in attendance), and Roger Avary's rather disappointing heist thriller Killing Zoe, which was nevertheless packed out because anything tangentially related to Quentin Tarantino always was back then.
Thursday August 18th
12.00pm: Jools Holland Masterclass, Assembly Rooms
2.00pm: McLaren Animation 5, Filmhouse
5.20pm: John Shuttleworth, Pleasance
6.40pm: The Quick Brown Fox, Pleasance
7.50pm: Harry Hill, Pleasance
9.25pm: Yes, Church Hill Theatre
10.30pm: Hunter & Docherty, Church Hill Theatre
Things slowly got back to normal again the next day. Jools Holland sat at the piano and talked about his time in Squeeze and as a session musician: this was before the days when he became irritatingly ubiquitous on telly, so it actually turned out to be quite fun. The other McLaren animation programme of the week was skewed a bit by Barry Purves' half hour puppet version of Rigoletto - I'd loved his earlier short works like Next and Screen Play, but this struck me as biting off a little more than he could chew. John Shuttleworth was doing his usual thing, while Tim Clark was in The Quick Brown Fox, an unmemorable play what he wrote, alongside her off EastEnders.
Elsewhere in the Pleasance, history was being made. Harry Hill had managed to grab a primetime spot in the Pleasance Cabaret Bar, and so decided to do a boozer-themed show called Pub Internationale, set inside an actual working pub. Which, of course, would need a landlord. So Hill's mate Al Murray stepped in to provide support in his first appearance as The Pub Landlord: the rest is history. (From what I can remember, in those early days the character's schtick was more about the minutiae of pub management, and less about the quasi-fascist caricature he's now evolved into.) Hill was on fine form, and it was nice to see Ronnie Corbett in the front row of the audience enjoying himself immensely. (You know, until that night, I'd never even thought about Corbett being Scottish.) There was a strange little double bill at the Church Hill to finish off the day: first Eartha Kitt in a not entirely successful attempt to whip up a musical show out of the final chapter of Ulysses (though her rendition of Just A Song At Twilight brought the house down), followed by the two guys from Absolutely playing it safe by recreating all your favourite characters off the telly.
Friday August 19th
12.00pm: Playboy Of The Western World, Traverse
2.30pm: Chinese State Circus, Meadows
5.30pm: Modern Nature, Traverse
7.00pm: Poor Super Man, Traverse
11.00pm: Shallow Grave, MGM Lothian Road
Communicado have always done well at the Fringe, so their production of JM Synge's Irish classic would appear to be a sure-fire hit – can't remember very much about it, though. In a day spent mainly at the Traverse, a visit to the Chinese State Circus made for an entertaining interlude – although it was their 1996 performance that really sticks in my mind, for one specific reason (or more accurately, 14) that I'll tell you about in a couple of months time. Back at the Traverse, Modern Nature was a nicely-performed one-man show from De Parade based on Derek Jarman's gardening diaries (which inevitably crossed over into subjects other than gardening). One highlight that sticks in my mind involved Jarman in a typically polite-yet-rude argument with a journalist, pointing out that whatever the journalist wrote would be forgotten in a couple of days, whereas Jarman's account of their meeting in his diary would still be in print years later. And so it is.
In the bigger room at the Traverse was a new play from Brad Fraser, whose Unidentified Human Remains And The True Nature Of Love was a big hit a couple of years earlier (and led to a film adaptation). Poor Super Man's main gimmick was the frequent use of on-stage captions and thought bubbles, like the characters were in a comic book. Anything else that occurred on that stage that night has completely vanished from my memory, though. Unlike the sense of genuine excitement in the queue outside the MGM Lothian Road, as a sellout crowd waited for the Scottish premiere of Shallow Grave. Fifteen years on, it's hard to remember why there was such a buzz about the film in advance – was it just because it was an Edinburgh film premiereing in the city of its making? (During those opening titles shots whizzing through the streets, I recall at least a couple of audience yells of “that's my house!”) Whatever, it was a full-on event, and the film lived up to the hype, in the process pushing the careers of one TV director (Danny Boyle) and two TV stars (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston) into the big leagues.
Saturday August 20th
11.45am: Henry VIII – Diary Of A Serial Killer, Assembly Rooms
2.30pm: The Seven Streams Of The River Ota, Meadowbank Centre
8.00pm: Bib And Bob, Acropolis
10.00pm: The Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, Acropolis
Natural Theatre Company's fantasia on the life of Henry VIII had a nice title, but I can't recall too much else apart from that. The big event of the day was the schlep down to Meadowbank for one of Robert Lepage's theatrical events. Advance word on The Seven Streams Of The River Ota was a little vague, and mainly concentrated on warning us that this was a work in progress – like much of Lepage, the play was devised with the cast members and refined over a couple of years of performance. Here we got the first three acts of what would ultimately become a seven-act epic, using the Hiroshima bomb as the central image for a series of interlocking stories based around a photographer whose life spans the 20th century. I never saw the finished version, but a few years later one of the comic subplots was reworked by Lepage into the movie Nô.
Bib And Bob were Jerry Sadowitz and Logan Murray working as a double act. I suspect that Sadowitz, after a few years in the comic wilderness, was trying something different to get himself noticed again. Not that he went as far as reducing his usual offensiveness, of course: my fondest memory from this show was Sadowitz and Murray as The Venetian Blinds, two Italian stereotypes who walked around bumping into things. More offensiveness followed with the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, performing at the height of their infamy with all of the genital weightlifting and on-stage body piercing that people got quickly tired of when he tried it again in 2008. Still, Rose always made for a robust compere, and had one of my favourite anti-heckle lines ever: “this is my job you're interrupting here. I don't come round to where you work and knock the sailors' dicks out of your mouth.”
Sunday August 21st
12.00pm: The Priest And The Pirate, Filmhouse
1.00pm: Fringe Sunday, Holyrood Park
6.00pm: The Publicity Stunt, Pleasance
6.30pm: Dear Diary, Filmhouse
8.45pm: Steady Eddy, Gilded Balloon
10.45pm: Boy Meets Girl, Cameo
As any fule kno, the Edinburgh International Festival came first, and then the Fringe was set up for performers who couldn't get themselves noticed by the EIF selection committee. The Priest And The Pirate could be seen as an attempt to start off a Fringe version of the Film Festival. The film's makers couldn't get it accepted into the festival, so they hired a small screening room at the Filmhouse, and advertised it with a guerilla flyering campaign – most cheekily, hitting that queue outside the Shallow Grave premiere two days earlier. Which made it a bit rich when the post-screening Q&A session turned into a whine about why 'horrible' films like Shallow Grave were being screened at the festival, while The Priest And The Pirate was being passed over. You'll notice that this paragraph is all about the circumstances of the screening, and avoids telling you anything about the film itself, and that's because I can't remember a damn thing about it. Guerilla screenings are a great idea for getting a foot in the door, but having a film that's worth watching has to be the next step.
Sunday afternoon was spent in Holyrood for Fringe Sunday, and I think this is where I saw the musical comedy stylings of Kenny Young And The Eggplants for the first time. (The BBG may be amused to learn that while I was watching them, I was missing Moxy Fruvous elsewhere in the same field.) It was followed by what the programme describes as “The Publicity Stunt by Arthur Smith starring Phil Nice”, which I assume was another of Arthur's Dadaist pranks given its 15 minute running time. Dear Diary was my introduction to the charming universe of Nanni Moretti, following the director on his moped as he watched movies, visited doctors and stalked Jennifer Beals. Steady Eddy was billed as the first stand-up comic with cerebral palsy, and he was an Aussie to boot, so tasteful laughs were always off the menu. “I hate the way that whenever I get on a plane, people start screaming. Still, it's probably my fault for wearing the pilot's uniform.” Finally, a late-night screening of Ray Brady's Boy Meets Girl, the subject of an unofficial BBFC video ban at the time (it eventually came out in 2001). The story of a woman kidnapping a man and abusing him for the vaguest of reasons, it steadfastly refused to give the viewer any point of sympathetic identification with either character. Basically, it was what's now glibly referred to as 'torture porn', but a decade or so before it became fashionable, and I'd be curious to see how it holds up now in these post-Saw times.
Monday August 22nd
12.00pm: Under Milk Wood, Assembly Rooms
2.00pm: Fever Pitch, Assembly Rooms
4.45pm: Bizarre, Pleasance
6.30pm: Being Human, Filmhouse
8.50pm: John Hegley, Pleasance
10.30pm: Ute Lemper, Festival Theatre
There are certain shows that come back to Edinburgh year after year after year, which will always remain popular as new generations of audiences discover them, and Guy Masterson's legendary one-man adaptation of Under Milk Wood is one of those. (He's not doing it in 2009, though: you'll have to make do with a version performed by several people instead.) Less likely to stand the test of time was Stephen North in Paul Hodson's one-man adaptation of Fever Pitch, which was the book du jour in '94. Inevitably, this concentrated on the through-story of Nick Hornby's Gooner odyssey, without the digressions added to the two very different movie versions. Bizarre was a charmingly old-fashioned piece of Edinburgh Fringe entertainment, featuring a selection of jolly songs inspired by weird world stories culled from the pages of the Fortean Times. I'd misremembered this as a full-on Instant Sunshine show, but the Fringe programme claims it was just their bassist (the late Miles Kington) accompanied by Simon Gilman on piano.
Back at the Film Festival, another sort of homecoming as Bill Forsyth premiered his latest film. Being Human was the one with Robin Williams playing five characters in five different periods of history. Sadly, this was well after the period where Williams could still pull off a performance capable of amusing people, and the film pretty much deserved its straight-to-video fate. Hegley did his usual poetry show – I've seen several of these now, and can't really remember anything about them to tell them apart, but this one was apparently called Love Cuts – while Ute Lemper and pianist performed their Brechtian cabaret on the stage of the newly-opened Festival Theatre. To be honest, the venue was a little too vast for an intimate late-night show, but Lemper's got enough star quality to get over minor problems like that, especially when she's got classics like The Saga Of Jenny on the set list.
Tuesday August 23rd
11.00am: Tales You Win... Heads You Lose, Netherbow
3.10pm: Comic Strip Teas, Hill Street Theatre
6.15pm: Faust, Cameo
8.45pm: The Duchess Of Malfi, Greyfriars Kirkhouse
10.45pm: Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm, Cameo
Tales You Win... was a session of traditional Scottish storytelling – entertaining enough, but don't ask me what the stories were that day. After that, it was off to the (now defunct) Bull And Bush on Lothian Road for a couple of Guinnesses with work colleagues Steve and Alyson, who were in town for a few days. They got to choose the show we watched afterwards, a slightly feeble collection of sketches with free tea and cakes thrown in. (It's a useful rule of thumb to avoid any show that requires bribes of food and drink to get punters in the door.) The Faust at the Cameo was Jan Svankmajer's very loose movie adaptation, filmed in his more recent style mixing live-action and animation in just the right proportions to give you the willies. Plenty of grim humour in there too, though, building to a fabulously wicked punchline.
The Duchess Of Malfi was a production by the young people of Polkatz Theatre, who were still coasting on a huge amount of goodwill from me following the year I saw Macbeth and The Glass House back to back. Their Duchess wasn't as memorable, though. Mask Of The Phantasm was a feature-length cartoon from the makers of the Batman animated series, which my eldest nephew (I'd acquired a second by now) was a big fan of. Bruce Timm's iconic designs looked just as good on the big screen (including the squarest jaw that Batman has ever possessed), and the story held up for a late-night adult audience as well as for the intended youngsters. Mainly, however, I'll remember this screening for the two hours I spent after it trying to get back into my B&B, because some tosser had double-locked the front door from the inside, and the hotel's phone was redirected to their fax during the night.
Wednesday August 24th
11.45am: This Morning With Richard Not Judy, Pleasance
1.15pm: Passion, Church Hill Studio
5.30pm: Ichiro, Acropolis
7.00pm: Phil Kay, Gilded Balloon
8.30pm: Jenny Eclair, Pleasance
I'd arranged to meet Steve and Alyson for a second crack at Lee and Herring, curious to see how they could follow up on the car stunt. On this particular day, L&H had acquired a penny farthing bicycle, and were prepared to give it away to the first person who could ride it around the Pleasance courtyard without falling over. “I'll have a go,” said Steve, failing to mention out loud that he attends circus skills workshops in his spare time, or that I once saw him travelling around his house on a fucking unicycle. Anyway, by comparison a penny farthing turned out to be no problem at all, so Steve and Alyson became its proud owners: unfortunately, there was no way they could get it back to London, so they had to abandon it somewhere in Edinburgh.
That's pretty much the last big anecdote from Edinburgh 1994. Of the remaining shows, Passion was a bit of religious controversy by Jason Orbaum that blew over almost as quickly as it arose: Ichiro put on an impressive Japanese drumming show, most notable for whichever those drums are that require bendy four-foot-long sticks to play: Phil Kay was his usual ebullient self in the days before substances took their toll on his comic timing: and Jenny Eclair wrapped up my week with her usual complaints about her labia looking like spaniel's ears. (And that was 15 years ago, so Lord knows how she's describing them now.)
And then back onto an overnight coach, arriving back in London early on Thursday morning tired and fit for absolutely nothing. Still, at least at the end of that you'd felt like you'd done a festival: i.e. tired and fit for absolutely nothing. It's no surprise that I went back for more the following year. Being a monkey, and all.