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SPANK GOLD: Edinburgh Festival 1995

You are here The announcement's buried in the lower half of page 3 of the 1995 Edinburgh Fringe programme.

This programme is also available on the World Wide Web at The programme includes a unique search facility to locate your favourite performer or show, or you can search on keywords given in the text. The Daily Diaries are also available on-line enabling you to plan your day-by-day visits in advance. Once you have seen a Fringe show, you can also post your own review in the Unofficial Reviews Section and read those already posted by other Fringe enthusiasts. If you do not have your own access to the Internet, you can surf the Fringe Pages and the rest of the Internet at Web 13 Internet Cafe, 13 Bread Street, Edinburgh.

So there you have it – 1995 was Edinburgh's first year on the web. The site was a little basic, as you can see from the linked archive: you could look through the programme, but it was impossible to buy any tickets online. Just like 2008, then! Ha ha, I am funny.

Thanks to my moderately responsible job in the computer industry, I had web access at work back in the summer of 1995, but nothing at home or (imagine it!) in any sort of mobile form. So I made all my bookings and arrangements the old-fashioned way. Here's how they turned out.

Tuesday August 15th
6.15pm: Walter Murch Scene By Scene, Filmhouse
8.45pm: Lee And Herring's Fist Of Fun, Pleasance
11.00pm: Kenny Young And The Eggplants, Pleasance

The staggered week-and-a-bit I chose for Edinburgh this year was, I think, partly chosen because of that first event. Apocalypse Now was, and still is, my favourite movie of all time, and part of its impact comes from its revolutionary sound design. Nowadays it's easy to hear a film soundtrack in its full Dolby 5.1 glory at home, but back in the 80s fans of Apocalypse had to make do with the double album which condensed the whole movie – dialogue, music, effects and all – down to 90 minutes of stereo delight. The man responsible for that sound was Walter Murch, here giving a scene-by-scene talk in which he discussed key moments from the film as they appeared on screen behind him: it's the sort of event that's commonplace at film festivals now, but I think this is the first one I ever attended. The most astonishing revelation of the talk was that the soundtrack is less complex than you'd imagine – if you try to mix more than three distinct sources of sound, they become a garbled mess, and at no point in Apocalypse do you ever go above three.

Fun at the Pleasance for the rest of my first day. Since the previous year, Lee and Herring had gone on to minor success on BBC 2 with their Fist Of Fun show, so the posters had As Seen On TV all over them. A BBC live video followed a few months later, which I imagine was pulled from a similar set – it wasn't very good, as even they suggest, and both comedians are quite happy for people to watch it for nowt on Google Video rather than pay a million pounds for it on eBay. Finally, Kenny Young And The Eggplants – who I think I saw at the previous year's Fringe Sunday, which is why I caught them so early in the week here – did their usual fun collection of songs. They're still going, and back at the Fringe again in 2009.

Wednesday August 16th
11.30am: Animal Farm, Assembly Rooms
2.30pm: Abigail's Party, Gilded Balloon
4.00pm: McClaren Animation 1, Filmhouse
7.20pm: How To Write A Hollywood Screenplay, Pleasance Smallest Cinema
8.05pm: Harry Hill: Savlon 2000, Pleasance
9.30pm: The Neon Bible, Cameo

Animal Farm was the Guy Masterson one-man version – not quite the tour de force of his Under Milk Wood, because it's not as readily associated with a huge array of different voices, but still very enjoyable for all that. Abigail's Party was put on by Tangerine Productions in the unexpected setting of the main stage of the Gilded Balloon, but I seem to recall it worked there just fine. There were only two McLaren animation programmes this year, and the first one doesn't ring any bells with me at all, apart from the stylised look of Paul Vester's adaptation of the stories of alien Abductees.

The venue for How To Write A Hollywood Screenplay deserves a brief introduction. A small shed in the middle of the Pleasance Courtyard, the Smallest Cinema held no more than half a dozen or so people and showed short films for a fiver. The attraction was more in the unusual venue than the films, for the most part: I can't remember anything I watched there, so it was an interesting surprise to find HTWAHS on the web. No real memory of the content of Harry Hill's latest show, either, but I'm sure he didn't disappoint. As for The Neon Bible, it was a movie by Terence Davies based on the first novel by John Kennedy Toole, a pair of names definitely to be conjured with. But it didn't really do it for me: I suspect Davies has much more of an emotional wallop when he's dealing with material closer to home.

Thursday August 17th
1.15pm: MacPunch, Netherbow
2.15pm: The Lottery Ticket, Pleasance
5.00pm: Ralph Steadman, Book Festival
6.30pm: McClaren Animation 2, Filmhouse
9.00pm: Luka Bloom, Palladium
11.00pm: Club Swing: Appetite, Palladium

MacPunch is exactly what you're hoping it is – the Scottish play adapted for Punch and Judy puppets, and big fun with it. The Lottery Ticket was Stomping Feet Theatre Company's production of a new play by Roddy McDevitt, sending up the Lottery fever that we'd had in the UK for just under a year by then. Ralph Steadman was in town to promote his newly-illustrated version of Animal Farm, in what was presumably a deliberate tie-in on my part with Guy Masterson's reading the day before. He was even up for signing copies, although it was a next-day service (leave your dedication on a bit of paper and he'd do it later that night).

The second McLaren programme appears to have been a bit stronger than the first: Peter Peake's cheeky Pib And Pog for Aardman, Steven Weston's amusing story of forgotten aviation pioneers The Wrong Brothers, and from the previous year's LFF Philip Hunt's Ah Pook Is Here. To wrap up the day, two shows back to back in the ruined splendour of the Palladium: Luka 'brother of Christy Moore' Bloom doing his one-man musical show, and Club Swing from Australia doing naughty trapeze work.

Friday August 18th
12.00pm: Reader, Traverse
2.30pm: Cirque Surreal, Meadows
6.00pm: Nick Revell, Assembly Rooms
7.40pm: The Last Continent, Assembly Rooms
9.30pm: Desperado, Cameo
11.30pm: Mute Witness, Cameo

Ariel Dorfman's play Death And The Maiden was a worldwide smash, so it was a coup for the Traverse to pick up the world premiere of his new play Reader for the Fringe. Can't remember a thing about it, but I do have a copy of the script book, so hold on a tick... Hmm. Doesn't really work on the page, I think. The story of a censor who finds himself reading a story that mirrors his own life too closely for comfort, it's got an incredibly convoluted Chinese box structure where every actor's playing at least two roles – one in the 'real' world, one in the story world – and it's just too cerebral to have any sort of real impact. It may have worked better on stage, though. Cirque Surreal – 'Britain's first exclusively human designer circus', how nineties – tried to fill the gap that the disbanding of Archaos left but were simply too polite to pull it off. Nick Revell came back after a few years off the comedy circuit with a set that was closer to a themed monologue than a simple set of jokes, as was becoming the fashion.

The Lost Continent was, effectively, Steve Steen reading the best bits of Bill Bryson's American travel book – okay as far as it went, but that's as far as it went. Of the two Friday night movies at the Cameo, Desperado built on all the promise of Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi, more or less repeating the same story with more money, a decent star (Antonio Banderas) and lots of things blowing up. Director Anthony Waller was presumably looking for a similar rags-to-riches story to follow his first feature Mute Witness, but it wasn't really going to happen with a generic woman-in-peril movie like this. You had to admire his one big surprise gimmick, though: filming Alec Guinness saying generically threatening things in the back of a car, and then writing an entire movie to fit around those scenes several years later.

Back in 1978, when the Channel Tunnel was still in the development stages, only Michael Bentine had the foresight to imagine that its main form of transport would be a tram called Pottcorde. Saturday August 19th
1.00pm: Bloody Sunday, Randolph Studio
3.00pm: The Big Afternoon Out, George Hotel
6.10pm: Short Fat Kebab Shop Owner's Son II, Assembly Rooms
7.30pm: I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky, Lyceum
10.30pm: Phil Kay + Umbilical Brothers, Queen's Hall

Bloody Sunday was Vonnie Boston's play about the Tiananmen Square massacre and its repercussions, losing some of its impact from being seen entirely though the eyes of four gweilo expat characters with not a single Chinese face on stage. The Big Afternoon Out was a charity event for Scottish European Aid, held in the comedy-killing atmosphere of a suite in the George Hotel. Some nice names on the bill (including Bob Downe, Arnold Brown, Rich Hall and Dylan Moran), but the main thing I remember it for is the comedy memorabilia auction at the end, in which I picked up an original Michael Bentine production sketch from Potty Time for a measly thirty quid or so. (I ended up spending even more money on a hard suitcase so I could get it back home without scrunching it up.)

The Short Fat Kebab yadda yadda yadda was future prime time BBC1 star Omid Djalili: the II in the show title suggests that the previous year was when he first made it big, so this would have been me coming along late to see what all the fuss was all about. Not that I can remember a thing he said now, though. Ceiling was a lot more memorable, although probably part of that's down to me listening to the CD again a month or two ago. This was opera composer John Adams attempting to work within a traditional musical theatre framework, telling the stories of several LA residents brought together by an earthquake. The two musical styles don't really mesh properly, with the operatic vocals hobbling the raw emotion in June Jordan's libretto. But there are some terrific tunes in there, and I'll be curious to see if next year's Theatre Royal Stratford East revival gives it the street smarts it needs to really fly. Finally, a curious little double bill at the Queen's Hall, with Phil Kay continuing his slow slide from maverick genius to self-indulgence, and Aussie noisemakers The Umbilical Brothers providing support. I don't think they found a way for both acts to actually collaborate together, which is a shame.

Sunday August 20th
12.30pm: Pipe band parade, Princes Street
1.00pm: Fringe Sunday, Holyrood Park
7.30pm: Living In Oblivion, UCI Craig Park
10.30pm: Mephistopheles Smith, Pleasance

Pipe band parade? Really? Really? I can only assume that I'd brought along my camcorder that year and was desperately looking for something to film. Which may well mean that somewhere near where I'm writing this is a cardboard box containing a couple of VHS-C tapes of stuff I shot. But I can't be arsed, and I'm sure you can't be either, so YouTube can relax for now. If I did take my camcorder, I'd imagine I also shot off a few sneaky minutes of people performing at Fringe Sunday. Looking at the freebie programme, the main act I remember from the dozens busking at Holyrood Park was Scottish folkfunkers The Tartan Amoebas: by the end of the week I'd bought their CD.

A bus ride out to Craig Park to the now-demolished UCI cinema for Living In Oblivion, Tom DiCillo's lovely comedy about a self-indulgent director and his struggles to get his film completed. Always the sort of thing that goes down beautifully with film festival audiences, of course. Steve Buscemi leads a cast of mid-90s American indie favourites, but there's no denying that the real comedy gold comes when he gets Peter Dinklage mad. Final show of the night was Richard O'Brien in a cabaret performance of songs from proposed musical Disgracefully Yours, another of his attempts to recapture the success of Rocky Horror. (Someone should try a revival of his Shock Treatment some time, I think that one was better.)

Monday August 21st
12.00pm: The Holy Ground, Assembly Rooms
2.15pm: Haroun And The Sea Of Stories, Theatre Workshop
4.40pm: Arthur Smith's Hamlet, Pleasance
5.40pm: Pret A Porter, Pleasance Smallest Cinema
8.00pm: Trainspotting, Assembly Ballroom
10.30pm: Go Now, Filmhouse

A one-woman show to start the day: Mariah Neary in Dermot Bolger's The Holy Ground, where she played a woman struggling to get away from her sod of a husband. Not entirely a barrel of laughs, I think. Benchtours put on an adaptation of Haroun, Salman Rushdie's post-Satanic Verses children's book, and made a very fun job of it. Not as much fun as Arthur Smith's Hamlet, though, another one of his regular throw-everything-together-at-the-last-minute-and-see-what-sticks affairs. The gags started before you walked in the room – when you approached the woman yelling “programmes, 50p” in the lobby, she'd give you a programme and 50p. The show itself was a mishmash of Smith's ruminations on Hamlet, Sally Phillips working through her acrimonious split from a man she'd only refer to as Dick Kipper, and a climactic operatic recital of Cockney classic I've Seen Your Arse. Now that Smith's retired into the more sedate world of modern art, there's nobody really doing this sort of thing any more, which is a pity.

Another short at the Smallest Cinema that I can't remember seeing, and then off to the Assembly for Harry Gibson's stage adaptation of Trainspotting. At the time, the release of the movie was six months in the future: so Irvine Welsh's tales of Edinburgh junkies were still more of a culty word-of-mouth thing, as evidenced by the fanzines being flogged to queueing punters outside. (I bought his cheeky tourist guide to Edinburgh, with a cover featuring Greyfriars Bobby with a syringe sticking out of his paw.) Gibson's version managed to keep on touring even after the movie came out, mainly because its focus is very different – using a cast of four, it doesn't shy away from the darkest elements of Welsh's writing in the way that the film does. By coincidence, the future Begbie was in the film I saw to wrap up the day. Go Now had a Jimmy McGovern script, Michael Winterbottom directing, and Robert Carlyle in the lead as an amateur footballer coming to terms with the onset of MS. Made for the BBC, even talent like that couldn't stop it from becoming another Disease Of The Week tellymovie, but they tried pretty damn hard.

The Wow Show. Not the best photo out there, I'll admit. Tuesday August 22nd
11.15am: Latin!, DeMarco Theatre
3.30pm: Assassins, Adam House
6.10pm: Simon Fanshawe, Assembly Rooms
7.30pm: The Wow Show, Assembly Rooms
9.15pm: Fascinating Aida, Assembly Rooms

I think this may have been the one and only time that I had anything to do with Edinburgh Fringe legend Richard DeMarco. His venue was putting on Stephen Fry's short play Latin! or Tobacco And Boys, the text of which I was already familiar with as Fry had used it to pad out the back of one of his books. Its prep school setting didn't have too many surprises, but the opening – in which a teacher addresses the audience as his students and literally hurls our marked homework back in our faces – evoked a curious sense of nostalgia and fear. Then it was off to see Northern Theatre Company take on Stephen Sondheim's musical about the 13 people (to date) who've tried to kill a US President. I do like a bit of Sondheim, but this one hasn't stuck in the memory.

And the same applies, to some degree, to the comedy triple-decker at the Assembly Rooms that made up the rest of the day. Fanshawe had taken three years off and was back doing vaguely topical standup again. The Wow Show were continuing to do their anarchic post-music hall larking around, although I remember them being much more fun when they did a very similar show in London. Having them chase you out of a West End theatre as part of a fake fire drill was something you don't get to experience every day, whereas in Edinburgh that sort of nonsense happens all the time. Finally came Fascinating Aida, who have split up and reformed more times that I could care to count: I'm pretty sure I was at their first farewell show in 1989. This was the classic Dillie Keane/Adele Anderson/Marilyn Cutts lineup in what I think was their first Edinburgh appearance since their 1994 reunion.

Wednesday August 23rd
11.00am: Terry Pratchett, Book Festival
3.25pm: Pub Fiction, Pleasance Smallest Cinema
4.00pm: Women In Uniform, Pleasance
5.30pm: Archaos Bikers, Meadows
7.30pm: Lanark, Assembly Hall
10.30pm: John Hegley, Pleasance

Lovely old Terry Pratchett. Why can't some other tosser have Alzheimer's instead of him? Anyway, you can imagine what a warm and funny experience a Book Festival event in his company would be. I got him to sign a copy of the Mort graphic novel on the way out, too. Pub Fiction, another film at the Smallest Cinema that I have no memory of, was presumably chosen as a filler in the slot just before Women In Uniform. Those women were Mel and Sue, a couple of years before they went on to mild telly success on Channel 4. They'd been gathering a reputation at Edinburgh since the previous year's Kittens Go Grrr!, and it was fairly obvious back then that mainstream success couldn't be too far away.

Archaos Bikers appear to have been a late addition – they're certainly not listed in the Fringe programme, anyway. With the full-blown Archaos circus having died a death owing to lack of funding, a few of the motorcycle performers got together to try to keep something going on the Meadows. It wasn't the same, though, and never could be. Now if they'd kept a couple of the chainsaws, they might have got somewhere... TAG Theatre Company of Glasgow produced an adaptation of Alasdair Gray's modern Scottish classic Lanark for the International Festival, and the one thing I can remember is that I was asleep for large chunks of it. Hey, it'd been a long week. I wrapped up my final night with yet another John Hegley poetry performance: I assume by now I was treating him as comfort viewing, always a familiar presence every year. Having said that, it looks like I've never been to another of his Edinburgh shows since this particular one. Maybe I'll make more of an effort in 2010.

Thursday August 24th
11.00am: Steven Berkoff, Book Festival
1.00pm: Rocco And His Brothers, Cameo
5.00pm: Richard Eyre & Simon Callow, Book Festival

Steven Berkoff's Book Festival talk was another event that wasn't in the published programme, but that's the way he rolls these days – just turn up and rely on word of mouth to generate an audience. (It's an approach that worked well in 2008 for his last-minute production of On The Waterfront.) He was full of entertaining and bitchy anecdotes, as ever. My favourite was the story of his playing the villain in duff Cindy Crawford vehicle Fair Game, which he did as one of his usual Big Mad Russians with lots of sweeping arm gestures. Except in testing, they found that people didn't like the baddie being Russian, so he had to go in and redub the whole part with a much more restrained accent. Of course, the arm gestures no longer matched the voice, but nobody seemed to care too much about that...

Berkoff has always been about doing anything it takes to keep an audience engaged: “sleep is a perfectly valid form of theatre criticism... if the mind isn't being stimulated, the eyes are the first things to go.” It's a thought that came back to me during the afternoon screening of Visconti's magnificent Rocco And His Brothers, a tie-in for an on-stage interview with screenwriter Suso Cecchi D'Amico the next day. It's a great film, but it had been a long week, and I found my eyelids drooping several times during it. And I caught myself going through a peculiar mental process, something like this: “Oh, dear, I'm a bit sleepy. I can't really watch the film like this. Never mind, if I keep my eyes shut and just listen I'll still be okay. Yes, that's working. [long pause] No, wait a minute, I don't speak Italian...” Back to the Book Festival for a full-on theatrical luvviefest – Callow talking about his book on Orson Welles, Eyre talking about his book on himself – and then a dash to Waverley to get the last train back to London, making it into King's Cross shortly after midnight.

1995 wasn't a great Edinburgh – there weren't any moments that took my breath away like there were in 1994, and no major discoveries (I picked up on both Omid Djalili and Mel & Sue a year too late). Possibly the low-key silliness of Arthur Smith's Hamlet was the Fringe highlight, with Desperado and Living In Oblivion as the best movies (both of which I'd watch again in the London Film Festival a couple of months later). But every time I glance up from my telly, I can see hanging above it the Michael Bentine picture that I picked up for just £30 that year. And that works as a pretty good memento of a festival for me. Being a monkey, and all.


Old Lag

Yes without getting out my diaries cannot even remember if I was there but that of course may be an indication that it was an excellent festival. Despite following the progress of personal computers since 1981 would still not take the plunge at home for another year. What saddens me as that back then a PC and e-mail really used to count. You could e-mail serious people and they would reply because it was such a novel medium. Now they do not give a toss and probably have pleb filters on their machines. Maybe I should get into Twitter. Suppose the internet is now a very valuable resource for doing things but no longer a tool for the cheap or the rare.

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