Reviewed today: Alexei Sayle, Barry's Audio Tour Of The Fringe, Nate Silver, The Poet Speaks, Stewart Lee: Much A-Stew About Nothing, Tony Benn & Richard Holloway: Two Old Gits.
This sort of thing happens to Silver a lot, though. In his quest to popularise a wholly empirical form of what he calls 'data journalism', he's frequently accused of bias by whoever his predictions come out against. But it's all about the numbers, not dubious insider sources - whenever he says a candidate has a 90% chance of winning, people will always interpret that as meaning 100%, totally ignoring that one in ten chance of failure. In an engaging talk, Silver talks about the automated methodologies he uses for prediction, the safeguards he uses to reduce sources of error, and the implications of his Five Thirty-Eight blog moving from the New York Times to ESPN, broadening its scope to include predictions in other fields. "I'm already covering politics like it's sport..."
Silver gets another namecheck - or, at least, a passing reference to "that American polling guru" - in our second event of the day, the delightfully titled Two Old Gits. Tony Benn and Richard Holloway fit that description nicely, but it has to be said that Benn is looking a little frail in his 89th year. With a Fringe schedule that includes events like this as well as a preview of an upcoming biographical film, you do wonder if this is the equivalent of his farewell tour. But there may be an extent to which he's playing up on that perception: the biggest laugh of the hour comes when he's asked "do you tweet?" and he freezes in utter bafflement, his teacup raised halfway to his mouth. (Actually, it turns out that the answer to that question is "yes, but not very much.")
Alan Warner from the Herald, who's moderating this event, gleefully draws parallels between the two men - Holloway reaching a position of huge authority in the Scottish Church, Benn doing the same in the Labour Party, and then both of them gradually stirring up trouble in their respective organisations until they had to leave. Holloway's the more articulate and crowd-pleasing of the two on this showing, Benn preferring at this juncture of his life to get his point across in as few words as it needs. Warner gets a few moments of his own too, introducing the subject of independence with a suggestion that Scots "want the Britishness of Mo Farrah, but not of Boris Johnson." There's some spiky discussion, looking at how the Church and the Labour Party have both lost their way over the years, and what can be done about that. I hope I'm still as passionate about things at their age.
There's an obscure Canadian comic playing at the Fringe this year. A man with a silly voice and a Mexican wrestler's mask covered in bacon, he's described in the Fringe programme as "programme-associate for the forthcoming series of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle". It didn't take punters long to unpack the subtext behind that sentence, so inevitably Baconface tickets are now impossible to get hold of. The BBG is a little disappointed by this, even though we've already snapped up tickets for Lee's main show: her theory is, his faux-arrogant divide-the-audience schtick has been going on for a while now, and she's like to see him trying something different.
I disagree with this, mainly because of the way he divides the audience today: he puts me in the good part, and everyone else in the bad part. This all stems from a dog-whistle-frequency gag he makes early in the show about Ricky Gervais' Derek, which nobody else in the room laughs at apart from me. "I'm going to target the rest of the show just at you," he says to me, and them dumps me like a used Kleenex five minutes later when a gag falls so flat even I don't laugh at it.
Anyway: you know what a Stewart Lee show is like by now, especially one like this which is him dry-running routines for his 2014 TV show. We get two half hour sets as a result. The first one focusses on the Tory party, the second one on prejudice in general and UKIP in particular. The second part works best for me, taking a single statement from a UKIP official and stretching it way beyond breaking point, tying it all up with a smartly constructed punchline. As usual, the technical control is breathtaking, but happily it's one of the years when he has jokes too.
The next act on the same stage is Alexei Sayle, and coincidentally he credits Stewart Lee for inspiring him for getting back into standup after years of dabbling in other things. I actually saw an early comeback appearance of his late in 2011, as he compered one of Robin Ince’s Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People shows. At the time, he seemed a little nervous and unsure of himself – you could tell it had been well over a decade since he’d last done this. Let’s just say nervousness is no longer a problem for him. Particularly now he’s been advised that he can get away with recycling his old material and just updating the names. “Hey, Dizzee Rascal! Fuck you for sinking the Belgrano!”
It’s great to have Sayle back on the circuit – for one thing, it reminds you just how bloodless standup has become in the days since, as he puts it, “I invented alternative comedy.” At the climax of his set, there’s a routine about Boris Johnson that’s funny as hell at the time, but shocks you later as you realise no other comedian out there right now would have attempted it, with the possible exception of Jerry Sadowitz (who wouldn’t have bothered with some of the subtle stuff at the start). None of the current crop of comedians have this degree of anger, and Sayle has plenty of it to spare (to the extent that you fear for his health): anger at his family, his contemporaries, his former employers in broadcasting and publishing, and – most of all – himself. This is just a great hour of comedy: it’s only a nostalgia trip in the sense that it makes you remember the days when more comics took these sorts of risks.
Back to the Playhouse theatre for more Philip Glass music in The Poet Speaks, as he accompanies Patti Smith reading poetry in a tribute to Allen Ginsberg. The only way this show could be more New York is if you layered pastrami on top of it.
The first thing I ever heard of Patti Smith’s was a track called Piss Factory, which was basically her reading one of her own poems over a piano backing. I heard it as a teenager, and it blew me away – the sheer intensity of her delivery of the spoken word was something I’d never heard before. So it’s not surprise that when she does this to poems by Allen Ginsberg, the effect is even more extraordinary. Glass’ music is rather functional in this situation – most of his backing here is recycled from existing earlier works – but its steady pulse supports the rise and fall of the words magnificently.
It’s a busy evening – aside from the two collaborating on settings of Ginsberg poems, they also perform a similar task on Smith’s own poetry. Surprisingly, her delivery of her own work isn’t quite as good. And both artists also get a solo slot apiece in the middle of the performance. Smith butters up her audience with readings from Robert Louis Stephenson, and sings a couple of songs, including an unexpected Royal Baby reworking of John Lennon’s Beautiful Boy. Glass runs through three of his solo piano pieces back to back, and as much as I appreciate the structure of the evening I’d have to say that’s probably one too many. Finally, the whole thing is performed over a backdrop of images from Ginsberg’s photo album, including his own insanely detailed handwritten annotations. The whole thing adds up to a hugely mind-expanding evening, with all the parts coming together into an even more significant whole.
Let’s finish off the day by celebrating the comedy stylings of Barry Ferns, one of those people who’s only really famous on the Fringe and in no other context at all. I first came across his work in a 1999 sketch show he co-wrote called The Leisure Virus. Two years after that came Doreen, an early experiment in anti-comedy with a killer ending. Since then, he’s largely been best known for parlaying the This Belongs To Lionel Richie brand into a series of bizarre sketch shows, including some performed on top of Arthur’s Seat.
This year, his contributions to the Fringe programme include a walking tour that he doesn’t even need to be present for. Barry’s Audio Tour Of The Fringe is available as a 100MB MP3 downloadable from his website – load it onto your player, and you’ll have the soundtrack to a walk around some of the festival’s more notorious locations. It takes me a bit of time to do this, because we don’t make the decision to do the tour until we’re out of the house. Downloading the file over 3G on my phone works well until we get to the area around the Stand, where the signal drops to an absolute crawl. Even an attempt to use the wi-fi at Treacle fails because the thieving bastards in the flats upstairs keep leeching it, allegedly. Still, after an on-off period of about four hours, the file’s ready to play.
It’s actually quite an entertaining tour, which is a relief given the sheer bloody effort it took to download it. Starting at the Tron, Ferns narrates a walk round some of the more famous Fringe venues, bringing in big names like Arthur Smith and Simon Munnery to tell their stories relating to each location. As he says at the start, you could listen to it without doing the walk, but it wouldn’t make any sense – maybe you could follow in Google StreetView instead. There are two minor flaws worth pointing out: at one point he refers to Victoria Terrace when he means Victoria Street, and at another he asks you to go to a bar on Cowgate which is now the SoCo building site. Bear those in mind, and you should have fun following in his footsteps: although for best effect, you really should do it during the daytime, rather than at 10.30pm like we did. But at that time, if nothing else, his description of the hellhole that is Cowgate makes perfect sense: “if you’ve still got your iPod at this stage, well done.”