In a parallel timeline where a bat and a pangolin didn't conspire to bring down the planet (allegedly), The Belated Birthday Girl and I would have been in Edinburgh between August 22nd and 29th for the Festival, along with a dozen or so of our pals.
But we weren't. Which is why the Fringe Society, desperate to make a bit of cash, was reduced to the stunt you can see illustrated here - printing a replica of the 2020 Fringe programme with entirely blank pages, and selling it as a notebook for eight quid. Tony Cowards was, I think, the first person to make the observation that "the financial impact of cancelling the Edinburgh Fringe due to Coronavirus shouldn't be underestimated: potentially it could mean hundreds of comedians being thousands of pounds better off." But there were an awful lot of people out there who'd suddenly lost a source of income. As a result, during August many Festival regulars moved online in an attempt to fill the gap and raise a few quid for themselves, as I've previously documented here.
As I said back then: "even if you can't make it physically to Edinburgh (and most of us can't), there's still plenty of stuff happening. How many of these The BBG and I are actually going to see this year is another matter entirely, of course." Well, here's your answer to that: 23. We put aside a week at the end of August to catch as many of the online shows as we could across all the major festivals - International, Film and Book. Various scheduling issues (including watching the finale of Kodo's Earth Celebration 2020 online) meant that we couldn't stick to our original dates, so our week ended up being August 24th-31st. But we still covered a fair bit, and you can read about it now. It's only a month late.
Monday August 24th
We never usually hit the ground running on our first day in Meatspace Edinburgh - there's always a large part of it spent travelling there and planning out our schedule. Virtual Edinburgh kind of works out the same way this year, as The BBG and I start off by looking through our shortlist of events and seeing what's actually achievable. Some of them are complete one-offs that have to be seen at a specific time: others are being kept archived online till at least the end of the Festival, and in some cases beyond that. So quite a few of the events I'm going to talk about here are still available for you to experience right now.
That's certainly the case with My Light Shines On, a BBC Scotland special put together by the International Festival. It's intended to be a celebration of the whole event, but it's heavy on the EIF content, as is their perogative. The Fringe is largely represented by a collection of grumpy unemployed standups wandering the streets: the Book Festival by the usual local authors reading passages about the city from around Charlotte Square. The rest of it is a collection of beautifully filmed performances, all done with the relevant degree of social distancing. The telly version could have done with a little more of the spectacular lightshow that gives the programme its name, but it still makes for an enjoyably broad start to the week: and full-length versions of many of the performances are still available on a YouTube playlist.
Tuesday August 25th
Day two and we're already messing up the plan. We've taken a week off work for this, and after nearly six months stuck in London we feel the need for a short trip out of town. Our route for once isn't driven by the availability of a BrewDog bar, but by something more fundamental - which train company is the least likely to kill us with its approach to Covid safety? For the record, the most likely is GWR, who've suspended all seat reservations and are letting passengers sort out where they sit for themselves. Conversely, the safest one in terms of keeping passengers away from each other appears to be LNER, who ironically should have been taking us to Edinburgh last weekend. Instead, they're taking us to Lincoln for £7 each way.
We use the travelling time to investigate the Traverse Breakfast Plays, which this year have neatly pivoted to audio-only podcast form, with a different one being uploaded each morning. Today's selection is Contemporary Political Ethics (Or, How To Cheat) by Jamie Cowan. It's a nicely cynical piece about a young lad who's sent to work with two electoral officers as a punishment, only to find himself in the middle of a very very small political scandal. It initially takes me by surprise that it's a reading of a stage play rather than a purpose-built bit of radio, as evidenced by the audible stage directions - to be fair, that's the approach they take when they do the Breakfast Plays on stage, too. Once you get used to that, it's a fun accompaniment to our journey.
We get into Lincoln just in time for lunch, and work through a carefully planned-out schedule - sandwiches at Bell's Tea Shop, getting a good look at the Magna Carta in Lincoln Castle, grabbing a friendly craft beer or two at Beerheadz, and having a rather nice pub dinner at the Royal William IV. Our first night sleeping away from home in nearly half a year is spent at the Premier Inn Lincoln City Centre, whose wi-fi unfortunately isn't good enough for the 720k Twitch stream we'd planned to watch before bedtime. Instead, we make do with a fuzzy YouTube video of Luke Wright: The Boxing Baroness, a half-hour ballad in which the poet tells the true story of Georgian noblewoman Mary-Ann Pearce and why she fought men in pubs. He keeps it all just on the classy side of doggerel, as the material demands.
Wednesday August 26th
Still in Lincoln, we spend our morning at The Collection county museum, grab a quick lunch in its cafe, and then get the train back home again. Our entertainment of choice for the journey is Daniel Kitson's It's The Fireworks Talking, a recording of one of his Edinburgh standup sets from 2007. It's one of his sets with a theme, in this case the little emotional moments that make up a life. (Having said that, because my phone's audio player is accidentally stuck on shuffle, I start to realise that Kitson's extended sets are basically modular in structure, and it doesn't matter too much what order you hear the various bits in.) Back in August, Kitson was kindly donating some of the money raised from sales of this recording directly to the Stand, so it's a valid thing to count as a show for this year, honestly. I even get a strong visual image of the place at one point when he obligingly directs a punter towards the toilets.
Back home, we catch our first Shedinburgh show, a rather lovely idea in which a series of performances get one-off unrepeatable paid-for streamings direct from a shed - either a purpose-built one on the stage of Edinburgh's Traverse or London's Soho Theatre, or an actual physical shed owned by the artist in question. Tonight we get Labels by Joe Sellman-Leava, a monologue about growing up in England as a... well, it's partly about how nationality and skin colour make that a difficult sentence to complete, when the question 'where are you from?' inevitably gets followed up by 'no, where are you from from?' Sellman-Leava gets some uncomfortable white guilt reactions with his pitch-perfect impersonations of great British racists throughout history, but his story's told with warmth and humour, and he even gets a bit of audience interaction going with the people watching at home thanks to a neat gimmick with a sheet of A4 paper.
Thursday August 27th
We had plans to start our Book Festival earlier than this, but a scheduling clash on Sunday with an overcomplicated breakfast meant we missed our planned opening event. Happily, the Festival turns out to be archiving its online events, so we're not really missing anything. As it stands, the only Bookfest event we get to watch live is this one with Mieko Kawakani. She's a Japanese writer we don't know, but we've been to a couple of events this year about translation of modern Japanese literature into English, so it's kind of a theme for us for 2020. It's hard to see how they could have done a session like this in the real life festival, a rare example of a non-English-speaking author reading their work in their own language (with translated text displayed on screen). The book itself (Breasts And Eggs) sounds like a fascinating insight into what it's like for single women living in Japan, where even simple things like access to contraception become complicated.
Later on we catch our second Shedinburgh show, Search Party, which features Inua Elams, who we last saw in the non-shed version of the Traverse three years ago. Here, he's taking suggestions of words from the (tiny and well-spread out) live audience, and searching through a database of his poetry to find poems that contain those words. It's not always as seamless a performance as he'd like - the search keeps pulling up essays of his that are too long to read out - but it's a fun way of building a random element into a show, and Elams clearly enjoys the challenge. We wrap up the day with a recording of the show we failed to watch on Tuesday evening due to bandwidth issues, Comics Solving Problems. It turns out to be a regular running webcast that's just piggybacking on the Free Fringe for a couple of weeks, in which comedians Steve N Allen and Erich McElroy take the traditional wry sideways glance at the news, with the occasional bit of banter with viewers in the Twitch comments sidebar. It doesn't do anything new, but it does it with decent gags and a surprising degree of slickness (Allen, in particular, shows his background in radio deejaying in the way he deals with comments).
Friday August 28th
Traditionally, there's always one day in our Festival where we just overdo it: this year, today is that day. We get ourselves ready for an 11am start, to best recreate the atmosphere of a Queens Hall morning concert. The BBC have been broadcasting old shows from the venue's archive during August, and today we hit the iPlayer for a 2015 performance by percussionist Colin Currie and friends. We're mainly here for the minimalist-heavy first half, notably a Steve Reich quartet which emphasises just how important the vibraphone's been to the Reich sound. We've never actually listened to one of these on the radio before, so it comes as a surprise to hear what they do during the interval, which is broadcast a completely unrelated performance of a Rachmaninov piano sonata. From there it's off to the Book Festival, where Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong is calmly but firmly discussing the state of his country, and raising the alarming possibility that just appearing at this event will result in his arrest. (Thankfully, it doesn't.)
The afternoon chillout slot makes for the perfect time to watch A Young Man Dressed As A Gorilla Dressed As An Old Man Sits Rocking In A Rocking Chair For Fifty-Six Minutes And Then Leaves, as discussed earlier here. After a break for dinner, it's off to Spain for a livestream of Jeroni Obrador's play Magallanes.0, presented by theatre company Tshock Cultura Emocional under the banner of the C venue. It's the sort of show that has C written all over it (not like that) - a one-man performance in which Fernando de Magallanes muses about his round-the-world voyage and wonders why, 500 years after it, no-one ever comes to visit him. And then, someone does. The production's done on a bit of a shoestring, and the subtitles have trouble keeping up with Rodo Gener's full-on performance, but the quantity and velocity of its increasingly surreal ideas keep it moving along nicely. It's a bit of a shame that if the YouTube hit counter is telling the truth, the online audience never gets into double figures, but maybe that makes it even more like Fringe theatre.
We finish off the day with a couple of events organised and promoted by the Fringe Society themselves. AJ Bell Fringe On Friday is their attempt at a weekly showcase of Fringe acts, a pay-per-view stream where punters can choose where their ticket money goes - to a central Fringe fund, or to a specific performer or venue you can choose from their list. We decide to give the Queen's Hall our nine quid, and in exchange we get an hour-long compilation that's surprisingly heavy on the cabaret side - from Courtney Act's jolly turn as compere, to dance group Briefs' extraordinary demonstration of what white underpants look like under UV light. The Fringe Society has also been working with Comedy Central to assemble a new comedy showcase, and Comedy Central Best Of The Fringe on TV wraps up our day with a half-hour selection of young comics hosted by Jamali Maddix. The TV edit's far too bitty to show what the ten acts can really do, and is more useful as a way of pushing people towards the YouTube playlist of full sets that I've linked to above (although Helen Bauer's set has curiously fallen off it). Thanyia Moore's confidence and Leo Reich's genderwobbliness come off best overall, though the main thing the telly compilation does do is emphasise the sheer weirdness of performing comedy to a Zoom audience as a grid of 25 people in close-up. It's an unnatural way to watch people watching comedians, and you find yourself scanning them one at a time to decide for yourself, to take an example purely at random, which one's the most racist.
Saturday August 29th
For reasons I can't quite recall to this day, when I went to the Edinburgh Festival for the first time in 1989, I spent one morning of my precious time at the world's greatest arts festival watching Batman at the cinema, a film I'd literally already seen just five days earlier. In a similar fashion, today we put culture to one side temporarily to watch Tenet at the BFI IMAX, just like Tom Cruise did. You remember how when we went to Lincoln a few days ago, it was a perfectly adequate city that became a bit more interesting just because we hadn't done something like that in several months? Well, that's Tenet.
Back home, we try to get back into the Festival vibe, with mixed results. The closest we come is The Complete Works Of Shakespeare But Just The Deaths* (*and the gory bits too), a show by Mancunian troupe Cream Faced Loons (which in the current circumstances basically means artistic director Abey Bradbury performing sketches on her own in her bedroom, in between pre-filmed clips featuring the rest of the group). There's an inevitable Reduced Shakespeare Company vibe to the show, especially in the delight they take in pointing out numerous places where the Bard got it wrong. They still haven't learned the lesson that no show of this type should ever include a rap number, but the charm of the ensemble (especially Bradbury herself) keeps it all bubbling nicely.
From there we travel counterintuitively to Glasgow for Saturday Night Live At The Stand, the final episode in the venue's five-month series of weekly streamed comedy shows. In hindsight, the Stand's decision to stop the streams at this point because they thought Scottish venues would soon be allowed to re-open again was a tad optimistic. But the show is as strong as ever, with compere Mark Nelson leaning into the teeth-like-Freddie-Mercury heckles he's been getting since March and presenting the show wearing the yellow jacket and everything. We wrap up with our usual post-Stand dance in front of the telly, in this case to a recording of Mr Scruff Live At The Fringe from when we saw him there back in 2017.
Sunday August 30th
We're slowing down by now, as you can tell. Our first event is as late as 5pm, when we catch Fred Macaulay In Conversation, a Zoom event organised by the Gilded Balloon. For two quid, you can watch the show as a basic one-way webinar: for a tenner, you get what they call 'front row access' which means you can ask questions too. We're happy enough in the cheap seats, watching Macaulay having a relaxed chat to Jo Brand and Justin Moorhouse. There's some fun banter derived from Moorhouse being younger than the other two: 'who was in your year?' asks Brand, coming up with a whole new approach to categorising comedians.
We don't have any concrete plans after this, which makes the happy accident that follows all the better - the equivalent of stumbling across a venue while you're walking down the street and peeking in just to see what's going on. We find out on Twitter that unbeknownst to us, the Voodoo Rooms have been streaming performances from their stage all weekend. We get in just in time for the last one, Space Cadette, a solo cabaret show in which Laurie Black tells the story of her trip into space with songs, gags and cheap props. I thought one woman shows with a narrative thread and songs had been permanently ruined for me by Frances Barber and Musik last year, but this one gets by thanks to a firm sense of its own silliness and Black's enjoyable off-mic self-heckling - possibly a trick inspired by Andrew O'Neill, who's credited as director.
We wrap up with Greatest Late & Live, one of a short series of compilation videos from the Gilded Balloon's most notorious show. To be honest, there's not enough yelling or spewing to make it really representative of L&L, and these clips could be taken from any standup showcase. Two performers stand out from a collection of pretty big names - Hannah Gadsby is seen doing a set in 2010 of precisely the sort of material she renounced spectacularly in Nanette several years later, while Noel Fielding's trademark whimsy pays off unexpectedly in this environment thanks to him delivering it so fast that nobody's got any time to heckle.
Monday August 31st
We start the final day with one more visit to the Traverse in podcast form with Doomsdays, a Breakfast Play written by Conor O'Loughlin. We start in 2012, when cult leader Senga is telling her followers that the Mayans got it right and the world's about to end. Nine years later, two of those followers are going to confront her about what went wrong. It's the sort of premise that would make for a standard Radio 4 play, and I don't mean that in a good way: once the situation's revealed itself, the plot's stumbling around for the rest of its running time looking for an ending, rather than having a definite place to go.
Our final Book Festival event of the year actually took place on Thursday, but in the end it works out better watching it a few days later on catchup. Stories & Scran is an intriguing idea - along with a presentation of community writing organised by the Edinburgh local outreach programme Citizen, there's also a three-course meal delivered to viewers to eat while they watch. Obviously, this only applies to Edinburgh viewers: for those of us outside Citizen's catchment area, a set of recipe cards could be emailed to us on request. Unfortunately, even though I put in my order for the recipes well in advance, I didn't get them until the day before the broadcast, whereupon I found that the starter needed at least 24 hours of prep time. So we put off watching the show until Monday, and just cook the main course: our roasted cauliflower steak with braised lentils and gremolata make a nice accompaniment to a pleasantly community-focussed show. It's a community that has nothing to do with us, but it's nice to feel a part of it anyway.
We finish off with a last minute change of plan. Attila The Stockbroker has been celebrating 40 years of performing with a series of Monday night shows, but it turns out that the last one has been cancelled, or at least turned into an even bigger affair that's been postponed till the day of his 40th anniversary. So instead we have to make do with repeating a show from earlier in his run. Attila The Stockbroker: Bellocose is his tribute to fellow Sussex resident Hilaire Belloc: Attila's been a fan since childhood, growing up on his macabre children's poems and then discovering his adult work. He throws in more Reflects The Outdated Attitudes Of His Time disclaimers than a seventies TV show on Talking Pictures, but fairly highlights all of the contradictory aspects of Belloc's personality, both good and bad.
So that was our Covid Edinburgh. Or - and we have to consider this as a possibility - our first Covid Edinburgh. There's no way of telling at this stage whether our rolled-over accommodation booking for 2021 will be usable next August. But hopefully, the cash we've been donating as we've been watching these various performances might help the next Festival to be a bit more in-person than the previous one. I hope so, anyway.