It's like Hong Kong, really. You fly into town, crash onto the hotel bed, wake up insanely late the following morning and realise you don't know what the hell you're going to do. So what's the no-brainer option for the jeglagged first day tourist? You shop. Well, it's a similar story in Edinburgh. It's your first full day at the Festival, you're hung over from the previous night and you've got no idea what you're seeing today. What's the no-brainer option here? Mervyn Stutter's Pick Of The Fringe.
Now in its tenth year, Stutter's daily anthology show has long been a firm favourite of Spank and the Pals, and it's been our Sunday morning choice of first show in 1998, 1999 and now 2001. He's got a dedicated following that comes back year after year, as proved by his opening poll of why people were there in the first place. Stutter refers to it as a "wonderful conspiracy" that he can pull pretty full houses every day even though reviewers never seem to write about his show. Not counting this one, of course.
Pick Of The Fringe is a working illustration of the phrase "could be good, could be shit". Any show that's entirely dependent on the seven acts who just happen to be available to perform on the day is always going to be variable in quality. But Stutter says at the end of this one that he thinks it's his best ever, and it's hard to disagree. Antonio Forcione hilariously abuses acoustic guitars to the point of destruction and still gets some corking tunes out of them. Two theatre companies perform short extracts from their plays, Best Friends and Very, Very Small Things. Peepolykus (pictured here) do a fantastically silly routine involving a man having a couple of hundred Rich Tea biscuits crammed into his mouth to the tune of Zorba The Greek. Linda Marlowe gallops through a high-speed monologue from Decadence by her old pal Steven Berkoff. Phil Nichol organises an incredibly funny jam session involving six randomly-picked audience members with little or no previous musical experience. Mac Tontoh closes the affair with some spiffy Afropop that makes you desperate to see him in an unseated venue (hopefully we will on Tuesday). And Stutter holds it all together with his friendly interviewing and a couple of satirical songs. His Michael Portillo medley includes a snippet from Pictures Of Lilley, for reasons which are hopefully unclear to lawyers.
Elsewhere in the Pleasance complex, three middle-aged men are talking about their decadent past in the world of rock journalism. Nowadays, Andrew Collins and Stuart Maconie can be seen as gobs for hire on endless nostalgia clip shows, while David Quantick was most recently visible as the public face of the writing team for the Brass Eye Paedogeddon Special. But those of us of a certain age remember their early days in the late eighties as cub reporters for the New Musical Express. Lloyd Cole Knew My Father is their three-man sit-down comedy show, doubling as a memoir and a guide on how to become a rock hack.
The key problem with this is that it's very obviously a written show. All three have worked successfully on radio in the past reading their work: sitting on stage and performing it is another matter entirely, particularly on the occasions when they try to break up the visual monotony by standing up and trying some 'acting'. Quantick comes off the best of the three here: as the biggest, he makes the awkward moments of physical comedy funnier by the simple approach of being more awkward than the other two. And his West Country lugubriousness contrasts nicely with the Northern cynicism of Collins and Maconie. But you do get the feeling this would all be a lot more at home on the wireless.
Having said that, all three are undeniably funny writers, and there are some lovely moments in their reminiscences. Both Maconie and Quantick own up to having reviewed concerts they never attended: Collins tries to top them by claiming he made up his review of the 1969 Altamont Festival, and nobody would have noticed if he hadn't finished the piece with "at least nobody was stabbed to death". Quantick explains his approach to album reviewing: "You know how in Misery, the writer finishes his work, then lights up a fag and gets pissed? That's what you do when you review albums, except in the reverse order." And the show ends with some great true-life anecdotes of rock star excess. Particularly like the story of a prank where Keith Moon and Viv Stanshall had an argument in a clothes shop and ripped a pair of trousers in two, only to be followed in by a one-legged accomplice who looked at the torn pants and said "Great! I'll take them both."
Throughout the day, Edinburgh is awash with rain. Yes, I know, and in other news the Pope has been found to be Catholic, but this is terrible rain. It's a problem for people at the Book Festival like Mark Steel, who has to perform in a tent while the rain audibly thrashes off the roof. This is a slightly strange experience for those of us who remember Steel's stand-up performances on the Fringe, and he feels the same way: "Ten years ago I was at the Fringe, now I've matured and progressed to the Book Festival. And in another ten years I'll be at the TV Festival in my role as Controller of BBC2."
These days Steel tends to do more writing than stand-up, including a weekly column in The Independent. His reason for being at the Book Festival is the recent publication of Reasons To Be Cheerful, a memoir describing his work in activist politics since the mid-Seventies: From Punk To New Labour Through The Eyes Of A Dedicated Troublemaker, as the book's subtitle has it. His reading is actually more of a stand-up set with fewer jokes, including three passages read directly from the book. He starts by describing his childhood in Swanley in Kent, and the way in which the old certainties were starting to unravel during that time. People were looking for someone to blame, and right-wing groups began to grow in popularity: Steel's earliest experience of political activism was with the Anti-Nazi League, which worked to combat the growing rise of racist feeling. From there it was a short step to the SWP, and he felt proud to be doing his bit to make Britain a socialist utopia. Except six months after he joined, Thatcher came to power, "so I was just a fucking jinx, basically."
Steel talks amusingly about the awakening political consciousness of a working-class teenager, trying hard to get his head around concepts like sexism. "You mean it's like racism but with women? How the hell does that work? 'I was down the High Street the other day and it was full of bloody women! It's not our own country any more...'" He tells stories of his days selling Socialist Worker in shopping centres, and notes that the most radical people he talked to were pensioners, who didn't want to see Thatcher starting her own revival of what happened in the thirties. "Old dears would say to me, 'Get rid of Thatcher? You don't wanna do that. You wanna rip her skin off, cover her in honey and let wasps loose on her.'" And he finishes off with an expression of his optimism for the future despite the endless compromises of New Labour. "Blair comes on telly and says his three platforms are 'education, education and education'. And then he introduces tuition fees! At least Heseltine never had the balls to say in public 'our three platforms are mining, mining and mining'."
What's left to say about Otis Lee Crenshaw? We love him. You lot love him too, judging from the frequent letters I get from people desperate to track down his Australian concert CD. Those of you who've been asking about it should note that a new CD's just come out on Universal called London Not Tennessee, which is a much better representation of the set that won him a Perrier last year.
The CD's a poor representation of this year's set, though, as he's dumped a lot of the old favourites (Fattening Up, Drunk, Can You Show Me On The Doll Where He Touched You) and replaced them with even more new songs, played by the Black Liars augmented with fiddle and steel guitar. Obvious highlight is the heartfelt Let's Get Together And Kill George Bush, which is apparently OK to sing providing it's obvious that it's satire, "so laugh you bastards!" The amount of between-song banter seems to be higher this time round, but that's not a problem as it highlights Rich Hall's ability to improvise his way out of any situation. A couple of the front row feign amnesia when he asks them where they come from, and he plays on that for the rest of the show, asking them questions and cutting them off with "how would you know that, you can't even remember where you live." In an incredibly touching finale, Otis' prison rape ballad He Almost Looks Like You is accompanied by a dozen or so audience members holding lighters in the air. Beautiful.
I mentioned earlier that Pick Of The Fringe is a "could be great, could be shit" show: well, so is its drunken 1am equivalent Late 'N' Live, but closer to the second than the first. Old Lag memorably described it as a bear garden a couple of years ago, and the same applies this year, possibly even more so: everyone's so pissed that it becomes less about comedy and more about confrontation. Daniel Kitson is an OK compere, but only really works when he lowers himself to the level of the audience: amusing when he verbally abuses a Heat journalist, less so when he threatens to rape a female heckler. Manic Opera do witty acapella comedy songs in a style that went out of fashion on the Fringe a decade or two ago: that (and their being women) makes them the most aggressively hated act on the show. Andy Zaltzmann probably comes off funniest, dragging out a 'Queen Victoria walked into a bar' gag to surreal length despite the cries of pain from the crowd. But Scott Capurro is the most interesting performer of the night, because he's obviously decided to just wind up the audience as much as possible. At this point it stops being comedy and starts being sociology: you watch in appalled fascination and listen for the uncomfortable silences, as an audience's moral limits are tested to destruction. Paedophilia? Fellating Christ? Holocaust denial? Interesting to note that although people don't seem to like Capurro very much, nobody dares to heckle. Terrible covers band The New take up the second half of the show, at which point Spank's Pals head off home while I prop up a quieter Gilded Balloon bar with the FU Galway posse and others till 4.30am. Slanty.
Notes From Spank's Pals
SeaPea - P.S. for Ross Noble on Saturday: well, I thought he had blonde hair, hence the Hamlet comment. [Oh, yeah, that explains everything - Spank]
The 3 Muses - The 3 Muses, in order to stimulate their brain cells, need to be fed, and hence paid a visit to excellent fish restaurant The Mussel Inn. The aperitifs in the pub next door made a very civilised start to the evening - funny how we all had the chowder, great amusement at the exploding lobster clams, fits of laughter at the leggy langoustines... a barrel of laughs all round until we got the bill. All donations gratefully received.
Rob D - Happy Days. No, not the one with the Fonz in it - this is the Beckett play with a woman half buried in sand (why?) This is the third version I've seen: this one had the smallest audience (10 people) and the actress playing Winnie stumbled on her lines a couple of times. The 'ground' she was buried in was very obviously a painted sheet. But you go to Beckett to hear Beckett, and even seeing the play for the third time you notice bits of dialogue that you missed before - that's why people still go and see plays that consist of an hour of a half buried woman wittering away about inconsequential things. No-one will ever beat the Billie Whitelaw version, mind - she really knew about being buried in sand!
SeaPea - Making Of Medium Cool: Look Out Haskell It's Real! is a documentary about a documentary style film - interesting concept and strange visions - camera person shooting film of a camera person shooting footage of Chicago riots of 1968. Feel at home in this audience of angry fiftysomethings wearing light chinos and t-shirts while the Scotch mist came down. Closely followed by Medium Cool itself: a great film about reality and more. Topical of course because of Genoa. Took me back to my various riots: Grosvenor Square, Paris 1968, Salonika 1970, Edinburgh 1999...
Eve - Diary Of A Nobody. Rodney Bewes rose to his usual high standard of combining an excellent characterisation - in this case of Charles Pooter - and himself in order to build a warm relationship with the audience. He managed to create a portrayal in miniature of his extremely ordinary life and the even more ordinary characters of his day-to-day life. Rodney Bewes endeared himself to his audience with his marvellous range of facial expressions, his use of stage space and his physical dexterity. His range of voices and accents - explained by witty asides to the audience - created a whole gallery of characters. The 'arrival' back home of his son, the superbly named Lupin, added an extra dimension. This was a brilliant creation of a staggeringly ordinary person with social aspirations above their station. Surely a forerunner of Hyacinth Bucket.
SeaPea - Strange old country this - was drinking with Rob till the wee hours of the morn, but could not buy wine at M&S today before 12:30pm. Woman in M&S gave quote of the year so far: "silly law really, you can have a drink at home before 12:30pm but can't buy it."
Rob D - "Phwoar...Eh?" Well, that's what some people may think on seeing the advert for The Pillow Book (featuring live body painting on Shakti's curvaceous body). This is a dance event that starts off fairly normally with three women leaping about in a distinctly arty Japanese sort of way. It then turns into what could be the longest striptease in history as one woman starts to take her clothes off while dancing (but in a very cultured way - none of your East End strip-pub sordidness here). The naked woman then has her body painted all over and proceeds to leap around a bit more, naked except for paint. The show finished with some talk of freedom, paint your life with bright colours, etc. Halfway through the body painting sequence I suddenly thought back to Rolf Harris - "can you tell what it is yet?" - and nearly giggled. It's probably art, it's certainly a bit erotic, but towards the end it's just tedious. Go and see it for what it's worth - just remember to wear loose fitting trousers, eh lads?
SeaPea - We have seen the best of Otis Lee Crenshaw as a comedian: and as Nick says, he cannot cope with hecklers. However, the musical stuff gets better and better. Can't wait for the next time.
The 3 Muses (and one Brendan) - Pity we missed out on the Jack Daniels, but Otis Lee Crenshaw was fantastic! Several hundred Brendas drooling over a Southern songster who really didn't have to insult people to be funny - well, not unless you're George W. Bush. The repartee with the audience was so sharp that you wondered whether they were plants. Left feeling like we all wanted to be plants called Brenda (or Brendan).
Rob D - Is it just me being a grouchy old git, or was Late 'N' Live a complete load of bolox? Answers on a postcard. The compere was good (aren't they always?) but the acts were appalling. Highlight of the night was noticing a couple having a knee-trembler against one of the columns on the side of Cowgate - or was it a performance? "The Pillow Book Part 2: This Time It's Serious". Venue: third column on the right of the Gilded Balloon..
The 3 Muses - Late 'N' Live. Bums, tits, assholes, Royal Family and ski instructor - no subtlety whatsoever - fuck off, we're off!
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