I love being in Edinburgh – and I mean the place, not just the Fringe. The most brilliant thing about doing the Free Fringe at Bannermans Bar is that I am at the very epicentre not just of the Festival but also of the whole city.
Bannermans is the beating heart of the independent music scene, my chosen venue. I’ve played there on tour at other times of the year: it is an atmospheric, authentic metal/punk bar with wonderful, friendly staff and locals. Performing there, and doing my two early music shows at the totally contrasting St Cecilia’s Hall: Concert Room & Music Museum literally 40 yards away, I am truly ‘playing Edinburgh’: local institutions, not ghastly corporate pop-up monstrosities cashing in for three weeks and, so I’m informed, spending the other 49 as literally a waste of space in a city which desperately needs it.
Festival time is a tale of two cities.
Last Thursday I walked from Bannermans to Easter Road to watch Hibs v Luzern. Down the Royal Mile, crammed with visitors and festooned, like everywhere else in the centre, with endless streams of corporate billboards advertising endless streams of corporate or, mostly, would-be corporate comedians (virtually nothing else!) making endless streams of revenue for corporate Festival promoters – and guaranteeing financial misery for many performers with stars in their eyes.
Then I turned left and was in a different world: one called ‘Edinburgh all year round’.
The billboards stopped, to be replaced by lamp posts with freshly attached stickers from the FC Luzern Ultras en route to the game. (I added a few of mine advertising my show: no billboards for me, just carefully located stickers, a few posters and social media). The hordes of tourists were replaced by streams of locals heading to the match. The pubs were full of football fans.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the bustle of Festival time, otherwise I wouldn’t come. But as at Bannermans or St Cecilia’s I was in ‘my Edinburgh’ now. The same happened on a much smaller scale on Saturday when I dashed from my show to the new (and, I’m afraid, utterly horrible) Meadowbank Stadium to watch Edinburgh City v Queen of the South. Two different worlds, side by side.
The PBH Free Fringe
But it absolutely doesn’t have to be like that – those two worlds could be reunited. The PBH Free Fringe is in the vanguard of a movement to reclaim the original idea of the Fringe as a festival accessible to all, performers and audiences alike, locals and visitors alike, regardless of ability to pay. Because it really was like that 40 years ago.
When I first came to Edinburgh in 1982 I played the Assembly Rooms, now the jewel in the corporate crown, for a door split: it was run by hippies and I’m pretty sure I remember church pews for seats. Over the next ten years I did different spaces – Wilkie House (with excellent feminist comedy trio Sensible Footwear) and a converted boxing ring at Marco’s Leisure Centre (with John Otway) being two which stick in the mind. Always for a door split: gigging’s how I earn my living!
Then I stopped to tour abroad and do August music festivals and when I wanted to come back I was told I had to literally pay to play. In the words of one of my old poems I said ‘Bollocks to that’ and, I thought, said goodbye to ‘Edinburgh’ for ever.
PBH’s Free Fringe brought me back. It’s a wonderfully simple idea. Established hospitality places – bars, cafes, you name it, many not usually performance spaces – take shows for the three weeks, charge no rent to performers and make money from the audiences we bring in. We let those audiences in for free and invite them to make donations at the end of the show.
Reclaiming the original idea of the Fringe
I can tell you from years of experience that many most certainly do! We advertise, not via expensive billboards, but via social media (part of the point of this very post) and the Wee Blue Book and Free Fringe app (neither of which I can attach to this post: the former available at all participating venues, the latter via a simple google.) Plus of course each individual show’s flyers and posters.
It really, really works, it is reclaiming the original idea of the Fringe from the corporate monsters, and they HATE it. When Covid recovery money was available via the Arts Council they got loads and the Free Fringe not a penny. But the message is spreading and the task now in my view is to get more and more ‘big names’ to join us and more reviewers to come to shows. (I don’t care about reviews, they make no difference to me one way or the other, but many need them!)
We’re taking the Fringe back. If you’re here, please support us – especially if you’re local! All Free Fringe listings here.