Sunday, 26 August 2012

Edinburgh Fringe Blog

This week Kate and I have been at the Fringe in Edinburgh, and as I've got a long train journey to kill I thought I'd write a piece about what sort of things we've been seeing this week.  It's the blog equivalent of showing someone your holiday snaps, except you now have the opportunity to go and look at something more interesting as opposed to having to sit with a fixed grin looking at about 400 photos of Tenerife.  Incidentally, that's something that wouldn't have been a problem last time we came to the Fringe.  Kate has a special talent that means she perhaps sometimes doesn't take entirely representative photos of events.  This is her complete "Edinburgh 2010" collection:


I think the thing about those pictures is it really makes you feel like you were there.

Comedy was one of the first thing that we found we had in common - Kate still talks misty-eyed of the time she noticed the DVD of Look Around You in my student bedroom - so it surprising in a way that we didn't visit the Fringe until six years into our relationship.  We had an amazing time once we did make the journey though.  It's the sort of thing I'd love to be able to do every year but the cost would make it a bit excessive.  This year we were lucky enough to have a travel voucher Kate had won in her previous job (for being, like, generally ace) and enough East Coast reward points to cover a return first class train ticket.  As such we could tell ourselves that we were paying very little to get there and stay over so we were still "saving money for the wedding" (yeah right...).

Hello Edinburgh!

As a rule of thumb we tried to book two or three shows a day, and leave the rest to what took our fancy while we were up there.  We ended up seeing a total of 18 shows in our four days at the Fringe, if anything a little too many but you can hardly say we didn't make the most of it...!  On our first trip we were glad we booked so many shows in advance given the amount of sell-outs we were at.  The hoary old cliche of "just seeing where the buzz was around" didn't really work then, but this year the Olympics effect has seen audiences down across the board, and tickets for most of the shows we saw could have been bought on the day. In fact in one case a late two-for-one offer meant we actually lost money by booking ahead.  Anyway - with the proviso that everyone was far more talented than I'll ever be, here's a few thoughts on each of the shows we saw.
1. Josie Long: Romance and Adventure

I'm not a huge fan of Josie but Kate was keen to see her. I find a lot of the "aren't Tories twats?" school of comedy a bit cringey, as although I largely agree that yes, most of them are, coming from such a tribal Labour supporter as Josie it's a bit rich to ignore everything that went seriously wrong under that fairly right wing government before 2010. I thought the sections of the show that worked best, ironically, were the less political bits, such as talking about turning thirty (and specifically MSN Live's piss-poor list of things to do before that landmark birthday, one of which was "have sex") and the end of her relationship.  Still, she's hugely likeable and it was good for the first show we saw to be nominated for the Fosters Comedy Award.

2. Richard Herring: Talking Cock - The Second Coming


When we started going out Kate and I realised that we, along with my sister, were among the rather select group that had avidly watched Lee and Herring's This Morning With Richard Not Judy in the late 1990s.  We've continued to follow their solo careers, so naturally we went to see Richard Herring's latest offering, a revival of his Fringe show from exactly ten years ago (in fact I remember one of York's student papers running an interview with Herring about the show in the first issue after I arrived).  As ever Herring is nothing if not consistent and this was one of our favourite shows of the week. We now know all we ever need to know about the purple-headed womb broom.


3. Iain Stirling: Happy To Be The Clown

Iain and Hacker are the new Ed and Oucho, who in turn were the modern day Andi and Edd, who were the new Phillip and Gordon (keep up). In recent years CBBC have employed a number of stand-up comedians as continuity presenters to good effect including Ed Petrie, Holly Walsh and now Iain Stirling.  We both quite like Iain's style of presenting in the broom cupboard - I mean office, so looked forward to seeing his show, which was in the smallest venue yet (a cunningly disguised "seminar room 2" going by the signs), so at least he must have felt at home.  Although Stirling makes references to his day job it's an adult show, and quite a confident, funny one too.  We look forward to seeing more!


4. Harry Hill: My Hobby 

Actually part of the Art Festival rather than the Fringe, this was a display of Hill's paintings over the years, drawn whilst starring in Channel 4's Harry Hill and ITV1's TV Burp.  Most are related to celebrity in some way, from "You All Missed Me" (a drawing of the London whale surrounded by the 2006 contestants of Celebrity Big Brother) to "Schofield's Dream" (a visualisation of what must run through Pippy's mind having to cover so many topics for This Morning).  It's superb stuff, and it's great seeing him explore other areas now that the equally superb TV Burp has finally come to an end.


5. Free Fringe

We went to see a free "musical comedy" show on the basis of a nice chat the performer had with us in the queue for something else.  I haven't named it as the guy was really lovely and I don't want him Googling himself and finding this, and as a free show it's not really fair to criticise as with paid shows, but it did fall fairly flat.  An important lesson that this sort of thing is not as easy as it might look!


6. David O'Doherty: Seize The David O'Doherty

Although by no means a newcomer O'Doherty stuck out for Kate and I last year through his appearances on the BBC's Fringe highlights with his hilarious "party" song and protestations that he is "not Chris O'Dowd, no matter how much you may think I am".  It's another superb show, this time dealing with the end of his relationship (yep, another one) and Ireland's financial crisis, which has apparently resulted in the appearances of shops in Dublin called "Value Bastard".

7. Chris Martin - Spot The Difference

We knew of Chris through his warm-up act on the episode of Room 101 we went to see last year.  He was effortlessly entertaining and quite a warm and friendly compere, which is always nice to see.  As is often the case with great MCs it didn't transfer with total ease into an hour of material, so a little disappointing.  Unsurprisingly the funniest bits were the unplanned sections - such as chastising someone for clicking a pen before backing off quickly after realising it was a reviewer.

8. Set List: Standup Without A Net


Set List is a bit of an Edinburgh institution, assembling a lineup of comics and getting them to perform a late-night set on the fly based on random subjects that appear on the screen behind them, all in the impressive "Caves" venue of Just The Tonic. We saw this one by chance, after hearing of the lineup whilst queuing for something else, and somehow they'd managed to get Phill Jupitus, Al Murray and Greg Proops on same night.  Equally amazingly we managed to get a couple of returns.  It's a scary sight, witnessing comics at the top of their game scrabbling around for ideas, but most pull it off.  Entertaining stuff!
The amazing "caves" venue inside Just The Tonic


9. The Richard Bacon Show

Um, yeah.  Whilst taking a look at the BBC area of the Fringe a clipboard-sporting member of Auntie's top team asked if we'd like to see Richard Bacon interview David Hasselhoff.  Er...why not? So within moments we were inside the BBC tent watching Bacon's 5 Live show go out, with The Hoff himself in attendance.  Bizarre.

10. Toby Hadoke: My Stepson Stole My Sonic Screwdriver

I'm not sure there's anyone who hasn't seen Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf, such was the frequency of performance of Hadoke's predecessor show to this one, but it's an entertaining sequel dealing with the end of his relationship (another one?!) and his attempts to form a relationship with his deaf stepson.  Hadoke's "Now I Know My BBC" in 2010 was a real disappointment, amounting to little more than "wasn't Bagpuss great?", so this was a great return to form.  You could however sense his slight astonishment at teenage girl Doctor Who fans in the audience hanging on his every word, something he and indeed I could have done with back in our adolescent years.

Pleasance venues

11. Wit Tank

OK, we had a gap in our evening schedule so thought we'd see some sketch comedy for a change, cleverly scheduled before our existing pre-booked sketch comedy straight afterwards.  But despite the "LOL?!" name Wit Tank are a confident, slick outfit who effortlessly fill an hour, although some of the material later on in the show didn't fly too well.  Although maybe that's what happens when you have the immediate comparison of Pappy's strait after.

Arthur's Seat

12. Pappy's: Last Show Ever!

Wow.  Maybe it was the news that they'd been nominated for the Fosters Comedy Award, confirmed earlier that day, but even given that the trio are acknowledged to be at the peak of their abilities this was a triumph of a show.  Highlights included a song about gloves, a real-life Choose Your Own Adventure and an on-stage relationship.  They make it look so, so bloody easy.

13. BBC Rapper Bloke


Not strictly a show but Kate said I should put it in anyway.  Whilst waiting at the BBC bar there was a performance by a freestyle vocalist on the nearby stage who specialised in recording his own voice and building it up into a song of it's own.  The sort of thing that you've seen many times before but done really, really well.  I don't know his name though, so this is a bit of a crap review.  It's to the Beeb's credit that they've really gone to town with the Fringe coverage the last couple of years, although in a reliably BBC way.  Clearly there aren't enough venues already in Edinburgh so they've had to build one of their own, and there appeared to actually be someone going round making sure the tables were the regulated space apart from each other.

 14. BBC Comedy Presents

An interesting one this. Thanks to Kate's contacts in the world of You Tube/the BBC/comedy in tents (oh, I don't know), we got into this one for free, but given the somewhat broad title didn't really know what to expect.  It turned out to be an incredible one-off show by Jarred Christmas and a full choir, basically creating a religious act of worship towards the musical output of 1992. So you had Sleeping Satellite, House of Love, Would I Lie To You and more.  All the more amazing was that it was a Fringe exclusive, with the aim apparently being to have a full run in London.  We're exactly the right age for that kind of show but it became apparent that many of the people around us were clearly either too old or too young.  "I was only two in 1992" moaned one guy right at the front.  Well, you missed out then.  Unfortunately quite a few older members of the audience left well before the end, odd given they paid £12 to be there.  Given the BBC involvement no doubt they were expecting a cosy panel of Radio 4 regulars attempting to decipher regional accents.



15. Richard Herring's Edinburgh Fringe Podcast

Not that the title really needs much more explanation but this was a daily chat show featuring Mr Herring and a different guest every day, usually another fringe performer, which is available to download for free after it is recorded.  It takes place at the legendary Stand comedy club, one of the few venues we visited which is actually home to comedy in the other eleven months of the year.  Rich seemed to think the show wasn't going down very well but it seemed fine from where we were sitting, and Kate even managed to interject when she found out the fiancée of guest Nick Doody grew up in Hebden Bridge and now lives in Crouch End.  As Rich said: slightly stalker-ish.

Typical Edinburgh weather

16. Stewart Lee: Carpet Remnant World

It's slightly unusual for a show to have its final run in Edinburgh after a nationwide tour, but this is the case with Carpet Remnant World.  Although better than his most recent pieces,  I have to confess (with a bit of guilt...) I'm start to tire a little of Lee's output.  Considering he is someone who holds such strong views on what comedy should entail, it feels a little like we've been seeing the same show annually for the last few years.  Whilst I can see his point on the commercialisation of the Fringe, there is a huge middle ground between the massive venues charging £30 a show and the dingy cellars showing newcomers.  Plus, he can rail against the "big four" Fringe companies all he likes, but once you're playing an enormous room yourself with a show that's over a year old there's an argument you aren't really keeping to the spirit of the Fringe yourself.  Or maybe we were just annoyed he overran and we nearly didn't make our next show...

Edinburgh Castle

17. Claudia O'Doherty: The Telescope

One we saw purely on David O'Doherty's recommendation (no relation), and the fact it was nominated for the Fosters Comedy Award while we were there.  I hate to sound like a pleb but it didn't really work for me.  I can see exactly what it's trying to do - the classic "show goes wrong and performer tries to get it back on track" setup, but for me it didn't hang together too well, and I got the feeling a lot of the audience (perhaps also there on the strength of the nomination) were similarly baffled.  We saw the concept done much better Johnny Sweet (interestingly a show also from Invisible Dot) but the ambition of the show both in the staging and the concept was impressive.



18. Bridget Christie: War Donkey

Our final show, and one we saw on the strength of her turn at her husband's "Silver Stewbilee" gala show two years ago as "A. Ant", a brilliant piece of work on the criticisms sometime levelled at female comedians.  We were a bit disappointed that this show initially  appeared to be using the war donkey to make exactly the same joke, but thankfully the show moved on from the point quite quickly.  It's another Josie Long for me unfortunately.  Despite agreeing with the political and feminist points made, for me the lurch from jokes to genuine anger that we're expected to cheer in the same way sits somewhat awkwardly in a comedy show, and as a man it was sometimes a little difficult not to feel as if some of the fire was being directed at me, such were the various misdemeanours my sex has been responsible for.  It's a very awkward position for me to express so I apologise for it not coming across very well, as I feel bad for even appearing to criticise a comic of Christie's talents (and, for me at least, she is far superior to Long), but it's the general tone I find a bit awkward to process at times.



And that was that! More by accident than design we managed to see three shows nominated for the Fosters Comedy Award, and this weekend it's been announced that the winner is...Doctor Brown.  Ah well, the old Buf-worth curse strikes again.  We have absolutely no doubt however that it should have gone to Pappy's.  Calling it a sketch show is a bit of an insult really as they've taken the genre and turned it into the most incredible mix of comedy - standup, sketch, music and even theatre all in the space of an hour.  One can only presume the Fosters judges wanted to push the boundaries a little but you do wonder when the trio will hit the big time.  By the nature of their act they haven't managed to break into the Live at the Apollo/Comedy Roadshow type of national exposure, although perhaps this is no bad thing. 


When there was a power cut during the all-night BBC Red Button Comedy Marathon earlier in August, host Chris Ramsay said "this is what comedy's really like! Forget Michael Mcintyre in a shiny suit chatting to Gok Wan, we're in a tent in the dark!". And that for me sums up the problems with those mainstream comedy shows.  When I was younger I thought it would be great to have more standup on mainstream TV, but now there is it seems to be the same dozen or so faces performing to the same enormous theatres seemingly on a loop.  It is far from perfect but the wonderful thing about the Fringe is staggering in off the street to see someone on the basis of a what you've heard that day, and sitting in a converted cellar holding a pint in a plastic glass.  And as I finish this I'm now back at home on the sofa watching a video on the TV as I write this, I'd love to be back in those tiny dingy rooms again!

Saturday, 4 August 2012

London 2012: Right Here, Right Now

What a week!  I wrote my previous blog just after the Olympic torch had arrived in London and the final countdown to the start of the games was beginning.  I don't think even by my stupidly overexcited standards I could have guessed just how much the UK and in particular London would have been gripped by Olympic fever in the subsequent days as people finally swung around in support of the games after years of, let's face it, moaning about it.  If there was a medal awarded for complaining then the Great British Public (TM) would win every time (lame joke copyright every newspaper ever).
Torch-bearers at Islington Town Hall

The credit for much of that has to go to the torch relay that ran for seventy days in advance of the start of the games, and apparently travelled within ten miles of 95% of the population.  The relay really helped spread some of the Olympic fever around the country and answer the criticism that it was a London-only event.  The BBC offered pioneering coverage of the entire relay using 3G to relay the pictures to be watched online and occasionally the red button.  The tactic of awarding people the chance to carry the torch based on their contribution to the community also brought some positive coverage, although the amount of celebrities who got to carry it was a little excessive.  I'll forgive Matt Smith in Cardiff and Bruce Forsyth in White City, but carrying it through Taunton extracted the urine somewhat.  His local links are as yet unconfirmed and the timing seemed more to promote the climax of the piss-poor talent show he was appearing than anything to do with the Olympics.
The Olympic Torch on Upper Street

The final week saw it touring London and I was lucky enough to see the flaming thing twice (see what I did there?).  On Wednesday evening it reached Haringey and the people of Crouch End downed their hummus and focaccia in order to see it run past the edge of the area on the final leg of that day, on the route from Turnpike Lane to Alexandra Palace.  What's been less reported is the array of corporate crap that proceeds the torch itself - Coca Cola, Samsung and Lloyds TSB all have their own floats that precede the main event, the latter sadly not booed by the crowd who were in high spirits.  I consume rather a lot of Diet Coke so I couldn't really boo them, and unlike Apple I have no real issues with Samsung.  Tom and I witnessed the torch being passed to a young woman in a wheelchair, who was announced with unfortunate timing as the Coke float blared out the timeless LMFAO lyrics "hey look at that body....I work out".  Early on Thursday I went to see it with Kate in Angel, getting a much better view this time and hearing big cheers for the next torch-bearer (who we later found out was David Walliams).  By that evening excitement had reached fever-pitch at an event in Hyde Park, and - credit where it's due - Boris Johnson gave a terrific speech to the crowd.

And then....the opening ceremony.  There's not a lot that hasn't been said about it so it's perhaps difficult to know where to start, but...wasn't it just the most brilliant thing, ever?  The real genius of it was all the pre-publicity focussing on the "green and pleasant land" bit at the start (represented by the scene that plays out in John Major's head as real life) which was then promptly ripped up within the first fifteen minutes of the show proper.  So many moments sprung out as superb.  The brilliant opening going up the Thames, with the best bits undoubtedly the theme to The South Bank Show ringing out as the shot lurched over the Waterloo area and the sudden swoop-out to show the whole of east London accompanied by the EastEnders drum beat.  The frankly astonishing "industrial revolution" segement, and the poppy-framed pause in the middle to remember casulaties of war.  The Queen and James Bond - whatever your opinion of her, a few years ago that bit would have been inconceivable.  The touching tributes to the NHS and Tim Berners-Lee.  Rowan Atkinson turning a potential loo-break into unmissable TV.  The bit with Beckham and the speedboat - he may not be an Olympian, but his appeal and sportsmanship undoubtedly helped bring the games to these shores, and I hope John Terry was watching to see what he'll never be. 

And, of course, the lighting of the torch.  After all the speculation of who would light it, with the focus on the legacy of the event of course it was always going to be the young sporting stars of the future.  Coupled with the cauldron being made up of "petals" brought into the stadium by each of the participating nations, the moment where it was lit and brought together - representing the uniting power of the Olympics - was perhaps one of the most moving things we'll ever see, at least on this scale.  I have to admit there might have been "something in my eye" at that point, and it wasn't the first time that night.

After years of getting bigger and louder and brasher, Danny Boyle has redefined the art of the opening ceremony.  In truth there was little else we could do after Sydney's party, Athens' heritage and Beijing's spectacle, but few expected it to be executed so flawlessly, and to be such a love letter to our history, culture and humour.  He managed to get us hand-wringing lefties to finally feel comfortable with a form of patriotism by linking it to the UK as it stands in the world now, rather than trumpeting past military glories.  Much of the credit should also go to Underworld, who arranged the music used throughout the ceremony.  The soundtrack album is required listening and has been number 1 in the iTunes album chart for much of the last week, with the two standout track undoubtedly And I Will Kiss (from the industrial revolution sequence) and Caliban's Dream (from the lighting of the flame).  Other than by insane Tory MPs and the Daily Mail (always a tough crowd to please) the show was universally acclaimed. Perhaps unsurprisingly the broadcast is the highest rated programme of the century so far, silencing all but the most miserable of Olympic moaners. 
At St. Pancras International Station

Kate and I were lucky enough to have got tickets to see some swimming heats in the infamous first draw of tickets, but the sting in the tail was the time on our alarm clock.  A start time of 10am, being advised to get there two hours before for security checks, and then having to get there in the first place resulted in it waking us up at 5.45am on the morning of Sunday 29th.  Shortly after 7am we were at St. Pancras station to catch the infamous "Javelin" train that transports you to Stratford in just seven minutes (and Ebbsfleet International, should you so wish).  Upon arriving at the Olympic Park we were immediately bowled over by the enthusiasm and friendliness of the volunteers, cheerfully pointing us in the right direction.  Some spotted some foreign visitors, asked what country they were from and asked for a cheer for that nation - which of course was obliged by the crowd.  It's at this point you finally get the whole "people's games" schtick.  Security was fairly painless but again, friendly, with even the controversial military prescence taking time to chat to excited children in the queue.
We're in!

Once we were in the park there was such an incredible atmosphere, like nothing I've experienced before.  I found myself speaking to strangers next to us at the swimming and in the queue for food, everyone equally excited.  We were lucky enough to Rebecca Adlington's 400m heats, and she actually won her heat to everyone's delight, although obviously this successs didn't translate to gold later in the day.  Following our session in the Aquatics Centre we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Olympic Park.  It's an impressive development and is much-lauded, with previous groups of venues apparently not landscaped as extensively. 
The Orbit (left)

There's naturally a great feel to the place and it was undoubtedly a good experience to visit it, but one thing that's pleased me about the games is the use of venues across the capital.  I initially thought that it was a bit of a cop-out, with the focus naturally on Stratford, but using the landmarks in events such as the marathon and the beach volleyball has provided the most wonderful backdrop and global advertisement for London. 
In the Aquatics Centre

Of course, it's not over till it's over.  The expected boost to London's economy hasn't come yet (unless you have a unit in Westfield Stratford City) and there may yet be recriminations if it's judged TFL has been over-zealous with their advice.  But as an experience it's been unparalleled.  I've lost count of the number of people I know who normally wouldn't give sport the time of day who've been gripped by the coverage, which incidentally the Beeb has excelled at.  It also looks like giving the Paralympics a huge boost at the end of August.  Tickets to that have been selling well following the success of the main event and following the opening ceremony and our trip to the Olympic Park, we've bought tickets to the Paralympics closing ceremony on September 9th.

Personally - and to be monumentally slushy for a moment - it's cemented my love for the capital.  When I first visited here, aged 17 or 18, I was put off by the size, how busy it was and of course the cost of living.  I wasn't entirely convinced when I moved down a few years later but figured it'd be worth it just to be with Kate (and of course for my career).  But the following seven years have changed my opinion of the place completely.  I adore the north but I also love London in an entirely different way, and the Olympics has really confirmed that by proving that we can stage such a massive event, we can welcome the world to our city and we can put on a bloody good party.

And we're not too bad at the actual sport either.