Have you heard the one about Miles Jupp at the Underbelly? Or Johnny Vegas at The Stand? Perhaps you picked up a word or two about Frankie Boyle challenging Jerry Sadowitz to a standup in the street (he wasn’t joking)?
Those and many others are names sprinkled without fear or favour by comedians Susan Morrison and Bruce Morton through the new Walking Heads Backstage Gossip audio tour. It’s a quirky insider’s view of famous comedy venues which takes you behind the scenes and well beyond the Fringe.
Disclosure: as one of the team involved in republishing this alternative guide to Edinburgh, my opinion is not unbiased. But I venture to suggest that our new tongue-in-cheek companion to the original Edinburgh Comedy Tour is a refreshing antidote to the superlatives more commonly associated with the world’s biggest arts festival – each year bigger if (some might say) not always better than the last.
In 2016, the Fringe tells us, there were 50,266 performances of 3,269 shows across 294 venues and 2.475 million tickets issued. Altogether an increase of 7.7% over 2015. At the grand age of 70, the Fringe shows no sign of running out of steam. But let’s take a look behind the scenes.
On one level Backstage Gossip is just a bit of fun, a meandering mooch with good natured banter for company: a joke in your ear and some social history on the side. But as you walk the streets of Scotland’s capital at the fag end of the Fringe it provides a gentle reminder that standup is a perilous business and that comedians have their funny human foibles too.
Admittedly some of the names on our tour are not in the first flush of their careers – a quick look at the fraying posters on the Mound is evidence that comedy is a fast evolving culture and time is not always kind. In the five years since we first began researching material for our audio tours, the Fringe has changed shape and though many old kids are still on the block, there are bright new five star names on the boards.
The cultural environment has turned edgier too, the line between politics and entertainment becoming evermore blurred. Tommy Sheppard, co-founder of The Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle, is now SNP MP for Edinburgh East. And Frankie Boyle is a political pundit; his Guardian column (when it is published) shows his anger is more accurately aimed at elected figures of fun than the likes of Jerry Sadowitz (though that is a story beautifully told and well worth listening to).
Flags of all nations
At any time of year, there’s always more to Edinburgh than meets the eye. In the ‘pubic triangle’ adjoining the Grassmarket, Susan Morrison meets a former old people’s carer turned stripper whose ‘piece de resistance’ involves a spectacular finale with flags of all nations. She keeps well up to date with current affairs, she tells Susan, ‘flags unfurl in strict NATO order’.
Gossip, of any kind, is always hard to resist and performers of all ages will share a sympathetic shudder: those timeless mishaps – the moments when words fail, gags fall flat, and audiences vote with their feet – are known to all comedians. The Underbelly, that cavernous warren running beneath the old High Court’s condemned cell, is, as Susan Morrison wryly points out, ‘a good place to die.’
Though Backstage guides infectiously enjoy the embarrassment of colleagues they are also endearingly honest about their own failures. ‘Well, that was a bit shit,’ remembers Bruce, recalling his badly misjudged session when, ‘flushed with success’ – and a few pints – from a previous gig he took up the challenge of an open mic in the Pleasance.
Ah, The Pleasance. It’s a long way from the bulging venues of the city centre and it reminds me what a cumbersome beast an audio tour can be. When we began mapping the comedy tour route we realised that it’s a fair old schlep from George Square (the tented Assembly arena in the heart of Edinburgh University) to the extraordinary, ever-increasing space on the Southside where the Pleasance seems to uncover a new corner of the University’s sports and social club every year.
Dr Valentine’s Love Cure
But, though you can listen to every story on your headphones sitting in a bar (or from the comfort of an armchair at home), I recommend the walk. It’s good to get the chance to stretch through streets taking you passed (and ideally into) the small independent cafes, bars, book shops and galleries that rescue Edinburgh from monotonous chainstore monopoly.
During August, the Southside is also bursting at the seams. Out of season it is hard to believe that the Pleasance is a thronging mass of revellers. But it is also the place where Boswell was ‘forever catching the clap’ on his nightly wanders. Susan Morrison, a passionate amateur historian (she helped found Scotland’s History Festival Previously), has an excruciating tale to tell of Dr Valentine’s Love Cure, which makes Bruce Morton wince out loud.
Of all the anecdotes, I particularly like the one about Miles Jupp, partly perhaps because it’s very short but also because it demonstrates the art of quick thinking ad lib. With a few well-chosen words Bruce Morton conjures up an image of the dank, dark, slightly sinister performance space that is Edinburgh’s subterranean Underbelly. This is where he directed Miles Jupp’s show some Fringes ago. ‘It would get vicious hot in there,” he adds with relish, ‘vicious hot.’
For some reason Jupp had chosen to wear a tweed jacket (in his latest show he favours a raincoat) and within seconds of appearing on stage he was covered in sweat. How to recover? ‘He was playing a posh chap,’ remembers Bruce, ‘in the ad lib session at the start of the show he asked if there were any posh people in the audience, I can’t remember what the answer was but I do remember his follow up: If there are any posh people in, I do apologise for wearing tweed after dark.’
No? It’s the way he tells it. Download Backstage Gossip, ridiculously it’s FREE, for the full experience.
Note: this blogpost is published with kind permission of Walking Heads (and I should think so too…I’m one of the founding directors).