Opinion: Who Is Causing Edinburgh's Free Gig Chaos?

I’ve been saying for a while that the Edinburgh Fringe has become too big, partly because of the explosion of free shows. And now someone seems to have have done something about it. I thought that would make me happy, but instead the circumstances have saddened me.

Free Fringe veteran Peter Buckley Hill’s statement posted on Facebook on May 21 claimed – out of the blue at this very late stage – that Freestival had no rights to the Cowgatehead venue and that Buckley Hill's Free Fringe was running it. Those booked in could apply to play there as part of the Free Fringe, but they would have to agree to some strict conditions, most notable that “You should not be an applicant to any other provider of free-admission shows. This means that you should dissociate from Freestival forthwith.”

This puts a lot of acts in a terrible position. Among those booked in are Simon Caine, Archie Maddocks, Leo Kearse, Tom Allen, Christian Talbot, Birthday Girls, Tom Ward, Karl Schultz, Milo McCabe, Jo Burke and Juliette Burton. How can they dissociate from the people who, at this moment in time, are promoting their gigs? Never mind the fact that they may have shelled out £360-plus to be in the official brochure.

They may also have shelled out for accommodation, travel etc. Oh, and, we hope, at some point they might have worked on writing a show. Someone – The Fringe Society? the venue owners? – needs to clarify exactly what is going on. There are way too many uncertainties at the moment.

The only thing we can be sure of is that a lot of comedians who thought they were playing Cowgatehead this summer as part of Freestival currently do not have much idea of what is going on. And that is really harsh. If Peter Buckley Hill is now in control of the venue surely the simplest, least stressful solution for everyone is that he takes over the entire programme as it is and does not impose new terms on the performers caught in the crossfire.

Instead Buckley Hill appears to be using the situation to assert himself as free-admission top dog. It's as if he has taken the ball away but says he will still let people play if they follow his rules. I don’t think PBH is in this for the money, to me he seems to be doing it regain some ground previously lost. There was a similar kerfuffle last year over venues (see below) with the result that PBH said he was taking more of a back seat role in the Free Fringe. This year he seems to want to be firmly in the driving seat again.

Whoever is to blame this is all a great shame. A lot of cynics have said that Edinburgh has become too much of a trade fair these days. The free gigs seemed to have recaptured the old idealistic spirit of the Fringe. Theye were also putting on great shows. Lest we forget in all this, John Kearns won the Edinburgh Comedy Award last year while playing free gigs at the Voodoo Rooms.

If Freestival has made some kind of error PBH could fly in and save the day. Instead, even if Freestival is in the wrong – and at the moment we don't know if they are – PBH seems to be capitalising on the chaos. Maybe he could take a leaf out of those other alternative promoters, Bob Slayer and Alex Petty, who have offered to help out without any strings attached. Petty, who runs Laughing Horse's free shows, posted this on his FB page yesterday: "The fact I now have an email response saved, to send out to performers emailing about Edinburgh venue spaces who have potentially lost their venues, is really a very, very sad sign of how many performers are currently feeling fucked over with the current events in Edinburgh."

It’s a messy, sad situation all around. Even if he means well, Peter Buckley Hill’s approach hardly makes him look like he is coming to the rescue. It feels more like he is trying to stage a comedy coup. I just noticed that the Edinburgh Fringe's slogan on their logo is "Defying the norm since 1947". The brochure isn't even out and this year's Fringe has excelled itself already. The only plus side is that at least because the gigs are free there are no fans who have paid money for tickets already.

This is what happened last year. And this is PBH's most recent response to questions from Michael Legge.

 

 

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