Opinion: How To Cover The Fringe And Stay Sane

“We are currently half way through our run and as yet have had no media coverage, so we are getting a bit desperate.”

“People are loving it! - 50 capacity and most days I'm full.”

“Absolutely packing his room out.”

“Audiences love the show but no reviewer has come. Please help us. We are mystified why we can’t get a reviewer to come. Please can you help us?”

“Sorry to pester you as I know your inbox must be heaving…”

“We modestly believe it is in the very top percentile of sketch shows you’ll see up here and very worthy of coverage.”

“If you’re low on reviews to do towards the end of the festival, I’d really appreciate it if you would consider calling in and seeing what you think.”

These are just a few snippets from emails I’ve received in the last few days from Fringe performers and their PRs hoping for coverage. I doubt if I’ve been specially selected. I should imagine most critics will have received exactly the same emails and will be in exactly the same position. With the best will in the world the Edinburgh Fringe has become such an enormous comedy beast that it is impossible to give anywhere near enough shows coverage.

Let’s do a little bit of fag packet maths. There are 647 shows on the Fringe eligible for the Foster’s Award (Foster’s these days employs a veritable platoon of advance scouts to sort the initial potential wheat from the chaff as judges can never get to all the shows, but that’s another story…). If I’m in Edinburgh for 20 days and I see five shows a day I’ll only see 100 shows – which means 547 shows go unseen. 

Then we get to the reviews. If I am lucky I will get 11 reviews into 15 editions of the Evening Standard during the Festival. These tend to be the bigger TV names, the performers already with London runs planned as its a London paper, and then in the final week, the Foster’s-nominated shows not covered yet. Add to that another 14 reviews on this website and that means 25 shows reviewed. One in four of the 100 shows seen, one in 25 of the comedy shows at the Festival.

So it is no surprise that a lot of requests from the desperate to the ones offering modest bribes of alcohol to review them fall on stoney ground. This is not a sob story of course. I have a brilliant job that I love. but this is one of the hardest parts of it. One week into the festival and seeing performers starting to wonder if the show they worked so hard on will ever get any coverage at all.

One starts to cling onto hopes but those can be dashed in the cruellest of ways. I’ve seen this first-hand. A few years ago my partner was in a play at the Fringe, which everyone who saw it thought was marvellous. After struggling to get audiences in the first week Lyn Gardner of the Guardian – a critic who, unlike me, really can make a show a hit –  said she would come (before you ask, this was not a favour to me, she didn’t know my connection) and there was an optimist mood in the company. Unfortunately Gardner went to the wrong venue and missed the show. Given her hectic schedule there was never a chance to come back. 

And so it is with comedy this year. I wish I could get to more shows. I wish I could write about more shows. But it simply isn’t possible to do this and retain my sanity. It is hard enough to reply to requests. I’m also getting messaged on Twitter and Facebook. This piece is also by way of reply to anyone I have not responded to, including any of those quoted above feeling unloved and ignored by me.

I have to say that of all the requests the one above that says “If you’re low on reviews to do towards the end of the festival…” has to be the most heartwarmingly innocent. “low on reviews” is not a phrase you will ever hear a critic use at any time during the Fringe. But then the request did come from Maggy Whitehouse (pictured) who is also a vicar. You have to admire their faith. 

I wrote a similar piece on this theme last year and I got some criticism for saying that I was so swamped I could barely respond to review requests and still have time to leave the house. This year things are even tougher. Not only are PRs contacting me, but some quite big names are contacting me directly too  – sometimes to complain about reviews I’ve written but also to try to ask me directly to cover their shows.

And sometimes you can't win even when you do write about them. There's the comedian who complained that I reviewed a preview, even though it was agreed with their PR that that was OK as long as I mentioned it was a preview. There's the comedian who complained about a rave review because it quoted a joke. Sometimes it feels as if there really is no pleasing people. Comedians are sensitive? Who'd have thought it?

If any performers can suggest a solution to this problem – which gets worse every year as print space shrinks almost in direct inverse proportion to the growth of the Fringe – I’d be eternally grateful. I might even come to their show.


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