COMEDIAN Steve Coogan has bemoaned the commercialisation of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe since he shot to fame there two decades ago – saying it has become “swamped” by marketing people and promoters.
He has hailed the Free Fringe movement, which claimed two of this year’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards, for helping to “redress the balance” and said it offered a home for authentic, exciting and original acts.
He said free acts which did not have a production machine behind them were often better because “they have not had the originality ironed out of them”.
Coogan, who has not performed at the Fringe since winning the then Perrier Award in 1992, said he still felt an emotional connection to the event and would consider a return to try out new experimental work.
He was in Edinburgh over the weekend to present the comedy awards, now in their 33rd year, and see several shows.
This year’s winners marked a significant shift away from the major venues, with overall winner Bridget Christie performing at the Stand Comedy Club – its third winner in five years.
The two other main awards went to performers in free events – John Kearns was named best newcomer for his show at the Voodoo Rooms, while Adrienne Truscott collected the panel prize for “spirit of the Fringe” for her performances in a tiny pop-up venue in South College Street.
Christie’s victory came just over a year after her husband, fellow stand-up Stewart Lee, penned a damning article claiming the Fringe was threatening to become an “oligarchy” dominated by the four largest promoters., singling out an “Etonian cabal” behind one of them, Underbelly, for criticism.
One of the major debates at the Fringe has been whether many acts are priced out of coming to Edinburgh because of the “cancerous” cost of large venues, as well as their accommodation and marketing bills.
One producer claimed the current system left artists driven by “hope and desperation” to spend way beyond their means.
Coogan, who was a regular voice on Spitting Image in the 1980s, shot to fame in 1992 when he won the Perrier Award.
He told The Scotsman: “It [the Fringe] has been commercialised. Marketing people and promoters moved in and swamped it, and it has become a commercial exercise for some people, which is a shame.
“But I think the Free Fringe has redressed that, and it is really important. It allows for people who are artists, who believe in art first, and allows people to do shows that are about something and are authentic. Back in my day, the Fringe was slightly more amateurish, but I say that in a positive way. There is always a risk with the emphasis when art is co-opted by commerce.
“It is important that the festival supports the Free Fringe. The empowered should help the disempowered. You know what, they (Free Fringe acts) may not always be as polished, but you sometimes find real, exciting, original acts that may not have a machine behind them, but they are all the better for that. They have not had the originality ironed out of them.
“If anyone wants to do something it should be of themselves and not be derivative. It should be authentic and they should go with their instincts.”
He added: “I’ve not actually performed here since 1992. I get a sort of misty-eyed nostalgia.
“I do like coming here and feel an emotional connection with the Fringe – it’s always nice to come back.”
Free Fringe founder Peter Buckley Hill said: “I think the message from this year is that anybody can win provided they are good enough, it doesn’t matter where you are performing.”
Nica Burns, director of the awards, said the Free Fringe had been able to “shake things up and come of age”.
She added: “I think what this year has shown that you can get great quality on the Free Fringe. Their point is that you don’t need to be rich to make good comedy. Edinburgh is one of the few places that would allow people like Adrienne to do a full run of a show and see if it works.”
Best newcomer winner Kearns said: “If there’s people out there who see me winning this and don’t have any representation or PR and think they can’t afford it, I did it all myself with my friends.”
Bob Slayer, who offered Ms Truscott a slot in his Bob’s Bookshop venue, said “It’s significant that this is the first year that there’s not been a single award for the so-called pay-to-play venues. That’s not a negative snipe, but it’s a positive celebration of independence which reflects a sea change that’s been happening at the Fringe.”