Battle of the Fringe runs out of puff as Churchill surrenders his cigar
Key quote "They told us if we proceeded they would make an example of us. I would get fined personally and would never be able to hold a licence again. I do think it's crazy." - Mr Burdett-Coutts, Fringe producer
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CHURCHILL was the first to surrender yesterday in a battle of brinkmanship over Scotland's smoking ban.
In a true theatrical cliffhanger, the actor Mel Smith finally opted not to break the law by puffing on a cigar on the Fringe stage where he plays Winston Churchill.
Bill Burdett-Coutts, the director of the Fringe's biggest operation, claimed City of Edinburgh Council had threatened to close him down if Smith lit up on the set of his show, Allegiance - a claim denied by the council.
For months, Fringe producers and actors have been complaining that the blanket ban on smoking in public places in Scotland is hampering their job in shows involving smoking. Mr Smith has been one of the most outspoken.
The Alas Smith and Jones actor and comedian, playing a wartime leader famous for puffing constantly on a cigar, stunned his own producers on Sunday by lighting a cigar at a photocall.
But yesterday, in his first performance at the Assembly Rooms, he played Churchill without a cigar in his hand. At one point, he picked up a cigar, appeared to light it, then put it down.
Afterwards, a defiant Mr Smith stamped outside and lit up a cigar.
He had been ready to pay his own fines, he said, but the serious threat to other shows at the venue gave him little choice.
"It doesn't put me in a position to do anything else," he said. "They make the law an ass. I can't believe that everyone accepts and buys this legislation. They would be right on Adolf Hitler's side, and Hitler didn't have smokers around for dinner."
Mr Burdett-Coutts, a long-time Fringe producer whose operation includes the Assembly Rooms, the Assembly Hall on the Royal Mile and St George's West, said a council officer had threatened in a meeting yesterday to close his operation.
He said: "They told us if we proceeded they would make an example of us.
"I would get fined personally and would never be able to hold a licence again.
"I do think it's crazy. I actually love the fact that you can't smoke in bars and the rest of it, but I think in terms of a dramatic performance where it's integral to the show it's really stupid."
A council spokeswoman yesterday denied any threat to shut down the Assembly.
She added: "We have made no threats to shut down this venue. We are duty-bound to enforce this legislation that the Scottish Executive has put in place."
However, a theatre licence could be refused to someone who broke health or safety regulations.
Across the Fringe this year, producers have played with the no-smoking theme. In the play Talk Radio, Phil Nicol fiddles constantly with a lighter but cannot get it to work. In Leveland a hidden packet of cigarettes is fished out of a filing cabinet.
The council has already threatened one much smaller Fringe venue, the Hill Street Theatre, with losing its licence after the director, Tomek Borkowy, said he would not ban performers from smoking. Mr Borkowy got his licence after agreeing to write to his producers telling them about the law.
In Allegiance, Smith plays Churchill opposite Michael Fassbender as the Irish nationalist Michael Collins. It chronicles the strange bond the two struck up after meeting in 1921.
Half an hour into the action yesterday, Smith brought a box of Havana cigars from a sideboard and offered Fassbender a cigar "rolled on the thigh of a Cuban maid".
There was silence in the theatre as Smith pulled out a cigar, flicked his lighter, brushed the flame on the end of the cigar - then put it down.
Later, Churchill tells Fassbender: "I've little love for those puritans who seek to curb us from drinking, smoking, pleasure."
One member of yesterday's audience, Charlie Wood, of Edinburgh, said: "It's iconic, Churchill's cigar. But it was quite well done; [Smith] fiddled with it and then appeared to be distracted.
Peter Susman, of Guildford, Surrey, said: "It gives the impression of Churchill smoking, which of course he did throughout. It's the same way that someone doesn't have to become mad to portray madness on stage."
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