BOSSES at one of the Fringe’s biggest venues insisted they were delivering “new shows, new writing and new talent” after what they called an “unfair” attack by comedian Stewart Lee on big commercial concernsoperating under the Edinburgh Comedy Festival banner.
Underbelly co-director Ed Bartlam spoke out at the launch of his venue’s 2012 offering, which includes 137 companies appearing in 14 performance spaces concentrated on the city’s South Side, after Lee slated an “Etonian cabal” based with other big venues in a “wasteland of alcohol-banner festooned architecture around Bristo Square”.
“Some people would like you to believe that everything we and our neighbouring venues do is about big commercial shows and big acts, and nothing could be further from the truth,” Bartlam said. “We programme far more shows in 50-70 seat spaces than in 5-600 seat spaces.
“Yes, those big shows are important… but ultimately what the Fringe is about and we’re about is putting on new shows, new writing, and new talent. It’s unfair of anyone to say we don’t encourage that or promote it or want to do it.”
Clearly stung by Lee’s lengthy attack in a newspaper column as the Fringe kicks off this weekend, Mr Bartlam said he and co-director Charlie Wood “never made any bones about the fact we are from Eton”.
“We were Etonians, when Stewart had three or four very successful years performing with us,” he said.
Mr Bartlam said he and Mr Wood founded their venue 12 years ago entirely on cash-flow after first coming here as students.
Lee took aim at the “big four” venues, the Underbelly, Assembly, Pleasance, and Gilded Balloon, which operate partly together under the branding of the “previously non-existent” Edinburgh Comedy Festival.
They monopolise press attention in a “broken system” where heavy charges can see performers parting with as much as £10,000, he said. The Stand comedy boss Tommy Sheppard – also managing the Assembly Rooms this year where Lee is performing – pressed home the case yesterday that his operation was offering a fairer deal to performers.
“No-one in this programme has paid a deposit or a guarantee, to be able to play on these stages. Not a single person.
“If we win and make money we will share the money out among us all. If we don’t make money, the last thing we want to do is to present an artist with an invoice at the end of all this.”
Fringe chief executive Kath Mainland declined to intervene in the dispute. “It is an open access festival, anything can be part of it, they can do anything they want, it encourages a place where there can be a discourse and different opinons,” she said. “Commercial isn’t a dirty word.”