Comedy festival bows out at Edinburgh Fringe

THE four biggest Edinburgh Festival Fringe operators have ditched their breakaway “comedy festival” – six years after being accused of trying to operate a cartel to squeeze out smaller venues and rival promoters.

Comedian Stewart Lee. Picture: Contributed

The Scotsman has learned that the Pleasance, Assembly Rooms, Gilded Balloon and Underbelly have ditched their controversial promotional campaign following prolonged criticism.

They joined forces in 2008 – the year of the festival’s disastrous box office collapse – to promote all their comedy shows under the Edinburgh Comedy Festival (ECF) banner. The ECF staged a rival programme-launch, competing with the unveiling of the official Fringe guide.

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The move triggered complaints that festival-goers would be misled into thinking that all comedy shows at the Fringe were in the new guide, although the so-called “Big Four” venues insisted that other promoters were welcome to pay to be part of their joint guide.

The split – billed as an attempt to boost the marketing of shows in the major venues – represented one of the most divisive and damaging issues at the Fringe over the last decade.

The big venues’ ECF has been at the heart of complaints that the Fringe has become too commercialised in recent years, particularly with the growth of major venues around Edinburgh University’s main campus.

All four venues refused to discuss the dropping of the ECF from their promotional material.

Instead, a joint statement said they were “undertaking a re-evaluation of their joint representation on the Fringe”.

Last night it emerged that the two main outdoor areas, at Bristo Square and George Square, were expected to undergo a major “rebranding” this summer.

Comedy made up a third of the 2,871 shows in last year’s Fringe programme. One source said the four major venues had been stung by the repeated criticism and wanted to rethink their approach to joint marketing this summer.

The comedy “brand” idea was believed to have been hatched by two London-based promoters: Assembly, run by impresario William Burdett-Coutts, and Underbelly, run by Charlie Wood and Ed Bartlam. The new brand was pushed via more than 400,000 printed programmes.

The Fringe has been marred by a number of bitter spats since the advent of the ECF, amid claims it was being controlled by an “Etonian cabal” and “posh English blokes”.

In recent years, the ECF has staged a lavish programme launch just hours after the Fringe’s own event.

Comic Stewart Lee was among the most outspoken critics, accusing leading figures involved in the ECF of creating an “increasingly grotesque Philip K Dick-style wasteland of alcohol-banner-festooned architecture around Bristo Square”.

Stand Comedy Club director Tommy Sheppard revealed he had turned down an approach to get involved with the comedy festival venture, saying at the time: “It’s a great shame they are taking such a divisive attitude.”

At last year’s Fringe, one theatre director, Pippa Bailey called for a rethink of the whole Fringe and its domination by “super-venues”, claiming their economic model was “a monstrous machine suffocating artists and shows in its absolute excess.”

Last night’s joint statement said: “The four large Fringe operations, Assembly Festival, Gilded Balloon, the Pleasance and the Underbelly are undertaking a re-evaluation of their joint representation on the Fringe.

“The four organisations have now worked together in the current form for six years. In this time they have seen their joint audience grow from 850,000 to over 1.1 million tickets, representing a significant part of the Fringe of which everyone is part.

“The purpose of the current undertaking is to best consider how to serve both the audience and the artists that take part. The aspiration is to gather the best possible programme from around the world that, in particular, supports professional work on the Fringe.

“It will also evaluate how the branded presence of the organisations can work best for the public in the midst of the complexity of the festival. We want to make it easier for the public to identify who we are and what we stand for, in order that their festival experience can be improved.”

A spokesman for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society said: “It would be inappropriate for us to comment on the arrangements of individual participants and venues, particularly as registration for the 2014 Fringe remains open for another couple of weeks.”


“Edinburgh now threatens to become an oligarchy, a Chipping Norton of the arts”

Stewart Lee, comedian, pictured

“If being ‘commercial’ means attracting audiences to fuel ticket sales and returning more revenue to all involved, I’m not bashful about it”

Charlie Wood, director, Underbelly

“Any breakaway would not be a good development”

Nica Burns, director, Edinburgh Comedy Awards

“It will give comedy the platform it deserves whilst being a magnificent way of improving marketing”

William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director, Assembly