Fern Brady interview: "I got given the flu so I could pay for my Fringe"

Fern Brady by Matt CrockettFern Brady by Matt Crockett
Fern Brady by Matt Crockett
Fern Brady hosts the Edinburgh Unlocked audiobook showcasing 23 upcoming acts who were supposed to be appearing at this year’s festival. She is effusive in her introductions for her fellow comics but drily cynical about the Fringe itself. Interview by Jay Richardson

Anyone seeking a bleak portent for the desperate state that live comedy is now in needn’t look further than a moment during Fern Brady’s 2019 Edinburgh Fringe run. Back then, with a record number of festival shows listed, the idea that comedians and their industry would need to appeal to the government for a financial bailout, or that the circuit would start to address the misogyny at its core with a series of #MeToo disclosures, would have seemed inconceivable.

And yet there was Brady last August, finishing what she felt was a strong performance of Power and Chaos, a show where she felt she’d really started to find her voice after a decade in stand-up, being literally manhandled by her crowd and ignored in her request for a donation by an ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer.

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“My audience would be an eccentric bunch,” the Bathgate-born comic ventures. “There was an autistic man that wanted to chat a lot before and after the show. And an enormous man wearing bike leathers who looked exactly like Charles Bronson, he had a huge handlebar moustache and chains around his neck.

“These two were trying to hug me in a corner. It was terrifying and my tech was trying to protect me. And as that was happening, Alistair Darling’s head loomed into the background, like a vision. I’d done a good show that day, he looked me right in the eyes and we stared at each other. Then he didn’t drop any money in my bucket.”

Brady is now the host of Edinburgh Unlocked, a new audiobook from Penguin Random House, showcasing 23 upcoming acts who were supposed to be appearing at this year’s festival. She is effusive in her introductions for her fellow comics but drily cynical about the Fringe itself. The festival, she maintains, is an exploitative web of production, publicity and living costs that preys on comedians, “mentally ill people who aren’t good with money.”

Brady estimates that coronavirus has already cost her upwards of £10,000 in lost live work. Even so, she considers herself one of the lucky ones, established enough to have other revenue streams. She fears for newer comics who had gambled on 2020 being their breakout Fringe. She financed a previous August by taking part in medical trials. “A few of us have done it,” she states matter-of-factly. “I got given the flu so I could pay for my Fringe. When I think of things like that, it’s hard for me to be affectionate about Edinburgh.”

Still, her dedication is paying off. The success of the Jennifer Lopez film Hustlers, with its ambivalent view of lap dancing, has boosted interest in a BBC Scotland sitcom pilot she’s penned about her former occupation as a stripper. Although she’s guarded about its prospects, a commission sounds like it could be imminent.

Earlier this week she launched the podcast Wheel Of Misfortune on BBC Sounds with her friend and fellow Catholic comedian Alison Spittle, in which they, their comedian guests and listeners confess their most embarrassing, cringe-inducing anecdotes. And she was fortunate enough to shoot Power and Chaos in Glasgow just before lockdown, for the hip US label 800 Pound Gorilla Records to release as a special on an as-yet-unannounced platform.

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“That week I’d done a warm-up gig for it in London and I remember my agent was frantically sanitising his hands, saying this virus was going to be the end of the world,” Brady recalls. “We were laughing at him. I even went on stage wearing a mask as a joke. But he was right!”

With its sleek neon backdrop emblazoned with her name, images from the recording make it seem like what it is, a portrait of a smart, young, provocative comic at the height of her powers. For added edge, the crew only just made it over from Los Angeles. “They almost couldn’t get here, it was confirmed at the last minute” she says.

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Unfortunately, the crowd “were almost all old people. Which was surprising because my audiences have been getting younger. But I realise now it was because younger people are more cautious about the virus and hadn’t showed up.”

Edinburgh Unlocked is available to buy now at www.penguin.co.uk

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