Edinburgh Festival: Celebrating 30 years of the Gilded Balloon

Comedian Arthur Smith . Picture: Jane Barlow
Comedian Arthur Smith . Picture: Jane Barlow
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ABOUT three times a year I am accosted by someone in the street who smiles knowingly and asks: “Hey! do you remember that night in the Gilded Balloon?” Their expression suggests it was one hell of a fandango we shared but, alas, I usually disappoint them – there were so many memorable nights in that wild, alcoholic, nocturnal playground that, by now, I have forgotten most of them.

This is the Gilded Balloon of the late 1980s and 1990s, before the road of excess led me to the uplands of sobriety and before there were too many comedians for there to be just the one late-night hub. And what a hub it was. Very few performers come off stage and feel like an early night and the Gilded Balloon was the place you went when everything else was closing and most normal mortals were falling into bed. You could watch the Late and Live cabaret, hang out with fellow comics, compare notes on shows, share gossip, badmouth reviewers, fall into an argument about Jerry Sadowitz and dance furiously before heading home as the sun rose, probably with a stage manager you had met an hour earlier. It was our equivalent of the Hacienda, Studio 54 or the Algonquin.

The Gilded Balloon is the baby of the formidable, glamorous, comedy-loving Karen Koren, who opened it originally as a venue for some friends to put on shows on the Fringe. The building she chose, deliciously situated on the Cowgate at the dark bottom of the Old Town hill, between and beneath the Bridges, had once been a department store and, before that, a warehouse that supplied silk to a shop called the Gilded Balloon – a name which definitely beats “the Assembly Rooms” for colour and romance. Nearby neighbours were legendary boozers Bannermans and the Green Tree, which became, for many of us Fringe performers, brave and welcoming outposts of the Balloon.

Karen, and the team she gathered round her, provided, in several venues within the building, a platform for dozens of new shows and performers, many of whom, like Eddie Izzard and Fred MacAulay, went on to become household names.

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I did my first one-man show here in 1988, the same year Karen inaugurated So You Think You’re Funny?, one of the first New Act competitions. I compered the first four or five finals and was impressed – not to say alarmed – by the increasing numbers of brilliant new stand-ups.

Winners and participants over the years include Rhona Cameron, Lee Mack, Dylan Moran, Tommy Tiernan, Peter Kay, Ed Byrne, Jason Byrne, Ardal O’Hanlon, Johnny Vegas and the Cheeky Girls (OK, I made the last one up – I was just checking you were still paying attention).

But it was the Late and Live nights that provided the greatest adventures. From the outside, the venue looked grey and uninviting but owners of the gold card that gave you entry were deeply envied. The foyer was tiny and led straight to the dimly-lit, slightly scruffy bar from where you could access the main theatre with its high ceiling, its faintly churchy quality and its raucous stalls.

If you wished to be at the edge of the storm you could walk up the rickety stairs to the balcony which had another tiny bar and various outlying nooks and crannies for secret assignations or moments of reflection. One night I was among a bunch of performers, led by the theoretician of alternative comedy Tony Allen, who relentlessly heckled the Oxford Revue for being privileged toffs. Since that incident I am glad to say that Richard Herring and Stewart Lee, who were among the victims of the barracking, have forgiven me, as has Adam Hills who I also felt the need to heckle one night in the 90s.

I performed there frequently myself, sometimes in outlandish ventures. Ronnie Golden, Tony Hawks, Steve Frost, myself – and a couple of others I have now forgotten – formed a dance troupe of out-of-shape comedian/strippers known as the Oven-ready Chippendales (this was long before The Full Monty). Caroline Quentin choreographed us, in so far as it was possible, while Paul Merton bought a cigar and became our manager. Paul promised that a number of big Hollywood agents would be in attendance at our début performance on stage at Late and Live and that a booking in Las Vegas was a shoo-in. Our maiden performance lumbered loudly along to a blizzard of loud, ironic screaming and was deemed to have gone well, but not so well that we ever did it again.

Then, in December 2002, the building burned down and an era was somehow over. But not the Gilded Balloon, nor the redoubtable Karen who relocated the whole enterprise to where it ­remains today, Teviot Row House, the lofty, mock gothic nearly-castle on Bristo Square, which is part of the student union for the rest of the year. More venues opened within the building, such that this year there are nine performance spaces, three bars, a restaurant, a nightclub and a beer garden.

Late and Live, though no longer really a rendezvous for comics, has continued, and the Balloon has helped create new Fringe stars like Daniel Kitson and Tim Minchin (though for reasons unclear to me his name must never be mentioned in front of Karen). And now it has an anniversary, or maybe birthday, or, for some of us, a reminder of our mortality. And to help celebrate this momentous 
occasion myself and Steve Frost will be leading three tours of the areas in and around the Gilded Balloons, telling tales of past shows and strange antics, while enjoying once again the pavements and cobbles of this marvellous old city.

And with any luck some memories will return and next time I am asked about a wild night in the Gilded Balloon, I will cry: “Yes, of course 
I do!”

• The Gilded Balloon celebrates its birthday with a 30th Anniversary Gala, tomorrow at 8pm. Arthur Smith and Steve Frost’s Gilded Balloon 30th Anniversary Comedy Walk, 24-26 August, 9pm.