Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Festival stars hope for ticket boost after poor opening

Flyerers promote Amnesty International's work for freedom of expression. Picture: Greg Macvean
Flyerers promote Amnesty International's work for freedom of expression. Picture: Greg Macvean
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PErformers and their backers at the Edinburgh Fringe are hoping for an increase in ticket sales as one of the worst festival openings in recent history has hit even the biggest comedians and fuelled angry complaints over the BBC’s free comedy shows.

Sales appear to have suffered across the board. The Underbelly, one of the biggest venues on the Fringe, has admitted sales are down for the first time after ten years of growth, while the boss of the neighbouring Gilded Balloon venue, Karen Koren, insisted hers are down by only 7-8 per cent – not the 30 per cent suggested by some.

“There are promoters and artists crying about sales,” one top comedy promoter told The Scotsman yesterday. “It’s the weather, and the Olympics, and a lot of free shows. It’s the toughest first week I’ve ever had.”

Fringe bosses are hoping that, with the Olympics over, the second half of the festival will ­improve.

Fringe chief executive Kath Mainland said this week that “the thousands of people who have been enjoying the world’s greatest sporting event in London can now look north to the world’s greatest cultural event”.

Some venues claimed sales were on the rise. But so far, it is the impact on comedy that has been most closely watched. The Olympics hit attendances for big name comedians such as Jason Byrne. A recent charity gala at the Assembly Rooms, with Daniel Kitson, Fred MacAuley and Daniel Sloss, was described as little more than half full when “there was a time when that would have been sold out in ­advance”.

In a measure of the concern, the BBC’s new Potterow centre, hailed at its opening last year as a welcome new venture bringing wider exposure to Edinburgh’s festival, now faces growing complaints. Leading comedy promoters spoke of concerns that while the BBC’s clout was bringing comedians to perform there, other shows were suffering.

Comedian Richard Herring, who is performing at the Underbelly, wrote on his blog this week about getting the worst audiences in seven years.

“I am being forced to accept that this is going to be a very quiet year in Edinburgh,” he wrote. “The only consolation – if it can be called that– is that it is seemingly the same for everyone.”

The Olympics, the recession, and high Edinburgh prices, he complained, “has sucked out all the punters as if someone opened the door on a space craft”.

Performer and writer Harry Deansway, meanwhile, lead public complaints about the BBC Potterow, close to the concentrated hub of southside Fringe venues. In a long essay on Facebook, he argued that “the BBC venue is wrong and is a real danger to the Fringe”. Free access to live recordings of flagship comedy shows, master classes with producers and Q and A’s with TV stars was “taking away audience from real Fringe shows,” he said.

Three top comedy promoters, who asked not to be named, had similar complaints, including about the venue’s mixed comedy shows which are free.

“It’s really cheeky that us promoters pay for the acts to come up to Edinburgh and then they nab them and pay them a pittance or nothing to do shows at Potterrow in mixed bill shows that go up against the hour shows that performers have spent all year working on,” said one.

A BBC spokeswoman said: “The majority of the shows at the BBC venue are relating to programming which are reflecting the fun and excitement of the festival to the UK while giving the local audience an opportunity to connect directly with BBC output.”

Big comedy turns may be filling up major spaces on the Fringe, such as the Pleasance Grand auditorium where acts such as The Boy with Tape on his Face appear. However, many believe the overflow of previous years, when these spaces sell out quickly and audiences go looking for smaller acts, is missing.

“We have too many satisfied punters, there isn’t overflow effect, there isn’t a cascade downward through the venues,” said one comedy promoter.

“Then what happens is for the smaller shows rely on people being forced to take a chance, find it very difficult to gain momentum, generated by word of mouth. You can’t sell a show unless you have good word of mouth.”

Another complaint has been that big venues are focused more on bar and food sales than on performers. But the Underbelly co-director, Ed Bartlam, suggested that people are looking for something to blame. He said: “Because we have all felt that sales have been difficult in the last couple of weeks it’s natural for venues, promoters, performers to look at reasons.”

Ms Koren at The Gilded Balloon, which has a track record of promoting lesser-known comedians, agreed “word of mouth” comedians are not doing so well. But she said: “Our sales from now on are in line and as good as last year.”