Brian Ferguson: Critics essential to festival

Picture: Jane Barlow
Picture: Jane Barlow
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IF YOU can’t speak your mind, you’re nothing. It’s an old piece of advice, but a good one. Those words sprang to mind over the last few days as some lively festival debates gathered momentum.

There was something quite apt about Nica Burns stirring the embers of controversy over the importance of critics at the Fringe and the quality of entertainment being served up in free shows.

I thought Ms Burns – long-time mastermind of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards – was going out on a bit of a limb with her call for something to be done to protect the endangered species of the comedy critic. She’s a bit of an endangered species herself these days in being as wonderfully outspoken and cheerfully candid as ever. Old warhorses like William Burdett-Coutts and Tomek Borkowy have been far too quiet for my liking.

In an age where it seems anyone can secure a press pass and become a reviewer, the spotlight has fallen upon the critics themselves over the last couple of weeks.

This festival has already seen them in the firing line more than I can recall, with plans for a planned tomato-hurling contest at those who have dished out the harshest reviews, unseemly spats over star ratings and their value, and the stooshie over whether or not Scotland’s playwrights have shunned the independence debate this year – which has remarkably created more headlines than any other issue thus far.

Meanwhile, a long-standing Fringe critic is facing a threat of legal action from the director of a show who didn’t take kindly to his review, while one prominent writer from south of the Border has questioned whether Scotland’s pack of reviewers are prone to “protecting their own” by lavishing praise on home-grown productions – with the suggestion being they are somehow being “too soft” when the Fringe comes around.

Last year writer and director Guy Masterson set the cat among the pigeons by mounting a campaign against star ratings, a “dramatic” rise in the number of Fringe reviewers, and the sheer volume of review sites. Within weeks, he had built up a fair amount of support.

Over the weekend I also read of calls for some kind of quality control to be imposed over Fringe reviewers. There have been calls for the Fringe to seize the agenda, set firm guidelines for critics and even urge the abandonment of star ratings from the many publications that use them, including The Scotsman.

In one respect, Nica Burns is on the money. There is no doubting the importance of experienced critics – many of whom have been plying their trade for decades – to the festivals.

Their views are needed to cut through the blizzard of social media and PR industry hype that has become an increasing feature of the Fringe, where everything is “five stars”, “fantastic”, “life-changing” and “the best thing at the festival”.

Venues, artists, publicists and producers know fine the difference between a first-rate review by an established critic in a quality publication and a newcomer blog. So do the ticket-buying public. But if the Fringe in particular prides itself on being an open-access festival, then criticism of shows has to be unfettered as well, surely?

With many Fringe shows relying on any kind of review they can muster for ticket sales, why attempt to curb those who can criticise or comment on them?

Where Ms Burns is perhaps on shakier ground is the suggestion that free shows are not the best place to enjoy a quality Fringe experience. She almost issued a public health warning about the dangers of consuming half-baked Fringe shows when you don’t hand over any money for a ticket.

While this may well have been the case a decade ago, the Fringe landscape seems transformed in that time. Well over 800 of the 3,000-odd shows at the Fringe do not charge any admission fee. For me, it’s a badge of honour that it is more affordable now than in 2001.

When you include the many exhibitions and visual art installations that can be seen across Edinburgh this month, I think free shows arguably offer a better prospect for a rounded festival experience – especially for anyone baffled by the sheer volume of the Fringe programme.

With the high profile now attached to the Forest Fringe and the kind of names now plying their trade at free comedy shows, even those under-fire critics might agree with me.