‘I saw them long before they became famous’ is a common Fringe-goer’s boast. But, as Fiona Shepherd discovers, there’s a good reason for that
All the world’s a stage, but if you want to strut it for a living, you could do worse than apprentice at one of the 200-plus fringe festivals which currently take place around the world. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the oldest and biggest beast of the global fringe community, and thanks to its open access policy, any aspiring thesp or comedian can be included in the programme, provided you can find a venue, cupboard or cubicle to host your show. For that reason, it’s a great leveller, and stars are born here every year, often after cutting their teeth elsewhere on the international fringe circuit. These guys all had to start somewhere…
Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson
This luvvie triangle were all members of the Cambridge Footlights troupe who won the inaugural Perrier Comedy Award in 1981, following in the Footlight footsteps of previous alumni such as John Cleese, who was part of the Fringe revue group in 1963.
Fry was already an old hand – his play Latin! or Tobacco and Boys won a Fringe First in 1980. He and Laurie formed their toff double act before Laurie became one of the highest paid actors in television for his title role in House. Thompson went on to add Oscars, Emmys and Baftas to her awards cabinet.
Flight of the Conchords/Rhys Darby
Wellington duo Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie commenced their illustrious musical comedy career in a four-piece band called Moustache who first performed at the Wellington Fringe late night festival club to a “mildly impressed” audience. Jettisoning their trumpet and double bass player, and renamed as Flight of the Conchords, they played early gigs at the Calgary and Vancouver Fringe Festivals before first charming the Edinburgh Fringe in 2002.
Incidentally that same year, another upcoming New Zealand comic, Rhys Darby, performed his first solo show in Edinburgh before sealing his cult comedy fate in the role of Flight of the Conchords’ fictional manager Murray.
The late, much-loved comedian visited the Edinburgh Fringe while studying drama at California’s College of Marin. His student theatre company performed a Wild West-set version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew in 1971, with Williams donning his chaps as wily manservant Tranio.
Another Cambridge alumnus who founded theatre company Talking Tongues with her fellow student Sasha Hails and brought improv two-hander Slight Possession to the 1991 festival, winning a Guardian Youth Drama Award for her troubles. “It was just me and Sasha in floral dresses with a stepladder, hurling each other around the stage until we bled,” recalls Weisz, but when the show transferred to Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre, Weisz was spotted by an agent and a career in film beckoned.
The Fringe’s favourite playwright first enjoyed success on the Dublin Fringe in 1996 with his play Disco Pigs, which transferred to Edinburgh to great acclaim the following year. Walsh went on to write the book for the stage musical adaptation of Once and collaborated with David Bowie on his stage swansong Lazarus. A 20th anniversary production of Disco Pigs runs in London this summer, featuring Harry Potter star Evanna Lynch.
Noah was already established as a comedian and TV presenter in his native South Africa when he made his Fringe debut with stand-up show The Racist in 2012. “Have charisma, will travel” noted The Scotsman’s Jay Richardson in his four-star review. Noah won the Malcolm Hardee Award for Act Most Likely To Make a Million Quid that same year and went on to fulfil its prediction as host of the esteemed US satirical news programme The Daily Show.
Norton’s drag show Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Grand Farewell Tour stopped in at the Pleasance in 1991. Two years later, he invited us to the no less tasteful Karen Carpenter Bar and Grill before his television career took off, first portraying the hyper-enthused Father Noel in Father Ted and then going on to rule the chat show waves and become the droll voice of the Eurovision Song Contest.
On the subject of celebrated chat shows hosts… Craig Ferguson returns to the Edinburgh Fringe this August for the first time in almost a quarter of a century to perform at new Gilded Balloon venue the Rose Theatre. Back in the mid-80s, he stomped around the city in his shouty, strident, embittered comedy persona as Bing Hitler, where he was spotted by a US agent and persuaded to move stateside. He first entered the television sets of a nation via a recurring role in The Drew Carey Show and hit household name status as the host of The Late Late Show until 2014.
The Canadian comic who created Austin Powers among other goofy characters is another who benefited from the patronage of Karen Koren in her pre-Gilded Balloon days when she promoted comedians at McNallys club on Palmerston Place. Myers pitched up in 1985 in an improv double act with American comedian Neil Mullarkey. Their show was immediately followed by a stand-up trio including one Paul Martin, now better known as Paul Merton; buoyed up by their Edinburgh experience, Myers, Mullarky and Merton founded the Comedy Store Players later that year in London.
The TV sitcom queen is pretty frank about her 1994 Fringe debut in Hurrell and Hart – “a terrible show” which regularly attracted an audience of none. She enjoyed better fortune in The Sitcom Trials in 2001, when she showcased You Say Potato, a prototype for the hugely successful Miranda.
Steve Coogan/Frank Skinner
Steve Coogan had his first somewhat dispiriting taste of the Edinburgh Fringe in 1990 when he was regularly upstaged by his warm-up guy Frank Skinner. Coogan skipped the Fringe the following year; Skinner won the Perrier, beating off competition from upstart unknowns Jack Dee, Eddie Izzard and Lily Savage. Where are they now, eh? But Coogan returned to scoop the Perrier himself in 1992 with his character creations Paul Calf and Alan Partridge in tow, not to mention fellow-comedian John Thomson of subsequent Fast Show fame as MC.
Other notable Fringe alumni include...
Billy Connolly – wrote and starred (with Bill Paterson) in The Great Northern Welly Boot Show in 1972, about a workers’ occupation of a welly factory, with Connolly covering technical snafus with jokes and tunes.
Sammy J & Randy Feltface – two top Aussie comedians for the price of one in the 2008 Adelaide and Edinburgh Fringe hit puppet musical Sammy J in the Forest of Dreams.
Rowan Atkinson – joined the Oxford Revue at the 1976 Fringe where he met Blackadder and Mr Bean writer Richard Curtis
Mel & Sue – Cambridge Footlights alumni-turned-soggy bottom experts who debuted in Edinburgh with Planet Pussycat in 1996. “Space skunks from Surrey,” they said.
Matt Lucas & David Walliams – the Little Britain stars first collaborated in the Sir Bernard Chumley shows from 1995 to 1997.