One night, in January 2012 in a bar in Tollcross, my experience of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe changed forever.
Andy Gray and I were in the final weeks of The King’s panto run that year and we were between a matinee and an evening performance. We had just finished a meeting with the Gilded Balloon’s Karen Koren and clinked glasses of Coca Cola (Andy and I had a show to do, mind!) and agreed a partnership which is now entering its fifth Fringe.
As someone who is Edinburgh born and bred, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has been part of every year of my life. But up until that meeting, it had been just two-fold; in my early years, it was part of my social life, dipping in and out as I chose, and then in the 1990s, when I worked at Radio Forth, it became part of my working life too.
For example, one year I was asked to take over the Drive Time show for the duration of the Fringe, live from one of the Underbelly’s cavernous venues just off the Grassmarket. As it was the Fringe, I had a co-host each week. Two of whom were Adam Hills and Alan Carr, both of whom have moved on from stand up comedy into careers as hugely successful broadcasters. I like to think I taught them all they know.
Another “before they were famous” encounter came some years previously in the early 90s. A guest had been arranged for my show and I was told he’d be good chat and “probably quite funny” as he “was one of the guys who did the voices on Spitting Image”. So the day came and about 20 minutes before he was due in the studio, I took a call from reception. “That’s someone called Steve Coogan on the phone for you?” This was my guest, due on air in the next ten minutes, so naturally I took the call. He told me he was “a bit tired” and “wasn’t able to make the interview” but “wanted to call personally to apologise”. At the time, I wasn’t impressed as I had lost a guest but in retrospect I always think it was a nice touch to call in one of his, now legendary, hangovers.
Jack Dee was another present-day legend who was a bit of a let-down. Not as big a let-down as Steve Coogan, because he actually turned up, but in so much that he refused, point blank, to give any tasters of his show on air as he didn’t want to spoil it for the audience. Fair enough, but given that I had prepared my whole interview on all the topics he was covering in his show, it’s safe to say that this probably wasn’t the most entertaining interview I had ever done.
So, fast forward to 2012 and Andy Gray and I have been working together in panto for years. By this time, as much as I loved (and still do love) playing the baddie, I was desperate to try my hand at some straight acting. But I was fully aware that Sir Kenneth Branagh wasn’t going to be knocking on my door anytime soon. Andy and I were discussing this one evening and he just came out with it and said: “I’ll do a play with you!”
And that was it. I phoned Karen to ask her for advice about how to put a play on and the next thing I knew we were in Henricks clinking our glasses.
Then in August 2013, I made my professional Fringe debut with Andy in the play “Kiss Me Honey, Honey!” I will never forget the fear I felt that first night, as long as I live. The lights went down and I knew that once I stepped out on that stage, I wasn’t getting off it until the show was finished.
We sold out the whole run that year, won a Scotsman Fringe First, took it on tour across Scotland and even played two packed nights in the place where we hatched this crazy plan, the King’s Theatre.
In 2014 we brought “Kiss Me” back to the Gilded Balloon for a limited run and we followed it up in 2015 with Ian Pattison’s wonderfully dark “Willie & Sebastian”. Last year Andy got himself cast in “River City” which meant he wasn’t able to commit to the Fringe, so I was on my own. Karen Koren suggested, sorry, told me to do a show on my own and the next thing I knew I was on stage in my own one man show “Tales from Behind the Mic” at The Gilded Balloon without Andy - although he did direct it with the creative leg of the team, Ryan Dewar.
My own show, something else I thought I’d never do. And I certainly won’t forget THAT first night either!
And I doubt I’ll forget the first night of this year’s Fringe either. Andy and I are back together in “Double Feature” a play about films and friendship written by Philip Differ and we cannot wait to get it up and in front of an audience in our new venue, The Gilded Balloon’s Rose Theatre.
It’s my fifth year at this mad, crazy, brilliant festival and, to be honest, I cannot imagine now not being a part of it.
Double Feature with Grant Stott and Andy Gray will be at Gilded Balloon’s Rose Theatre from 2-28 August www.gildedballoon.co.uk