Edinburgh Festival: Chris Lynam on retiring his ‘nutter’ act

Chris Lynam has laid to rest his ‘nutter’ act in favour of playing with pathos, writes Kate Copstick

Chris Lynam's new show, featuring his alterego EricTheFred, is a 'deeply emotive' piece. Picture: Dee McCourt
Chris Lynam's new show, featuring his alterego EricTheFred, is a 'deeply emotive' piece. Picture: Dee McCourt
Chris Lynam's new show, featuring his alterego EricTheFred, is a 'deeply emotive' piece. Picture: Dee McCourt

IN THE early days of alternative comedy, the wild lads were proud of their mad, bad, dangerous-to-know lifestyle. Edinburgh during the Fringe used to be, for the comics, the kind of month that would have Bacchus himself heading for the nearest rehab clinic.

But when you talk of “burning the candle at both ends” no-one really did it like Chris Lynam.

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Almost literally, in one instance. Lynam, for those of you unfortunate enough never to have seen him in action, is the man, the clown, the legend who used to finish his act by sticking a three-stage Roman candle up his bottom, lighting it and dancing, naked, around the stage to the accompaniment of Ethel Merman singing There’s No Business Like Show Business. Ah, those were the days. You’re not going to get that kind of commitment to entertainment from Russell Howard now, are you?

And now he is back at the Fringe with a new full-length show. But don’t start phoning Health and Safety just yet.

“ErictheFred is a deeply emotive piece,” says Lynam of his new show. “An attempt to be accepted as a performer who is still funny, but who isn’t going to frighten the metaphorical horses. I know they are asking ‘what does the bloke who sticks a firework up his arse do for an encore?’… well, this is it.”

He has always been interested in classical clowning and – in the times when it seemed he disappeared – he frequently worked with Russian performance art spectacle Slava’s Snowshow. “There’s quite a few of my ideas in there,” he muses. “In fact, the main idea is taken from a show I did… the snow… He put a wind machine behind it though… good luck to him, he’s done it better.”

Those who remember his act from years ago will recall that much of it was, broadly, clowning. Just not particularly classical clowning. “But that was what was true to my heart… Chris Lynam the Nutter,” he says.

“How long were you a nutter?” I enquire. “Forty years… 42… I still do it but it is getting harder and harder to get gigs now.” he says. Fireworks exploding indoors presumably worry people too much these days.

“The Nutter was always very popular with audiences and with my peers. It is just the bookers who think I’m out of control because I am whacking apples on a table and throwing them around, getting in among the audience and hitting people with a hat. In Montreal at the Just for Laughs Festival an old man faked a heart attack… it was hilarious but it frightened the producer into not taking me on the tour.”

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So now, with the new show, Chris has said goodbye to The Nutter, at least temporarily. “I’ve deliberately placed all these restrictions on myself,” he says. “Like I have always had a great head of hair, and I’ve always combed it straight up and out.” Which is why, he agrees, he seems so much shorter in person than he does on stage.

“I’ve got a bald cap in this show. I love jumping off stage into the audience and attacking them, so with this show I have a screen in front of the stage – that’s what we project on to.

“I’ve taken away all the elements that have upset people,” he says. And sighs: “The things audiences like…”

The show began with more or less a sketch, which excited interest and got a grant to produce a 25-minute version which was taken up and turned into the show that is here now. Once EricTheFred was born, he grew up pretty fast.

“He is totally inoffensive, because I am funny” says Lynam. “EricTheFred is a name I came up with 25 years ago as a clown name.” He pauses. “It should be a successful show for me. It’s silent, so there’s no international problems. I surmounted them with the Nutter because falling down with a firework up your arse is…”

“Pretty much international?” I suggest.

Of course, the Fringe has changed massively since last he spent August here

“Eighteen years ago, look how inventive it was. I was up here with Ken Campbell doing The Wall in a disused cinema. We had to empty out a lake to use it. A 24-hour-long play, 50 actors, no budget – who would take those chances now?

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“I’m almost a novice as it has changed so much. No-one drinks any more, no-one gets f***** up. Now they’re all, ‘a pint of milk please’. If it improved the material it would be OK. Mind you, I don’t know if I could cope with all that this year as this show is very demanding.”

He is bowled over by the fact that there is a whole section devoted to Physical Theatre now. And has watched the rise of some of comedy’s newer “nutters”, being a particular fan of Candy Gigi and Spencer Brown’s The Herbert.

He is also, unsurprisingly, a big fan of the various Free Fringe organisations. “I tried to find a Free Fringe venue,” he says “but the set is ten metres wide and five high so… “ he shrugs. “Assembly have been great. The venue is just beautiful.”

There is a lot riding on this one for Chris Lynam. He has to get it right.

“Getting it right has been difficult, ” he says seriously. “Playing with the pathos has been tricky.” Surprising as it might seem to those who remember only the fireworks and the craziness, Lynam is not a stranger to pathos.

“Look at the sketches I did – my version of Wonderful World – so much pathos in it,” he points out. But the balance is trickier here. “We had them coming out crying. Which is not what we’re aiming for. Overall, the thing’s got to be joyous.

“I don’t have a pension,” says Lynam. “After 30 years. This show is the culmination… this is what I’ve got left.”

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• ErictheFred is at Assembly Roxy, until August 30, tomorrow 9:45pm.