Very little is forever at the Edinburgh Fringe. Renting a rancid flat that still smells of failed exams for £50 an hour. Rain. And Mervyn Stutter. And the greatest of these is Mervyn Stutter.
Standing astride the Fringe, pink of jacket and wide of smile for 25 years. Thirty years if you count life before Pick of the Fringe when Merv was a singer of comedy songs and mocker of the great and not so good.
He still is, but now he confines his performances to the start of each Pick Of The Fringe. You should see him, he has definitely still got it.
“I’m a shock absorber,” he says modestly, of his role in filling for time if necessary and cutting himself altogether if the jugglers from Mesopotamia have overrun. But he is so much more. And, over the years, it has not always been as easy as he makes it look.
“One of the things I used to do was to go down to Holyrood Park and stand on the back of lorries and do shows,” he says, recalling what used to be Fringe Sunday. “No lights, no nothing. I remember standing on a lorry playing to just a couple of families having a picnic, singing away with a howling gale blowing, and I was thinking, ‘they probably can’t hear a thing … but in Leith they’d be getting it all loud and clear.’ All of that has gone now.”
Merv started at the Fringe in 1987 with the solo shows and had been coming as a punter since 1977 when the programme was so small you could pretty much memorise it.
But the biggest change for Merv has been “the mobile phone. That is the biggest difference I can see.
“And it is … more professional … if that is the word. It is a trade fair now. If I ask theatre people to pick five minutes out of their show like we used to, they will already have a little montage / trailer ready. They are brought up on a different set of values …they are the internet generation and for them what is important is what will look good online.”
The interweb was barely ‘a thing’ when Merv started. And, not to put too fine a point on it, the show has a promiscuous track record.
“We started at the Pleasance, ’cos I went to Christopher Richardson and he said ‘yes, sounds like a great idea’. The other big venues were not so keen. I don’t think they were really into the idea of promoting other venues’ shows.” And it all went very well.
“Then we went to Pleasance Over The Road (now the Roxy), we opened the Dome for the Pleasance, went to the Gilded and then there was a sort of a hiccup and we ended up in the Bosco Tent.”
He giggles. “The audience loved being in a tent and the acts bloody lapped it up! But an hour and a half on metal seats…
“Then we went back to Pleasance Beyond, which was a great venue for me. The trouble was that the university had some sort of sports counselling unit below, which was carrying on during the Fringe. And they couldn’t have any noise. Even an a cappella group of boys who just shuffled a bit clicking their fingers made too much noise for them. The lads eventually had to perform in stockinged feet and on a carpet.”
Now Merv is back at the Gilded Balloon Teviot and loving it.
Does he find it much easier now that the show is so well known? He sighs.
“Before, if you went to see a show and loved it you would sit around after a show, when the audience was cleared and you’d go up to the performer and say ‘That was great, would you like to be on my show?’ and they’d say ‘Yes!’ and then they’d turn up.
“Now people have … ‘people’ and mostly that is not a problem … but it is another layer of admin and bureaucracy.”
Ah, the gatekeepers. I find just climbing over the fence the best way, I tell him. “We have found that there are – some – people who can be a little obstructive; you know, the ‘My boy is going to be famous’ type and that boy is playing to five people and he is saying ‘please let me come and do your show’.
“Sometimes we get canny and help the boy out. I mean, why should someone play to ten people when they’re great, just because they’ve got an agent or a management who are saying ‘Meh, we’re not sure’. That whole aspect has changed.”
We both get a bit misty eyed for the good old days.
“Doug Anthony All Stars are back” says Merv, perking up. “They used to walk their audiences into other people’s shows. I don’t think you could get away with that now.”
Unusually for someone who is a performer himself, Merv is all about the other people on his show.
“On my 20th anniversary I actually did a full solo show again and realised the bleeding obvious – you cannot , just because you have run a showcase show for 20 years on the Fringe, assume that people are gonna come because you’ve decided to do a solo show.
“Critics loved it. I got more critics than I got audience because I didn’t have the time to devote to getting crowds in for that as well as Pick Of The Fringe and I have to work on Pick Of The Fringe because from day one if I didn’t have a crowd there for my invited acts to perform...”
He spreads his hands and shrugs. “As a solo performer on a wet Thursday you’ll perform to five people. But if my numbers dropped, the story would soon go round: ‘Don’t bother doing Merv’s show, it’s not worth it.’ So I have always worked like a demon to get audiences.”
Over the years young and unknown performers like Omid Djalili (first as an actor and then as a comic) and Ed Byrne (then doing a show called Young Gifted And Green) have felt the MervLove. The League Of Gentlemen rocked the Pick stage.
“They wore dinner suits and had a sitting room screen and they did all the grotesque with rubber bands,” he remembers with more than a little enthusiasm. “It was a theatrical tour de force.”
But hasn’t it all just got too big and industrial now, I ask, dinosaur to dinosaur.
“I blame the size of the Fringe on people like me, who haven’t gone away,” he says surprisingly. So has he thought about what he might do if he – heaven forfend – stopped coming to the Fringe? “I would sit at home alone with 30 Fringe programme covers and a bottle of whisky and cry.”
Mervyn Stutter’s Pick of the Fringe, Gilded Balloon Teviot, until 28 August. Today, 1pm.