Mervyn Stutter celebrates 30 years of Pick of the Fringe

Mervyn Stutter’s Pick of the Fringe is 30 years old. He shares some “wonderful and nuts” memories with Kate Copstick

Pretty much any conversation you have with Edinburgh Fringe veteran Mervyn Stutter leaves you admiring him just that little bit more. Who knew that he was a soap opera star? Oh yes, not only a properly villainous “sharp chap who shoots his cuffs and if he kills it would be a neat slice of his credit card” in Albion Market, but a Morris Dancer in EastEnders.

“But the in-house parties with the Corrie Street actors were fabulous!” he says. I probe no further, lest Merv's legendarily wholesome image be tarnished. Although I can almost smell the excitement at The Sun.

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Mini Merv had always been headed for the stars. But he was lucky enough to have had Alan Davison (later the first director of the Cockpit Youth Theatre London) as his English master at school. “He brought back huge and dangerous school plays. The Bacchae with teenage girls? That was a big risk for a staid old Grammar School.” Merv showing an early attraction to the “dangerous” and the “risky”, there. “Most significantly for me was his massive endeavour of taking a huge cast and crew in a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor to tour Bavaria on the quatercentenary of Shakespeare's birth. The Lord Chamberlain attended and gave us the title The Lord Chamberlain’s Men – the first company since Shakespeare's no less. My 16 year old self then knew exactly that this was the life for him.”

Mervyn Stutter is celebrating 30 years of his Pick of the Fringe show.Mervyn Stutter is celebrating 30 years of his Pick of the Fringe show.
Mervyn Stutter is celebrating 30 years of his Pick of the Fringe show.

This ever surprising Stutter lectured in Theatre and Comedy at Rose Bruford drama school and still evinces quite a passion for Commedia dell’arte. I feel a little ashamed that this surprises me, but it does. Merv's explanation of “clarity of gesture to convey intent and information” is an unexpected, but fascinating experience.

No one gets far in showbiz without a dollop of luck. Merv's dollop came in the form of BBC executive Jim Moir. “I'd been writing a topical song each week for Hayes on Sunday and the controller Jim Moir called me in and said he liked what I was doing and what else did I fancy doing. I told him I was writing stuff for my lot, the Baby Boomers. I called it Comedy for Menopausal Flower Children. He said that was the demographic he was after and gave me three comedy series which I called Love 40 – New Balls Please. It had my own rock parody songs in it too – the first ever radio rock and roll sitcom they said.”

And all this before many current Fringe performers were born. “There's two distinct Fringes really,” says Stutter. “Pre and post internet. Fringes used to be a bit of lark for so many acts but now it does feel more like a trade fair. The joyful chaotic informality has gone.”

Merv has – like me – a bottomless well of happy Fringe memories. “There was Marcel Steiner with his motorbike presenting theatre to an audience of one sat in the sidecar. DAAS marching their audience singing loudly into anyone else's show who had upset them. The guy performing in the tent next to Malcolm Hardee's complained about noise from his show, so the next night Malcolm drove a tractor right through the guy's tent while he was performing. There were shows presented in the back of a taxi, by comedians still in bed, even from the top of Arthur's Seat. Barry Ferns took a door frame up there every day through which you had to ‘enter’ whereupon he stamped your hand so you could get back in again. Nuts. Wonderful. The old days were great.”

Merv's Fringe himself started out in 1987 as performer. He graduated to Picker of the Fringe in 1992. “Pick of the Fringe was a brand new idea launched in the Pleasance old Cabaret Bar. £3 ticket for seven shows in 90 minutes – theatre, comedy, circus, cabaret, dance – the lot! All very informal as was the whole Fringe back then. Plenty of anarchy, pranks and stunts. In the early years if an act didn't show up then we'd just lean through the door of the Cabaret Bar and grab a passing comic from the Courtyard to do five minutes.”

Needless to say, in a month that loves its galas, Merv has a Birthday Bash planned. “To celebrate 30 years of POTF, I'm having a big charity Gala show in Pleasance Grand. I had a Gala for my 20th and 25th and all proceeds went to the township charity in Cape Town, the Imibala Trust, to build studios and run talent shows and provide tutors for the talented township kids. What's really thrilling this year is that some of those kids are coming to the Fringe this year with YES-YA-YEBO, a song and dance celebration of the 12 languages of South Africa. It'll be fantastic for audiences who supported my previous Galas to see how their money was spent.”

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Talking of spending money, were Merv put in charge of the whole shebang, what would he do? “A performer-authored blacklist of landlords with high rents for crappy digs. A cheap 'Fringe Rover' travel card for bus, tram and train to allow performers to rent in cheaper nearby locations. If the Fringe were to diminish in size and importance through high rents then maybe consider moving the festival to another town. Free Vitamin C and waterproofs for all.”

Meanwhile, you can help him fight for a fabulous Fringe. “We do try to seek out, if we can, those hidden Fringe gems from whatever genre.”

Mervyn Stutter’s Pick of the Fringe, Pleasance Courtyard, 12.40pm, until 26 August. Mervyn’s 30 Year Charity Gala, Pleasance Courtyard, 21 August, 2.30pm. If you want to perform at one of Mervyn Stutter’s shows you can contact him at [email protected].