I’ve been going to the Fringe Festival for as long as I can remember. It remains the seminal arts event in Britain today, only behind Glastonbury in its symbolism. But this year, I couldn’t help but detect a lethargy about the place. There’s the usual press of bodies on the Royal Mile, as tourists, festival goers and performers jostle for standing space, and flyers are thrust at you from every direction. There’s still an energy there.
For people like me, it’s more the energy of an old bull elephant, though, rather than of a sprightly herd of impala. The heritage is there. The scale is there. There’s something, if not noble, then certainly important about it. Edinburgh is powerful. But it now lumbers along, slowly being crushed by its own vast weight.
That’s not to say that the whole thing is stolid. For the young, armed with smart phones and Tinder, the bars of the city at festival time are still a hell of a hunting ground. It’s still a place to forge friendships and have experiences that won’t be replicated anywhere else. This isn’t an obituary.
Where it has started to feel tired is the creeping corporate nature of the event. Every square inch is plastered with advertisements, but the sheer number of performers, all, seemingly, commanding four-star reviews, saturates the punters’ consciousness, leaving them overwhelmed with the illusion of choice, made all the worse by the inability to distinguish one act from another. If all reviews are equal, how on earth can anything break through unless by chance?
Of course, the big draws are the TV comedians. Their uber agents, you can tell, are earning their keep, such is the volume of poster space given over to the acts regularly appearing on BBC panel shows. but why is this necessary? Does Frankie Boyle really need his show Prometheus Volume 1 plastered all over the city, when it has sold out, and word of mouth would surely do the rest?
Alongside a powerful tribe of publicists, the omnipresence of these acts, and the stranglehold many of them have over the genre, must in part fuel the feeling that satire and stand up in Britain aren’t what they used to be. That’s an old codgers’ approach to everything these days, but it rings true in comedy. The same faces and voices doing the same expressions and mannerisms about the same old tired topics. Why would you bother turning up?
Keith Allen isn’t. As part of his roadshow to advertise The Establishment Club, he is pointedly staying away from the Fringe, even though his Routemaster bus will be in attendance. An attempt to find bright new comic and political performers, the Establishment Club needs to take a chance on the Scottish capital. You can understand, though, why Allen might have thought twice about whether it was worth his while showing up.
If comedy is in the doldrums, then theatre barely gets a look in. It’s more demanding of your time, and anything that isn’t by an established name or company is always going to struggle, but then it becomes a vicious cycle for anyone to make any headway.
But the decline of Edinburgh is perhaps most keenly felt in the way it is now covered by the press. National papers still run reviews on it , of course, but fewer features, perhaps owing to what has been mentioned above: that they feel it’s all been done before, and it isn’t cost effective to keep repeating the same content. There is less inclination for papers to send serious correspondents to fish out emerging talent and unheralded shows for themselves, whilst PR’s lack the inclination, or the ambition, to go after front pages for lesser known clients.
Instead, they defer to local Scottish journalists and specialist comedy writers for the pick of the bunch, or stick to the established acts. In effect, they are subconsciously relegating it to a regional event. If that attitude persists, that feeling will creep into the minds of the public, too.
And that is the biggest danger for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Not that some spectacular, ‘Trumpesque’ calamity destroys it overnight. The danger is that it will diminish , slowly, into the background noise of Britain’s cultural scene, subsumed by the tide of patented, packaged, tried and tested routines we all know. The Fringe always got its verve from being different and edgy, a constant stream of new mammals evolving on the savannah.
If that stream dries up, the savannah may become uninhabitable. A bad smell of extinction follows Home sapiens around the world