Knocker / The Slush Pile / Lunch With The Hamiltons
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2006 

I hadn't realised that my reputation as Fringehound extraordinaire had spread beyond my own immodest imaginings until last week, when a complete stranger approached me in the Pleasance courtyard: "Excuse me, are you Ian Shuttleworth?" – "Er, yes..." – "Can you recommend a good show at about 9.30?"

Despite all the multi-star ratings pasted across posters, despite all the reviews and the broadcast attention (slowly growing back after a hideous contraction over the past decade or so), simple word of mouth remains one of the most powerful agents on the Fringe. With this in mind, I resolved to spend an afternoon last week canvassing complete strangers on the street with the two most frequently heard words of the month (after "Lager, please"): "What's good?"

In an immense stroke of good luck, I managed to recruit my own independent market research bureau in the form of comedian Neil Edmond, whose show Knocker is based on his own experience making ends meet as a door-to-door opinion pollster. As part of his show each night, Neil invites his audience to design a poll for him to conduct on the streets the following day. He generously agreed to take time out from his research into "girls and mental illness" (hey, not his choice) to help design and conduct my What's Good? poll.

Alas, the simplest of unpredicted factors can cause statistical anomalies. On the designated afternoon, the heavens opened, and so research on the streets became research under the shelter of a clutch of major venues. Nevertheless, people seemed exceptionally willing to respond, even after hearing some of Neil's more eccentric answer options, and the results are as follows (Neil Edmond and Ian Shuttleworth interviewed a random sample of 31 people, weighted according to our vague hunches as we went along):

In terms of what's good in general, 65% opted for "kindness". A more open question inviting other examples elicited answers ranging from "sex" to "this burger". On the Fringe, an overall majority (52%) prefer Comedy, although a significant minority (16%) opted for "Jigging About" and 5% for "Shouting".

When it came to recommending particular productions, the only show to garner more than one vote was Pegabovine's The Slush Pile, although this may have been due to our pollsters sheltering in the same doorway as their leafletters. When asked to choose from a range of adjectives to describe their pet shows, respondents tended to opt for "stunning" and "energetic" over the more prosaic likes of "short", "loud" or "busy". A reassuringly firm showing, however, was made by the Fringe cliché "darkly comic". The vast majority of respondents left their favourite show in a state they described as "spent", which (an earlier question revealed) is how they like it.

Neil's cross-analysis of the results yielded some intriguing insights. Both of the Pegabovine fans, but no-one else, described their preferred show as "comfy". Neil notes, "I received flyers for recommended shows from 64% of people who rated their involvement with that show at a minimal 1 [on a scale of 1 to 10]. 100% of those people also rated themselves as entirely honest" in denying that they were involved with the show in question. That's the great Fringe marketing trick: try to make your recommendation look impartial, even when you have mortgaged your soul to pay for the gig. And when in doubt, describe your show as "award-winning", like 11% of our respondents, regardless of whether it has garnered any real gongs or not.

Fortified by this experience at the sharp end of Fringe psephology, I felt almost secure in going onstage to report my own recommendations on one of the growing number of variety/chat shows on the Fringe. Almost. For I had been invited on to Lunch With The Hamiltons, presented by disgraced former MP Neil Hamilton and his formidable wife Christine.

I have to testify that my learning continued through this phase. Loathing as I do both the Hamiltons' politics and the, shall we say, freewheeling approach to parliamentary ethics which led to Neil's downfall, I went along prepared to make as many pointed jibes as I could. The problem is that, as documentary-maker Louis Theroux has attested after "fly-on-the-walling" them, they are simply too likeable. It's not snake-oil, either: they know that their function now is to serve as figures of fun, and they approach it with enthusiasm if not always the utmost of subtlety. Realising that the mickey is going to be taken out of them in any case, they set out to at least make it happen on their terms, and to have some fun of their own along the way. Hence the self-parody of offering Perrier-Jouet champagne to their guests, the reminder that the audience is their alibi in case they should be arrested once more, and the bizarre decision to ask each day's guests to join in a daft party game.

And so it was that, after delivering a clutch of theatrical, comedic and left-field recommendations, I found myself being wrapped in toilet paper by an audience member. The most glamorous mummy among us would win a free lunch for our mummifier. In the end, the audience's cheers were evenly split, so I simply pulled rank: after reminding Christine Hamilton that their future media profile depended upon the result of the game, victory was mine. I had triumphed over comedians Will Smith, Lucy Porter and three of the musical group Four Poofs And A Piano (the fourth sat it out, as did the piano). During the remainder of the day I was stopped in the street five or six times by members of the audience, all of them mesmerised by my lunchtime appearance draped in soft, strong and very long two-ply. Lunch with the Hamiltons was an hour of Comedy and Jigging About, and it very definitely left me Spent. My chosen description of the experience, from the list offered in our poll, would be "Defies categorisation". I can't quite believe that I've volunteered to make a return appearance.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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