Phil Nichol: The Naked Racist / Mark Watson / Josie Long: Kindness And Exuberance
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2006

Well, that's that over for another year. The International Festival and the Art Festival continue until Saturday, but the Book, Film and Television Festivals, the Military Tattoo and, of course, the Fringe all ended over Bank Holiday weekend.

The traditional highlight of the weekend for Fringe-Watchers is the announcement on Saturday night of the winners of what I have taken to calling, à la Prince, The Awards Formerly Known As The Perriers. (No anti-Nestlé protesters this year outside the newly renamed if.com-Eddies, although still some corporate presence within; the mineral water on offer was Perrier's non-bubbly cousin, Vittel.) This year's results were hardly a surprise. Last year I reported how, as a Perrier panellist, even I did not know the results in advance, so rigorously secret is the voting; this year, as a civilian, I heard them 20 minutes before the announcement, thanks to an enthusiastic Blackberryer's discovery that a major news agency had mistakenly put the information on the wire before the news embargo lapsed.

Winner Phil Nichol has not only been performing comedy for a number of years (first as a member of Corky and the Juice Pigs then solo), but has more recently been bitten by the acting bug. This year he took lead roles in Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio and Sam Shepard's True West as well as performing his comedy show The Naked Racist. I have to say I prefer Nichol as an actor: even fatigued by two dramatic appearances each day, his high-octane confessional performance in The Naked Racist still seldom dips below an intensity rating of 12 on a scale of 1 to 10. There was also speculation that the award may have been given as much for his longevity, and in particular for being overlooked last year, as for this particular show. Nevertheless, he was so heavily tipped to win that a comedian friend of mine who has regularly made a packet betting on these awards was grumbling that he could find no bookmaker who would offer remotely useful odds on Nichol.

A new award category, for a comedian embodying the spirit of the Fringe, went to Mark Watson. If Phil Nichol is energetic and versatile, Watson is virtually a force of nature. In addition to his main show – an immensely affable affair in which, for instance, he deals with hecklers by chatting to them at length – he held, for the third year running, a one-off marathon performance (this year's lasted 36 hours), and a regular literary salon in which his audience developed the plot for his follow-up novel to 2004's admired début Bullet Points and Watson then went off to write a chapter a day. The Best Newcomer award went to 24-year-old Josie Long for her show Kindness And Exuberance, which lives perfectly up to its title, being a deliberately lo-fi, ramshackle affair of indomitable cheerfulness. Indeed, Long may have changed my life (I'll report back next year) with her observation on the pointlessness of being cynical all the time: it's not, she says, as if somebody's going to come up to you on your death-bed and give you a prize for it, telling you, "Well done – you haven't enjoyed any of it!"

And yet the suspicious homunculus within me does wonder what's next for the Edinburgh festival phenomenon as a whole. It is not simply a matter of possible changes at the International Festival as Jonathan Mills succeeds Sir Brian McMaster (recipient of a rival Spirit of the Fringe award, rather puzzlingly) as director, or of calls for more adequate public funding and civic branding in the recent report Thundering Hooves. There are other changes in profile. In an article published last weekend, comedian Natalie Haynes rightly bemoaned the increasing safety-first approach of Fringe ticket-buyers, ensuring that a clutch of big-name, highly publicised events in several-hundred-seater spaces sell out regularly whilst fewer are prepared to take a punt on smaller, more out-of-the-way offerings.

Haynes puts much of this effect down to pre-Festival online booking, but that in turn is driven by another factor. In the past month, more than one taxi driver has told me that they have regularly heard complaints about rising ticket prices; punters, as it were, no longer feel that they can take a punt when it may cost them £10 or £12 for an hour of rubbish. When figures for 2006 become available, I will be interested to see how gross box-office takings year on year compare to numbers of tickets sold. My hunch is that the former will be more loudly trumpeted, as its apparent health may belie a more worrying trend as regards numbers of bums on seats.

I'm not sure that this year's Fringe topography has helped, either. In 2006, the city's Bristo Square has housed venues run by three of the Fringe "big four": the Pleasance Dome, Gilded Balloon at Teviot House, and the Underbelly's flagship Udderbelly space. With the Spiegelgarden lying a hundred yards to the south and student venue Bedlam a similar distance to the north, the area has successfully drawn Fringe-goers in, perhaps to the detriment of other spaces such as even the fourth mega-venue, the Assembly Rooms, over on the other side of Princes Street. Handy, but not necessarily healthy.

As I say, we shall see. In the meantime, despite having seen more than a hundred shows this month, I suspect the images that will stay with me are spontaneous ones, such as a couple of rotary-brush-wielding street-cleaning buggies road-racing down Cowgate at speeds of up to 20mph; super-cool black American comic Reginald D Hunter greeting Christine Hamilton with an affectionate, "Hey, sweetness, what's goin' on?"; three generations of the same family happily dancing at an open-air rock concert in Princes Street Gardens, down to a seven-year-old boy in a skirt (I would say a kilt, but this was a Belle & Sebastian gig); or the 3.30am sight of a group of bunny girls prosaically queuing in a late-night fish-and-chip shop. Nobody turned a hare (sorry): that's Edinburgh for you.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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