What's Hot in the City: Every August, Edinburgh Prepares for an Onslaught of Artists and Performers, All Hoping to Become Star Acts. and despite the Crowds, the Noise and the Litter, the Locals Secretly Love It, Too
Rankin, Ian, New Statesman (1996)
It's easy to be cynical about Edinburgh in August, especially if you happen to live in the city all year round. The traffic clogs; desperate students thrust flyers into uninterested hands; litter-bins are routinely kicked over into the street of a drunken night. This most bridled of cities suddenly has its stays loosened by force, and this year is no exception. In fact, records seem set to tumble--more shows, more visitors, bigger audiences--confounding the doom-mongers who had started the finger-wagging even earlier than usual. A fire in the Old Town in December led to the demolition of the Gilded Balloon, a premier Fringe venue, but replacement sites have been found. There are more Spiegeltents than ever, while Edinburgh's mazy, cavernous nature has been exploited--all those tunnels and underground vaults coming to life as venues called things like "the Underbelly", hinting at a fringe beyond the Fringe and pointing to Edinburgh as a hidden city, a place with the continual ability to surprise.
Everybody likes to be in on a secret, in at the start of something big. No Festival Fringe is allowed to pass without mention of the greats of the past: Beyond the Fringe, or Eddie Izzard playing to an audience of four. We all wish we'd been there, and we cherish the notion of finding some future star tucked away near the foot of a bill of stand-up comedians. It's what I call PSG: "plus special guests". These are the opening acts, the hungry performers. They yearn to be headliners some day, and have heard that Edinburgh in August is awash with agents and talent-spotters, TV execs with fat chequebooks and schedules to fill, and reviewers who can flag up the unheralded genius. You will find them supporting a better-known stand-up, or performing for free on the Royal Mile, or opening for a band.
So far this year, I've paid to see four shows. Two of these were for children: Dr Bunhead's Bananas of Doom and the comedian James Campbell. I enjoyed both, even though they were aimed at my 11-year-old son rather than his 43-year-old father. The third and fourth shows were music events, one of the tickets to which bears the legend "Durutti Column (plus special guests)". Arriving early at the venue, I asked who the special guests were. No one seemed to know. We took our seats, and duly two figures arrived on the stage: a young woman with an acoustic guitar and a bloke with an electric guitar. I never did catch their names, but gradually came to admire them, representing as they did the unsung stalwarts of an entire creative industry. Some may be plucked from obscurity eventually; others are destined to languish for ever as PSGs. A few will have headliner status thrust upon them, as has happened with the hapless Aaron Barschak. The media interest generated by his antics at Windsor Castle may have helped popularise his appearance at the Fringe, but it hasn't made him many friends among his peers. Quality acts don't like it when upstarts get more recognition than they are due. Barschak has suffered from a critical panning, failed press conferences, exhaustion and a stage invasion by a Saddam Hussein lookalike. I'm told his show is improving, but it may already be too late: there's nowt so fickle as unearned fame.
I've been a PSG myself, a warm-up man for better-known writers. …