The iconic venue helped launch the careers of household names such as Rowan Atkinson and Michael McIntyre. Nick Smurthwaite talks to the man known as ‘Mr Pleasance’ about a career spanning more than 30 years
After a chequered career as a soldier, teacher and designer, Christopher Richardson ended up becoming the founding director of Edinburgh’s Pleasance Courtyard venues in the mid-1980s.
He became – and still is – one of the fringe’s most charming and charismatic characters, unmistakable with his walking cane, white suit and panama hat.
Having just turned 80, Richardson continues to attend the festival every year – “there is nowhere else I’d rather be” – although his Pleasance role is now advisory, rather than executive.
In his heyday, Richardson helped kick-start the careers of Rowan Atkinson, Al Murray, Arthur Smith, Frank Skinner, Steve Coogan, Richard Curtis, Michael McIntyre, Russell Brand, Graham Norton and Stephen Fry, to name just a few.
Fry once wrote of the man they called Mr Pleasance: “He has the energy of a puppy, the sensitivity of a fawn, the strength of a bear and the temper of a wasp. Features by Hogarth, character by Dickens, Christopher stands alone and I’m proud to know him.”
The temper of a wasp? “I think he must be talking about someone else,” chortles the benign gentleman sitting opposite. “I don’t think I was very tolerant of star egos, but I always tried to bite my tongue. Evidently I wasn’t always successful.”
In fact, his relationship with Fry goes back to his teaching days. Fry was a student at Uppingham School where Richardson taught design technology for 25 years, and produced school plays. He says: “I remember Stephen as a rather introverted character who wasn’t at all happy with himself. I probably taught him the only subject he wasn’t any good at. But, of course, we became friends later.”
Richardson’s route into Edinburgh was as the designer of a 1979 show featuring Atkinson, Curtis and Howard Goodall, who were all friends from Oxford. “They were all in their very early 20s, brash and young and lovely,” he says. “I asked Rowan what he did and he said: ‘People seem to think I’m funny.’ Subsequently I gave him his first solo spot. I can’t begin to describe the magic that happened. Personally he was quite ordinary, but it was obvious to everyone who saw him that he was going to be a huge star.”
After more than two decades of teaching, Richardson decided he needed a career change, and the theatre – always his first love – seemed to offer a viable alternative. “I went to see a production of The Brothers Karamazov in the Little Theatre [now Pleasance One] in a rather fine cobbled courtyard in Edinburgh’s university district. I thought it offered tremendous opportunities, a place where great theatre and comedy could thrive. In my first season, in 1985, we made a profit of £188.”
He continues: “The fringe was a wild frontier back then. Companies in small venues would fight to re-plug lights from an inadequate and often dangerous supply during the changeover from one show to another. Our administration hub was housed in the huggable Macintosh 128K computer which, with its printer and floppy disks, cost more than a sixth of our entire budget.”
Richardson says his “magic moments” at the Pleasance are legion. They include “helping to pin Graham Norton into Mother Theresa tea towels for his solo show in 1992, meeting Joan Rivers in Brooke’s Bar and watching her cry when someone read her my review of her show, and doing a TV interview with the Pub Landlord in the Courtyard and then watching him become Al Murray again.”
Another highlight was an early glimpse of the young Michael McIntyre. He says: “I feel genuinely sorry for anyone who did not get to see him in the Pleasance Attic, and later at Pleasance Above. People deliberately arrived late to his show to experience the fun he had with them. That’s one of the loveliest things about the Pleasance – there is always that chance there will be another Michael McIntyre or Russell Brand in the making.”
Actor and comedian Steve Pemberton recalls the Pleasance debut of The League of Gentlemen: “We worked hard to ensure Christopher attended one of our shows at the Canal Café Theatre in London, and he agreed to give us a teatime slot. An audience of three attended our first preview, but within a week we’d made it on to the hallowed ‘sold out’ blackboard.”
Another former Uppingham boy, Anthony Alderson, director of the Pleasance since 2005, attributes its ongoing ethos to Richardson, his friend and mentor. “It’s a spirit of artistic possibility, of youthful enterprise whatever your age, of good humour and celebration; all the things, indeed, that make the Edinburgh Fringe the most thrilling festival in the world.”
There is a rumour that Richardson will find time, in his retirement, to write a memoir about his 30 years running the Pleasance. He looks quizzical. “I’d quite like to, but I can’t really say what I know about people who are still alive, which either makes me very stupid or slightly honourable – probably both.”
Visit pleasance.co.uk for details of this year’s fringe shows
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