Richard Jordan: Why the fringe has become a Mecca for reality stars and former celebrities
“Nice to see you to see you…nice,” Frank Skinner says as he opens his comedy set at the Edinburgh Fringe. “Well, it’s not like anyone else is using it.” Skinner’s return to stand-up at Assembly illustrates the fringe career spectrum, from newcomer through to veteran and where he picked up the coveted Perrier Award (renamed the Edinburgh Comedy Awards) along the way.
He is also one of a generation of comedians who, from the outset, were a key part in the evolution of comedy’s growth at the fringe during the early 1990s. Now, he is back with Showbiz, a polished hour of stand-up entitled to cover a range of topics that includes why, despite being offered, he will never appear on Strictly Come Dancing.
A few venues away at the Pleasance, comedian Seann Walsh – who became the focus of tabloid gossip during his run on BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing last year – is clearly hoping that on the fringe he can use those past headlines to sell tickets for the inside scoop.
Staying at the Pleasance, another former Strictly Come Dancing contestant, Rev Richard Coles, also takes to the floor in his own fringe show. Whether it’s Strictly Come Dancing, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Britain’s Got Talent or the litany of other “As seen in…” popular TV shows it’s clear from many fringe posters, such a show in a performer’s back catalogue is seen as a real selling point at Edinburgh.
Once the fringe was the stable of alternative comedians and entertainers who would have sneered at the very idea of ever appearing on a primetime TV show situated in the jungle, a dance studio or the kitchen. Instead, the fringe today frequently serves as an audition platform for those actively seeking out these opportunities.
Edinburgh has long been a valuable barometer for measuring popular culture and its corresponding trends within the entertainment industry. Maybe nowhere is this influence more visible today than in the litany of ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent contestants who, over past years, have used the fringe as the next step in their career progression.
TV talent shows have always had an association with the fringe. But in contrast to popular past talent contests such as Opportunity Knocks, in 2019 an appearance in a televised BGT audition – even if it ends in failure – seems enough to gain enough traction to fast-track them into a high-profile venue on the fringe.
The researchers of TV talent shows such as BGT and America’s Got Talent have steadily seen the value of scouring fringes around the world for talented acts that they may then encourage to appear on their shows.
It also results in these artists being dispatched to other syndicated international versions of the show where an impressive act is most likely unknown to viewers, despite their turning out to be an amazing juggler or sword swallower with a strong track record in their own country.
Rightly or wrongly, how this all gets manipulated by producers, managers and agents has made these post-television appearances at the fringe and elsewhere become big business.
Edinburgh still remains central to building career profile, even if today many of these discoveries may arguably be less genuine – though that, understandably, adds to criticism about the commercialisation of the fringe.
Meanwhile, Edinburgh has also become the perfect place for a former celebrity to make a comeback, on the road – they hope – to achieving cult status. Basil Brush is celebrating 50 years in show business this year and makes his fringe debut performing at Underbelly. And so he cements his cult status, reflected by the line of excited audience members wanting photos with the nifty fox at the end of his show; a line that included many more fathers than it did children.
Basil Brush follows a line of celebrities that have included everyone from the cast of Rainbow to Christopher Biggins slumming it for four weeks on the fringe with the cool kids. The aim is that their potentially new-found cult profile will relight TV executives’ interest and see them hired for a litany of Channel 4 and ITV2 gameshows probably hosted by either Jimmy Carr or Keith Lemon.
Nonetheless, if a cheeky little fox can force audiences at the fringe to put their phones down for a dollop of cheerful “boom boom” nostalgia, providing an hour’s escape from yet more depressing news about Brexit, then audiences may well actively be seeking out more of it… Anyone got Roland Rat’s phone number?
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan
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