Surviving Black Wednesday - and checking out the Big Four

Nicky Woolf's first Edinburgh diary.

 

Wednesday, August 8. Day One.

Today, auspiciously for my arrival, is “black Wednesday”. This is the day when shows will statistically report their lowest audience figures. It's the first serious day of the festival, after shows have been offering two-for-one deals and press previews; cast members are getting serious, punters are just arriving and getting their bearings. Black Wednesday is the bottom of the mountain. If you can make it today, you can make it all the way – but a bad audience today will be very bad for morale. Black Wednesday, it is said, separates the men from the boys.

At the 2012 Edinburgh festival fringe, there are more than 257 performance spaces in the city, some of them grand old theatres, some of them tiny rooms above pubs or prefabricated huts in car parks, hosting more than 2700 shows or acts every day. During the festival the entire city – already one of the world's most beautiful, its ancient tenements crammed together in the lee of Arthur's Seat or in the shadow of the castle on its dramatic bluff – has an indescribable buzz about it. Excitement pours through its streets like honey. The Royal Mile is crammed with performers making their pitches to the innumerable groundling throng who seethe the cobbled streets.

The Festival is dominated by four big companies that each run clusters of theatres, bars and performance spaces. These are Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly. Pleasance, for example, takes over the University of Edinburgh Students' Union buildings and runs a total of 214 shows in 21 venues ranging from the 750-seat Pleasance Grand to the 46-seat Pleasance Hut

It's nearly ten when I step off the train, but before bed I pop out to check out some of my old haunts. My favourite place to hang out, and my first port of call, used to be the outdoor bar at the fifth of the so-called “big four”, C Venues. C is commonly thought of as a little smaller and less slick than the big four, a little less polished, and I have always found it to be a lot more fun. It is also more willing than the big four to take a chance on unknown or student companies or unusual concepts. “C venues,” a friend said to me unkindly, “will take anything.” His show is at the Pleasance, and there is certainly a pecking-order, though some individual companies transcend it.

C also had a lovely outdoor bar area called SoCo; but I am in for a shock. The area it used to occupy, on Cowgate, in the centre of the old town, is now a building site. Doors I used to go through are shut, and the building has a forlorn, empty look. The upstairs bar at C is still buzzing, but it's unusually hot for Edinburgh in August, and I want to be outside, so my next port of call is the Udderbelly, an outdoor garden and stage run by Underbelly venues that has been available London's South Bank. 

There, at the exclusive and exquisitely-decorated Abattoir bar, I have a nightcap and ask around for show recommendations before turning in. Tomorrow, for me, the festival begins.

Performers arrive at the Edinburgh Festival. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Strictly: Has Ed (Glitter) Balls got the winning moves?

Will the former Westminster high-flyer impress the judges and fans?

Ed Balls once had dreams of Labour leadership. Now, according to flamboyant Strictly Come Dancing judge Bruno Tonioli, the former Shadow Chancellor should be aspiring to “imitate the hippopotamus from Fantasia” every Saturday night, preferably while basting himself in fake tan.

Welcome to my world, Ladies and Gentleman. A place where the former Westminster high flyer  is more famous for sashaying around in sequins (and ineptly tweeting his own name) than for his efforts with the Bank of England. It’s a universe so intoxicating, it made political correspondent John Sergeant drag a professional performer across a dance floor by her wrists in the name of light entertainment.

The same compulsions made respected broadcaster Jeremy Vine alight a prop horse dressed as a cowboy (more Woody from Toy Story than John Wayne) and former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe fly across the ballroom like an inappropriate understudy in an am dram production of Peter Pan. It is a glorious, if unnerving domain.

Ed Glitterballs, as he will henceforth be introduced at every after-dinner speaking engagement he attends, has trotted out many well-rehearsed reasons for signing up: getting fit, being cajoled by his superfan wife, Yvette Cooper, regretting a missed opportunity. But could it be that, as he relentlessly plugs his autobiography, he’s merely after a bit of Strictly stardust for his post-politics career? 

Let’s start with the basics. Politicians are generally unpopular, while anyone with a vague connection to Strictly is treated as a demi-God. So the chance for “the most annoying person in modern politics” (David Cameron’s words, not mine), to bask in reflected glory is a no-brainer.

It’s a valuable opportunity to be humble and self-deprecating — qualities so rarely on display in the House of Commons. Which of us sitting at home scoffing Maltesers, wouldn’t sympathise with poor old Ed being chastised by his impossibly svelte partner for having a beer belly? Early polls suggest the dads’ vote is in the bag.

When Widdecombe appeared on the show back in 2010 — one of the most astonishing rebranding exercises I have ever witnessed — Westminster colleagues warned she would lose gravitas. “My reply was yes I would, but what did I need it for now?” she said.

Strictly Come Dancing gives the nation an extraordinary capacity to forget. Maybe it’s the fumes from the spray tan booth, but Widdecombe’s stern bluster was soon replaced by the image of a sweet old lady, stumbling around the dance floor with gusto. Her frankly shameful record on gay rights evaporated as she traded affectionate insults with openly gay judge Craig Revel Horwood and won us all over with her clodhopping two left feet. Genuinely incredible stuff.

Balls won’t be another Ann Widdecombe. For a start he’s got the wrong partner. She had untouchable fan favourite Anton Du Beke, more famous than some of the celebrity contestants, who happily provided the choreography and patience for her to shine. Balls is with an unknown quantity — new girl Katya Jones. 

His performance has been hyped up by an expectant press, while Widdecombe's had the all-important shock factor. Back then nobody could have predicted her irrepressible stomp to the quarter finals, leading to a career in panto and her own quiz show on Sky Atlantic. And unlike John Sergeant, who withdrew from the competition after a few weeks owing to sheer embarrassment, she lapped up every second.

Neither, however, is Balls likely to be Edwina Currie. If you forgot her stint on the show it’s because she went out in the first week, after failing to tone down her abrasive smugness for the ballroom. Balls is too clever for that and he’s already playing the game. Would viewers have been so comfortable with him cropping up on the Great British Bake Off spin-off An Extra Slice a few months ago?

My bet is that after a few gyrations he’ll emerge as amusing, lovable and, most importantly, bookable. The prospect of Gordon Brown’s economic advisor playing Baron Hardup in a Christmaspanto  is deliciously tantalising. But what happens when the fun stops and the midlife crisis (as he takes great pleasure in calling it) loses its novelty? Can he be taken seriously again?

When asked about Labour’s current Corbyn crisis, Balls told The Guardian: “If I got a call saying, ‘We think you can solve the problem, come back and rescue us,’ I would drop Strictly and go like a shot.” Well, Jeremy Vine came out unscathed — he hosts Crimewatch now, folks! — and thanks to Have I Got News For You, Boris Johnson casually led us out of Europe. Perhaps the best is yet to come.

Great news all round for Balls, then, he’d have to work really hard to come out of this badly. But there’s a reason he’s the bookies’ booby prize, with odds of 150/1 to lift the glitterball trophy. An entertaining but basically useless act has never won the show. We’ll be bored by November.

“But Ed might be sensational!” I hear you cry. Unfortunately his brief appearance on this year’s launch show suggests otherwise. This weekend — the first time he and Katya will perform a full routine —  he will be giving us his waltz, one of the more forgiving dances, and a style Balls has already expressed fondness for.

After that come the sizzling samba, the raunchy rumba and the cheeky Charleston. These can be mortifying even for the show’s frontrunners. As a straggler, Balls may find himself dewy-eyed, reminiscing about the time Bruno compared him to a cartoon hippo. But if he can just cope with a few weeks of mild ridicule, the world could be his oyster.

Emma Bullimore is a TV critic