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.

DES WILLIE/BBC
Show Hide image

Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution