Lunatic fringe

As Edinburgh's annual jamboree gets under way, Bill Dunn recalls his own and others' inglorious cont

Imagine the most protractedly drunk you've ever been. Multiply that by 28. Now imagine being forced, in that state, to inhale large gobbets of crusty yellow MDMA while locked in an art gallery, having Picasso's Guernica explained to you by a Czech clown troupe, with guest appearances by "top TV comics". For four weeks. That's Edinburgh.

Britain's biggest arts festival has once again coughed into life. If you were standing on Princes Street now and you threw a rock in the air, odds-on it would hit a street performer skulking off to walk against the wind while reciting Krapp's Last Tape, astride a goat. Or perhaps you'd get an agent, scurrying around spreading scurrilous rumours about their latest protege. Either way, that rock against the cranium would be a good thing. One down, 8,000 to go . . .

Comedy has all but eclipsed Edinburgh and so, too, has the annual debate as to who's going to win the Perrier award. Previous victors include Harry Hill and Frank Skinner. Last year Ross Noble was hotly tipped, but it's rumoured that the heavily PC jury was put off by the reference in his show to that well-known scourge of the universe, "space gypsies".

If you're not aiming for the Perrier, you can do pretty much anything you like, as long as Scottish by-laws allow it. Just speak to those nice people at the Fringe, and they'll set you up with a venue. Remember, though - you will not make a profit. Last year Colin Paterson took up his play Argentina 1978 - the Director's Cut. "In spite of several sell-out nights at the Gilded Balloon, it was a financial disaster," he said. "It's practically impossible to make any money out of Edinburgh."

The first time I went to Edinburgh, it was with an angry youth theatre group doing a nude performance of Lady Chatterley's Lover. The clever bit was that we wore clothes only during the sex scenes. Unsurprisingly, the front row consisted almost entirely of wanking tramps. Surprisingly, the same tramps were there again the next year, although they were to be disappointed. I was part of a troupe called Cuntbubble. There were five of us: three bass players, a bongo player and me. Bongo boy was experimenting with a theory that man can survive on Guinness alone and, as a result, succumbed to a plague of throbbing purplish boils. It had never been a tight act, but the loss of our rhythm section meant that our display was even more free-form.

The south London comedian, comedy impresario and club owner Malcolm Hardee summed us up as "not bad for a first time, but they're lacking something - stage presence, character, jokes . . . " That was the kindest review we got. Mind you, would you trust Hardee, a man who once commandeered a tractor and drove it, naked, through the American actor/ comic Eric Bogosian's stage tent?

Hardee is a regular visitor to Edinburgh, possibly because it's good fun and possibly to get up the noses of the art ponces. Matt Lucas probably summed up the audience best when, under the guise of his Tourettes-challenged character, Sir Bernard Chumley, he memorably proclaimed: "You're all cunts, and you're probably queer." Hardee himself once stunned a pre-festival press conference by suddenly grabbing a newspaper and announcing he'd just read that Glenda Jackson had died. As the shock sank in, he re-examined the page. "Oh, I'm sorry," he said, "it's Wendy Jackson, an OAP from Sydenham. Well, that doesn't matter, then, does it?" If that didn't offend, then his "Greatest Show on Legs" managed to upset nearly everyone when the performers set off all the fire alarms in the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms. The potential conflagration was traced to a firework set off by one of the show's stars, Chris Lynham. It was protruding from his bottom at the time.

Edinburgh madness. What else would make the comic veteran Arthur Smith hijack a coach-load of schoolchildren and take them on an alternative tour of the city? "There's always a fight," says Sally Phillips, of Channel 4's Smack the Pony. "You do go lightly deranged." That may explain her 1992 show, Jesus II (Like Your Father, Like Your Son, Like Yourself - He's Back from the Dead, He's Cross, and He Wants Your Soul). Dressed as a nun, and having just performed a disabled Princess Leia routine, Phillips uttered the line: "Dig deep in your pockets and feel your cock."

"There were five people in the audience," she remembers. "Two left. I put my hand in a man's pocket who happened to be a vicar, so he left with his wife. We tried to pay the remaining woman to leave, too, but she couldn't understand us because she was foreign. It was very humiliating for all involved."

The temporary derangement that Edinburgh induces may also explain Reeves and Mortimer's unscheduled entrance to a show compered by Mark Lamarr. As Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves) remembers: "Bob ran on and said, 'I don't know what you lot are all doing here - there's a cartoon with a fucking big duck on next door'."

"I can't take Edinburgh these days," says Moir. "People just stay up all night. You go and see some shows, and then you go off to some other venue, and then somebody says, 'We're all going to the pub'. When we got into the pub, I found out it was seven o'clock in the morning. I thought, 'This is just wrong,' and ran back to my hotel."

Still, few comics can resist that "what have you got?" back-to-school tingle as they set foot in the Pleasance courtyard for the first time each year. As Phillips points out, the best thing about moving up in your trade is having a proper show with proper publicity and thus "being spared the indignity of Fringe Sunday, touting for trade for your show like some kind of low-grade amateur prostitute".

Don't let me put you off, though. If you'd been there, you might have caught Eddie Izzard playing a squadron leader's thieving batman, or the remarkable sight of Peter Baynham dressed only in a light coating of flour, vomiting live on stage in The Monsters in the Attic. It's just that you have to see a lot of chaff to get your wheat in Edinburgh. I now realise that I was that chaff. Joseph Beuys once said that "every man is an artist". Edinburgh exists as living proof of what a Hades-on-Earth that concept would be if it were ever realised.

Bill Dunn is senior editor of "Esquire"