I dubbed the Wednesday of my Edinburgh run, ‘Super Wednesday’, as it involved hosting three shows rather than two. I was actually quite anxious about it as two of the interviews involved Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn, both of who have the ability to be quite tricky interviewees.
I’ve said before that putting a Fringe guest list together is like making a jigsaw. I had been discussing Nicola Sturgeon being part of the show for many months with her team. I kept explaining that if we missed Fringe deadlines for brochure printing etc it would affect audience numbers, but I appreciate that putting together a First Minister’s diary is not an easy task. Anyway, we didn’t get a confirmed date until the end of the first week of July, which only gave us four weeks to sell tickets. If we had been able to put them on sale in early May like for the rest of the events I have little doubt we would have sold double the number of tickets we did. Even so, 430 was our third biggest audience, but inevitable the media made much of the fact that there were empty seats in the 592 seater auditorium. The Scottish Daily Express took the biscuit when they contrasted this so—called “failure to sell out” with the fact that she had sold out at another event later in the month. That had a 225 seat capacity. So selling out 225 seats is more of an achievement than selling 430 tickets. Only the Express could write such utter bollocks.
Now the point of all my Edinburgh shows is that they are very conversational. I like to allow the personalities of my guests to shine through without constant interruptions from me. My interviews in Edinburgh are not meant to be forensic, slightly aggressive political interviews. I want my guests to enjoy themselves and let loose a little. And my interview with Nicola Sturgeon was no different. But according to many it was an utter failure as I didn’t skewer her on her record. Most of the people making these accusations weren’t even there, yet they professed to know that I hadn’t asked her about all sorts of issues, which I had indeed quizzed her on. In fact the interview was so awful that I garnered at least 10 newslines from it, all of which filled acres of newsprint in the next day’s newspapers. But the reaction on social media had to be seen to be belived. I hadn’t done my research properly. I knew nothing about Scottish politics, I could go on…
I then compounded things by tweeting that I found Nicola Sturgeon to be one of the most impressive politicians I have interviewed. Apparently that meant that I had fallen hook, line and siner for her propaganda. I had betrayed Unionists and worse. Finding someone impressive does not mean I agree with everything they say, but you can’t have nuance in a debate on Scottish politics, as I rapidly found out. I had been assailed by Cybernats before but didn’t realise there was a Unionist equivalent of these vile disgusting people. My Twitter timeline was unreadable for several days with them hurling insult after insult at me. It’s still going on to an extent. Of course, if you defend yourself you’re then accused of being ‘touchy’ or ‘defensive’. Well if people lie about an interview they haven’t even heard, or my motivations, damn right I am going to call them out.
People don’t seem to realise that the audiences at Edinburgh do not want angry, confrontational interviews. They want to listen to calm conversation which informs and entertains them, not makes them shift awkwardly in their seats.
Anyway, I stand my approach 100% and the fact that more than 3,400 people came to all the shows is testament to the fact that it’s what the Edinburgh Fringe audiences want. I didn’t have a single person tell me they hadn’t enjoyed a show, and believe me they would have done so if they hadn’t.
An hour later it was back to our Cromdale theatre for the first For The Many Live! With Jane Garvey and Fi Glover. Jacqui Smith had arrived the previous evening and I suspect was quite nervous about it. It was almost a full house and the hour proved to be very amusing indeed. Jane is the mistress of self deprecatory wit and Fi really cut loose and made a couple of quite controversial remarks along the way. And then all three of them laid into me for my lack of enthusiasm for women’s football. Jacqui ensured this was a them of all the five events!
The final show of the day was with Jeremy Corbyn. This had a decent sized audience but it could have been higher had Jeremy not seen fit to then do another event the day before! Hey ho. It really was audience of Corbyn admirers, so much so that I ended it by saying: “ I must bring this meeting of the Jeremy Corbyn Appreciation Society to a close…”. Although I could have livened it up by arguing with Jeremy on virtually everything he said, I had to recognize the audience were there to hear from him, not me, so I resisted the temptation.
That evening Jacqui and I toddled along to the Pleasance Courtyard to see Matt Forde’s show. He was superb. His impressions of Trump and Boris are spot on and he’s the only person I know who can do Keir Starmer. He was also brave enough to rip the piss out of the SNP from time to time, something which I gather provoked a few people to walk out a few evenings later. Matt was Jacqui and my guest on Thursday and For the Many and his enthusiasm for politics really shone through. He loves politics almost as much as he loves Nottingham Forest. Almost.
Later that afternoon, it was Sir Tim Rice’s turn to appear on stage. He’s one of my favourite people, not least because I am obsessed with CHESS, the musical he cowrote with the guys from Abba. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times. Tim is a great storyteller and the audience was bewitched.
As with most of the other people I interviewed, Tim stayed around to chat to the audience and we discovered that one young lady had flown in from New York especially for the show! That was only trumped the next day when I met a man who had come from Dallas to see David Starkey. Well, he said he had come to see me really… I believe him, thousands wouldn’t.
Jacqui and I had intended to go and see a couple of fringe shows in the evening but in the end settled for just going to see Rosie Holt, whose run had sold out but we managed to sneak in to an extra show. She’s quite something as a performer and her take-off of a female Tory MP as a rabbit in the headlights was superb. She also does a brilliant Russell Brand, believe it or not.
Friday was a real political day, kicking off with Jacqui and me interviewing the Labour and Conservative leaders in Scotland, Anas Sarwar and Douglas Ross. I think the audience quite enjoyed it, but this was the only show that I wondered if it really worked. They talked over each other quite a lot, but that’s always the danger when you have to serving politicians with opposite viewpoints as guests. Whatever my concerns might have been, the audience enjoyed it and it was a coup to get them on together, although of course the SNP press office exploited it remorselessly.
And then it was time to interview Keir Starmer. He just pipped Rory Stewart to the post for achieving the largest ticket sales – 662-620, since you ask. He turned up wearing a polo shirt, blue trousers and plimsoles, which I thought was a bit odd, but I suppose it reflected the mood of the events. Just before we walked on stage, the news came through that Salman Rushdie had been attacked. Starmer’s team and I debated whether we should start by discussing it. Details were sketchy. My view was that it was wrong to say anything until we knew more details. I asked Keir’s head of communications, Matthew Doyle, to WhatsApp me with any updates, but just before we started the show we saw a report saying Rushide had walked off the stage. “OK, let’s leave it,” I said. Had I said the opposite, Keir wouldn’t have had to deal with the social media onslaught that followed, with people complaining that neither he, nor Angela Rayner, had made an immediate statement on the attack. I still think it was the right thing to do.
I was interviewing Keir with Jacqui and she brought the house down when asking a question about his response to the cost of living crisis and the measures he would be announcing the following week. “We can’t wait to see the size of your package…” she exclaimed. Keir was quite amusing at times, but some of his answers were a bit waffly. At one point I felt I was almost begging for him to give the audience reasons to vote for him, but he didn’t quite come up with the goods.
Jacqui’s partner had arrived by this time and we had intended to go to a few fringes, but in the end decided just to go out for a meal as we were all a bit knackered.
We got up early on Saturday to go to a show called “Mrs Roosevelt Comes to London”. It was a one woman show all about Eleanor Roosevelt coming to Britain for three weeks in the middle of the war. I was sitting in the front row in a very uncomfortable seat, but it was really enjoyable and really held my attention.
At lunchtime Jacqui and I interviewed broadcaster Kaye Adams, who proved very adept at turning the tables and interviewing me! She was hilarious and is such a talented woman. I’ve just done her HOW TO BE 60 podcast too, where she got quite a lot out of me that no other interviewer ever has.
Later on David Starkey made a very welcome return. His show was undoubtedly the best of my 2019 run and he didn’t disappoint this time either. With David you never quite know what you’re going to get, but you can always be confident of a performance! And so it was this time. He’s had quite a controversial time since we last me, and he was searingly honest about it all.
On Saturday night we went out to a steak house near the hotel. From the outside it didn’t look very impressive but the food was absolutely excellent.
Sunday was our final day with Geoff Norcott and Rosie Holt at lunchtime and Jess Phillips in the afternoon. Both audiences were fantastic and Jess brough the house down when her opening words were: “I’ve got such a hangover”. Geoff and Rosie were hilarious and proved why both their shows are so popular.
In the evening I went out for dinner with Sam Marks and his family. Sam has been my assistant throughout the week and given my lack of mobility has been a fantastic help. He’s done my leafletting as well as handled the questions at every show and well, basically gone beyond the call of duty for me. Sam is the son of Simon Marks, LBC’s Washington Correspondent and is at university in Edinburgh and I hope he will perform the same role next year! Assuming I do this again next year!
I want to thank everyone at Seabright Productions, especially Magdalene and Tom who ensured everything ran smoothly, and also the stage manager Adrian. Everything was organised to perfection and it could not have gone better. The EICC turned out to be a great venue and their staff were incredibly friendly.
All in all, although being on crutches was incredibly frustrating at times, it was a fantastic week. Yes it was tiring, but I enjoyed every minute, and was rather sad when it all came to an end!