As my run of 24 shows at the Edinburgh Fringe has now concluded, I thought I’d reflect on the whole experience. I have to say that I’m suffering a bit from the post Fringe blues, and there’s part of me that wishes I could have done the whole month. So how did I come to do it?
About nine years ago I was invited to take part in the Edinburgh Book Festival, but while I was there I went to see a couple of shows on the Fringe, including one with a very funny German comedian called Christian Schulte-Loh. I was hooked. I’ve been back on five occasions since, and each time I had a whale of a time. I always went on my own and stayed at the George Hotel. I’d stay for two or three days and pack in as may shows as possible, each time booking them all in advance. I’d see 15-20 shows on each visit, ranging from a musical about the Bay City Rollers to a three man play about being a West Ham fan – from Gyles Brandreth to a whole host of stand-up comedians.
But it was going to In Conversation interviews that really made me think about doing my own show. While I’d love to think I can do stand-up, that would be too much of a risk. I remember winning an auction prize at a James Whale charity fundraiser for kidney cancer which enabled me to on a course on stand-up comedy. To my eternal shame I never did it. I just knew that I am only funny when I’m spontaneous. I have a pathological inability to learn lines, or a script.
I remember seeing Matt Forde interview the Conservative MP Tim Loughton at the Pleasance Cabaret Bar. It was packed. “I could do this,” I thought to myself, but I had no idea how to take it forward or even if I should do so. I had a word with Gyles Brandreth, who does a show every two years on the Fringe and always sells out, and he said I needed a promoter. I had no clue how to get one.
Anyway, last summer I signed up with Northbank Talent Management to represent me in the media, corporate and literary worlds. In our initial meeting I mentioned the Edinburgh idea and lo and behold they said they would introduce me to James Seabright, one of the leading promoters at Edinburgh. A few weeks later we met at his office at the Palace Theatre and I outlined my thinking to James and he immediately understood. I showed him a list of around 85 guests who I thought I had a reasonable chance of getting. We agreed we’d do an initial run of 9 shows and James booked us in at one of the Fringe’s best venues, the Gilded Balloon.
The room he booked was the Wine Bar, which I knew from having seen Geoff Norcott perform there last year.
We then increased it to 12 shows, and I started booking guests. It proved surprisingly easy. I didn’t want only politicians. I decided to ask people from the media too. The lineup was completed by the middle of April, which is when tickets went on sale. My headline guest was Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister. I was delighted she agreed to do it, given I had never managed to lure her onto my LBC show in nine years. I thought at one stage I had secured John Bercow, but apparently I had had the temerity to criticise something he said on my LBC show so he said no – and then said yes to do it with someone else the next day. Hey ho. Other guests included CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Kirsty Wark, Jess Phillips, John McDonnell and Sadiq Khan.
Tickets went on sale and starting selling very well indeed. The Nicola Sturgeon event sold out within a few weeks and by the end of May had sold 20% of the tickets. Result. I was told this was highly unusual and most shows hardly sell any tickets before July.
In early June, James rang to say that the Gilded Ballooon had been in touch to ask if we’d like to do a second run of shows at 6pm in another of their venues at the National Museum of Scotland, because the act booked in there had cancelled. I had ten days to see if I could book another 12 guests. I achieved it with hours to spare. And a bloody good lineup it was, even if I say so myself. It included Dr David Starkey, Kate Adie, Paul Gambaccini, Christopher Biggins, Len McCluskey, Sir Nicholas Soames and Jo Swinson.
Now it was all down to marketing the events. Back in June it all seemed a long way off. I had done a photoshoot with a brilliant photographer called Steve Ullathorne earlier in the year, and I dressed up in my crimson suit, just to make a bit of a statement, that this wasn’t going to be your normal, dry political interview, we’d be providing a bit of entertainment too. I recorded a promo video, the posters were designed and a website was launched. Every week I’d get a breakdown of ticket sales. It was obvious which shows were going to sell out, and which would be, er, challenging.
The problem with the 6pm shows was that because they were arranged after the Fringe guide went to print and also the Fringe website didn’t give guest details (computer says no, apparently) for the second show, ticket sales for those shows always lagged behind the 4pm shows. I think a lot of people thought the 6pm shows were just repeats of the 4pm ones with the same guest.
I flew up to Edinburgh on Tuesday 30 July, a day before the debut show with Sayeeda Warsi. I wasn’t pleased to discover I was staying in student accommodation, although were I a student I’d have been very pleased with it. There was no TV and it was, shall we say, a tad basic. At least I had my own bathroom!
The first three shows were so-called ’Previews’. I don’t think I’d quite understood this concept, but while it works for comedians to hone their acts, it wasn’t really necessary for a show like mine. Because I had different guests each day, I didn’t really have an act to hone.
I’ve written a blog diary for each of the days I was in Edinburgh, all of which are available here so I won’t repeat the whole experience here. Suffice to say, I don’t think we put on a bad show. All the guests performed brilliantly and the audiences seemed incredibly happy with what they heard. As time went on, I dispensed with any notes and just went on stage ‘naked’ so to speak. I found that it actually enabled it to be a proper conversation, rather than an interview.
So, a few memories… I was advised to do my own flyering outside the venue. I hugely enjoyed it. I
I remember one chap coming up to me before a show brandishing the show flyer. "Are all these people really coming?" he asked in disbelief. "Of course," I replied. "What, you mean Sadiq Khan is actually coming to Edinburgh - you mean the real Sadiq Khan?" "Yes, I replied." He walked away and then immediately came back. "How on earth do you get all these people?" he asked. "I have a good contacts book," I retorted. He seemed satisfied at that.
On the evening of the second day,I was a guest "storyteller" at fringe event called The Big Gay Story Slam. Indeed. I had to spend 7 minutes telling a story from my life revolving around my homosexuality. I was a bit concerned when the first two people turned out to be professional comedians. Oh dear, why did I agree to do this, I kept thinking to myself.
Then it was my turn. I talked about what it was like getting selected as a Tory candidate and the effect being gay had on my chances. I got a few laughs and it all seemed to go OK. I didn't actually realise it was a competition, but the drag queen hosting it suddenly announced I had won! Sadly there was no prize.
On the Saturday evening I went for a drink in the Gilded Balloon garden with Neil and Christine Hamilton. It was the first time I have ever really felt under public gaze. One after another people would come up and want a selfie or a quick chat - and it was mostly me they recognised! Lots of LBC listeners, people who have seen me on Newsnight or wanted to talk about the Tory leadership hustings. Until then, I don't think I realised what that few weeks did for my public profile. Indeed, as the week wore on, I could hardly walk 100 yards without someone wanting a chat. I'm not complaining about it all, it was actually quite heartwarming.
The next day I went to Panmure House, the home of Adam Smith, to take part in a panel with Dominic Frisby and Heather McGregor. Heather runs the business school at Heriot-Watt University and made it her mission to restore the building to its former glory. It's taken several years and £6 million to do so. She's a fascinating lady who used to own Taylor Bennett. She bought the company for £1.8 million in 2004, built it up from 9 employees to 60 and then instead of selling it for a fortune, gave it to her staff. We each had to give our favourite Adam Smith quote and explain our reasons.
There is no art which one government sooner learns of another than that of draining money from the pockets of the people.
A fascinating discussion on the merits and demerits of taxation ensued, and although I'm by no means an economic expert, I felt I more than held my own. Towards the end, the subject of Brexit came up and I explained why I thought Brexit offered many opportunities as well as posed some economic threats, and we ought to talk more about the economic opportunities rather than just concentrate on the threads as most of the media loves to do. I said I thought that there were huge opportunities for British manufacturing to revive, which provoked a man in the front row to laugh derisively. I asked him why he was laughing, but instead of engage me in argument he said: "Ninety per cent of what you have said is shit." I told him he was incredibly rude, as did several members of the audience. A lady then asked a question about the decline of public discourse. I replied that it comes to something when someone thinks it is acceptable to come to an august building like Panmure House and thinks they can be so rude to a guest speaker's face. Still, at least he gave me the opening paragraph for my new book!
If I'm honest, the Nicola Sturgeon interview was the one I had been most looking forward to, but also most dreading. Not in a bad way, I should say, but to me the success of the whole run rather depended on whether this went well. My state of nervousness wasn't helped when the director of the Edinburgh Fringe arrived and told me Nicola had never done a Fringe event before.
I have never interviewed her before, hence my nervousness. A friend of mine knows her quite well and advised me not to ask anything that might make her clam up. Although I hadn't prepared any questions, just areas to talk about, I thought I'd start with Boris Johnson's visit last week. It was the right decision and she was highly entertaining. I spent quite a bit of time talking about Brexit and Indyref2, but I was keen to move on to more personal issues.
I started that section off by asking about the loneliness of a top politician, before moving on to ask if she misses Alex Salmond. I knew she wouldn't be able to talk much about him given the pending court case, but she spoke rather movingly about how he had been her political soulmate. We then had a chat about what she might do when she eventually stands down and suggested that she might like a radio show. In fact, I think she suggested it. I turned to James Rea and he seemed up for the idea. We talked about much else besides and the audience seemed to really enjoy it. I have to say she came across incredibly well. I think people outside Scotland see her in a very different way to people there. Naturally she has her fair share of political enemies, but I think Scotland sees a softer side of Nicola Sturgeon. Well, they did at my show, anyway.
The next day’s newspapers were full of the interview – front page of the Herald and the front page of the Scotsman as well as a double page spread on the inside. The objective of this show wasn’t really to seek headlines – I wouldn’t even let TV cameras in, but if headlines came our way, I certainly wasn’t objecting. But this was nothing compared to what followed the next day with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.
I've always enjoyed interviewing John. He and I agree on virtually nothing, but he always engages and we both enjoy a good joust. I was rather surprised at his answers on an Indyref2, where he seemed to stray very far from official Labour policy, which as I understood it was to reject any request from the SNP for another referendum. John said if the Scottish people, through their Parliament requested one, it would have to be granted by a Labour government. As it happens, I agree with him, but that is not what Jeremy Corbyn or the Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard have articulated. One of his other answers, towards the end, on whether Labour were now the party of Remain seemed to go directly against Jeremy Corbyn's stance on what a second referendum would be about. He said Labour would support Remain in any such referendum, but Corbyn's position, as I understand it, is to have a referendum on a new Brexit deal which Labour would have negotiated. John seemed to be suggesting they would still back Remain, and argue against the very deal Labour had themselves negotiated. Preposterous. But he then said the other option on the ballot paper would be for people to mandate Labour to negotiate a particular deal. Nope, me neither.
If I am honest I wasn’t 100% sure what Labour’s policy on Indyref2 was, but I figured they were against it and luckily I went with my gut. The headlines the next day were huge. And the story ran for days. I had assumed John had misspoken, but the next day he doubled down. Was it deliberate? Who knows. But he certainly ‘committed news’.
As did Jacqui Smith the next day… Jacqui became more and more outrageous, culminating in her answer to my question as to which part of her body she loved, and which she hated. "Well I've got nice Tits," she retorted. The audience roared their approval. She then went on to talk about how she found Michel Barnier "a cold fish" and rather arrogant. "Is that because he didn't like your tits?" I replied? It was just like the FOR THE MANY PODCAST for a second!
One of my regrets from the fringe is that I didn’t see as many shows as I normally would. There just wasn’t time. I saw Janey Godley, Frank Skinner, Matt Forde, Leo Kearse and Konstantin Kisin's one man stand-up show. He's far and away the best thing I saw on the comedy side of the Fringe. He made me laugh more than Frank Skinner did the previous evening. His act is based around supporting the concept of free speech and he rails against those who are trying to constrain it. It takes a real talent to make this subject laugh a minute, but he's achieved it. The audience loved it. I really think KK is a star in the making but I think he's worried that the subject matter of his comedy won't go down well with all the woke commissioners of comedy. I think he should stick to his guns. He has a real talent.
Another Fringe performer real talent is Alex Gwyther. He has written and performed a one man play called RIPPED. Alex is an LBC listener and had emailed me about his show some weeks ago wondering if I'd go along and see it. The subject matter was not easy - male rape and toxic masculinity. Anyway, it proved to be an absolute tour de force. Quite dark at times, but also with a lot of humour. Alex seemed to really live the whole thing and by the end you could tell he was both physically and mentally spent. Powerful stuff.
I also saw a show called MUSIK up at the Assembly Rooms on George Street. It is a one woman show starring Frances Barber, but also featuring new songs by the Pet Shop Boys. Her performance was quite astonishing in its variety and intensity. She played an ageing celebrity who left war torn Berlin for the delights of America in 1945, and then told the story of her life following that. Some of the humour was sometimes a little obvious and cringy, but the character she quickly developed was so captivating that it masked that. Her singing the new Pet Shop Boys songs was exemplary, especially in the disco-based songs, which is quite something to pull off for an actress not known for her singing. I imagine that after every performance she's a physical wreck and needs 12 hours sleep, so intense is her performance.
The final show I saw came on Sunday lunchtime and it wa my friend Sarah Southern's TENTATIVELY TORY one woman stand-up show. I got a very nice surprise when top singer songwriter Alistair Griffin turned up with his wife in the bar. I'm a huge admirer of his work and have seen him in concert several times. Last year, Sarah did a show about wanting to be a bride. This year it was all about her time working for the Conservative Party and whether she really still was a Tory at heart. She got a very good response from the audience indeed. It's quite difficult to do a show in Edinburgh with the word 'Tory' in the title, but she's had some excellent reviews and deservedly so.
One of the highlights of the run was Dr David Starkey. With David you know what you're going to get, but you always expect the unexpected, if you see what I mean. He was in great form and we mixed up the serious with the light right throughout the hour. He was enthralling and I think there were more laughs in this than in any other of the 20 shows I've done so far. He also talked very movingly at times, especially about the death of his partner James, and talked about the loneliness he experiences. You could hear a pin drop. At the end quite a few members of the audience gave him a standing ovation, and deservedly so.
Many people have asked which I thought was the best show. It’s such a difficult question to answer. I genuinely believe we didn’t have a bad show. The audiences seemed hugely appreciative and many people came to more than one show. One lady told me she’d been to eight. Hugely rewarding and flattering. I suppose if I was pushed I’d say the Nicola Sturgeon one was the one I found most rewarding, because for me so much hung on it. If that had flopped, I’d have felt the whole run would have been viewed through that prism.
I don’t know how many of my guests will read this, but I hope they know how much I appreciated them all coming to Edinburgh. They weren’t paid a fee, they did it because I asked them to and that means an awful lot.
Most of you won't know how costly it is to put on a show at the Edinburgh Fringe. Unless you're a big name, it's difficult to make a profit. So I am absolutely indebted to Arbuthnot Latham bank who were our lead sponsor, to LBC radio and also to a friend of mine who was kind enough to put some money in but didn't want any recognition for it. I'll never forget it.
I’d like to thank James Seabright and his team at Seabright Productions, especially the wonderful Debbie who was a delight to work with. She handled all the travel and accommodation logistics for the guests and made sure I was where I needed to be at all times. Thanks also to Fin McCarville, who was with us for the whole run, flyering and collecting questions from the queuing audiences. Also thanks to all the team at the Gilded Balloon, especially Lewis, who was always so cheerful and helpful.
It really was a great experience and I have learned a lot from it. I hope we’ll be doing it all again next year. We’ll see.
Just finally, we're launching a new 'Iain Dale All Talk' podcast this weekend in which we'll be uploading the audio from all 24 Edinburgh shows, one a week over the next six months. It will also feature bonus interviews from my LBC show and others too. You can subscribe via the Global Player App, Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts from. Just search for All Talk or Iain Dale. The Nicola Sturgeon show will be available on 21 August.