Graham Linehan and the Terminal Case of the Edinburgh Fringe
If you are not part of the comedy world, you are unlikely to care about the gradual but terminal case of the Edinburgh Fringe, the biggest performing arts festival in the world. But you should.
Last week my friends at Comedy Unleashed organised a comedy line-up of some of their favourite comics at a venue called Leith Arches. When it was announced that Graham Linehan, one of the most acclaimed comedy writers of the last 30 years, would join the bill, Leith Arches promptly cancelled the show on the basis that it is an “inclusive” venue. Such is the ideological capture of Britain’s comedy industry that they are unable to see the irony of saying “We’re an inclusive venue – that is why you must leave!”. If you are as yet unfamiliar with why Graham is controversial, he believes that men can’t become women, suggests “women” with penises shouldn’t be allowed in female changing rooms, and is guilty of all sorts of other related thought crimes.
Rather than being the exception, Graham’s cancellation is rapidly becoming the norm. Readers may recall the case of Jerry Sadowitz’s cancelled show last year and the ensuing debate:
The attritional nature of the culture war is such that the seasoned reader might at this point be asking an obvious and reasonable question: “So what?”
“We know the institutions are captured by the woke mind virus,” you might well be thinking. “We know that in the social media era a few tweets from random strangers on the Internet are enough to force major corporations to swap their logos for a permanent Pride flag. We know that British comedy, like all arts, leans heavily towards #bekind, social justice and all the other progressive fashions of the day.”
So why is this significant and what makes it different?
Well, first of all the clue is in the name. It’s called the Fringe for a reason. The festival was created as an alternative to the more formal Edinburgh International Festival, with the specific aim of providing open access to performers without having to bend over for a bunch of gatekeepers. It is for this reason that prior to the pandemic the Edinburgh Fringe was third only to the World Cup and the Olympic Games in terms of ticket sales.
In a creative industry, the supply of performers will always outstrip demand. This produces an imbalance that results in the need, or at least opportunity, for the emergence of a small but powerful cabal of “taste-makers” who insert themselves between you and the performer. Over time their views on comedy become dominant without anyone asking you, the viewing public, what you think is funny. So if you’re wondering why so much British TV comedy has flushed itself down the toilet in recent years (think Mash Report, Mock the Week and others), you need wonder no more.
Frank Zappa described how this exact same process affected the music industry with great eloquence in 2 minutes flat:
The Edinburgh Fringe was, of course, parasitised by this cosy coterie of agents, publicists, reviewers, venue owners and comedy journos. But, in the past, they at least had the self-awareness to stop short of undermining the central premise of the Edinburgh Fringe which was that it was open to anyone. From street performers to “Puppetry of the Penis” to deluded comics playing to single digit audiences, everyone was welcome. The unspoken Fringe mantra was always the same: if you’re prepared to pay extortionate venue fees and spend a month living with 5 other mentally ill performers in a one bedroom flat next to a heroin den in Leith, you’re in.
This admirable ethos on which the entire festival was based has now been replaced with diversity and inclusion. And not by accident:
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