Today, I travel to Edinburgh.
I’ve been to the Edinburgh Festival once before. Of course, pedants will tell you that it’s actually many different festivals, all taking place in the same city at around about the same time of year. However, the average visitor sees this annual invasion of the Scottish capital as just one enormous cultural extravaganza. And concerted marketing efforts by various vested interests have singularly failed to subvert that perception.
I first heard about the Festival back when I was still in high school. To my great surprise, I won a scholarship to a week-long “bootcamp” for up-and-coming media talent, run by the Edinburgh International Film and Television Festival. Thanks to a snappy and verbose essay on moral relativism in children’s TV drama – it was basically about Douglas Adams-era Doctor Who and my favourite episodes of Press Gang – I was offered the opportunity to join 30 other hand-picked youngsters on an all-expenses-paid “foreign” trip. Woohoo!
As it turned out “all expenses” actually meant “all expenses necessary to keep you physically alive while you are here” and it didn’t cover travel costs or any incidentals while you were in Edinburgh. The accommodation was provided free of charge by the local university and we were expected to live on the sandwiches and free squash graciously provided by our hosts. Being poor, there was only one way I could afford to take part in this rare opportunity and that was to beg my parents to buy me a cheap return coach ticket. But I had to take a paper round with the local newsagent for three months prior to my trip in order to repay the loan. I’m not a morning person at all, but it was worth the sacrifices if it meant I could enjoy my first ever holiday away from home on my own.
Ostensibly, the bootcamp was an opportunity to meet bigwigs in the film and TV industries and make the kind of contacts that would help us pursue media careers once we’d grown up. Back then no-one had even heard of the internet, and “media” meant working with real people on film sets, TV studios, photoshoots and newsrooms, so it still seemed like a career option steeped in glamour and excitement. I did, as it happens, end up working in publishing, radio, television and public relations for almost a decade thanks to the advice I picked up while I was out there.
However, from my first visit to Edinburgh, the most memorable experience came when we were given the night off from bootcamp and let loose on the town. I was never much of a party animal, but had always enjoyed a fascination with stand-up comedy. During our teen years, my friends and I swapped bootleg copies of Richard Prior, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock concerts. My misspent youth in inner city Birmingham was never short of laughs thanks to relentless, repetitious quoting of the foul-mouthed African-American comedians my friends and I adored.
Yet, up until that point, I had never seen a comedian live. That, I always imagined, was for middle class people. The kind of people who owned suits and leather shoes, and who threw away good money on bottled water! That just wasn’t my world. I lived in a world where you looked forward to your Birthday as it meant your parents handed you a £2 coin to spend on sweets and comic books! And “live comedy” involved visiting the local park to watch two drunks punch each other unconscious. You didn’t pay someone to make you laugh!
So, there I was, with three awkward pubescent boys from the bootcamp, wandering the Royal Mile at 10pm. We were too young, in a very physically obvious way, to get into a trendy bar or nightclub. So our adventure amongst the Festival revelry was always in danger of being a stunted and joyless experience. After half an hour running a gauntlet of street performers and people shoving flyers in our faces, we were pretty sure that night was going to be bust. It would have been too, if some random gig-promoter hadn’t shoved a discount voucher in our hands and told us about a comedy show that was just about to start at the nearby “Gilded Balloon” venue. I wasn’t particularly assertive at that age, but something inside me demanded I convince these three relative strangers to take a chance and join me for, what they didn’t realise was going to be, my first taste of live stand-up comedy.
With the “discount” voucher the show was going to cost me six pounds. SIX POUNDS! I had never spent that much money on anything before. My only option – and it was one I really didn’t like – was to dip into the “emergency cash” my parents had shoved into my hand at the coach station as I was leaving. But I couldn’t back out now. Not when I’d made such an impassioned plea to my bootcamp compadrés about how we simply had to see the show.
The venue itself was nothing like what I had expected. Having grown up watching videos of arena shows performed by my favourite American comics, being led into a dark, dingy and stale beer-aroma’d basement quickly shattered my illusions about the showbiz experience I had imagined awaited me. We were directed by an usher to take a seat on the front row in a room that could barely accommodate forty punters. And that microphone stand at the front seemed uncomfortably close.
Within minutes the lights dimmed and from a black sheet behind the microphone a grinning man with an enormous nose appeared and sat down on a stool, Dave Allen-style. He introduced himself as Ian Stone, and it was obvious he was in the mood for some banter. His opening question to the audience was “Is anyone here to review me?”
I heard someone confidently reply “Yes. I am.” This was followed by a comedically-perfect pause and the killer put-down: “You’re shit!”
Our host was astounded. Completely thrown off his stride. No-one in that room could believe things had started so badly. However, what surprised me even more was that the critical voice responsible for ruining the show – that mean-spirited assassination in a dingy Edinburgh basement – had emanated from MY vocal chords. My companions turned to me with contempt in their eyes, and they perceptibly shuffled their bodies an inch in the opposite direction – a physical rejection signifying the social ostracism they felt I deserved for my impudence. This really wasn’t how I imagined my inception into the world of live comedy would turn out… with me ruining the fun for forty complete strangers.
Of course, Ian Stone – as fans of his work will tell you – is a gifted performer and he was more than capable of turning this momentary discomfiture into a comedic triumph. Even though he probably doesn’t care one way or another now, I do still feel bad about insulting him in such an egregious manner. If you’re reading this Ian Stone, I want to apologise for my puerile bitchiness. You still gave us a great show, and were on top form for the rest of that gig.
As for me, I was subjected to accusing silence and the occasional testy remark during a very awkward taxi ride back to our student digs. The next day, even though it meant enduring an uncomfortable eight hour coach ride, I was relieved that bootcamp was over and I would never see those three guys again.
This year, in a matter of hours in fact, I once again board a bus at Birmingham Coach Station and head north of the border. Only this time around, I’ll be the guy at the front of the room, grinning into a microphone, worried some smartarse with poor social skills is waiting to deliver an ego-shattering heckle.