Mervyn Stutter brands himself a 'comedian, satirical songwriter, actor, and scriptwriter'. He was a founder member of the Flying Pickets and this year celebrates his 31st year at the Edinburgh Fringe and the 26th year of his legendary showcase Pick of the Fringe, making it the longest-running show in the history of the event's history. We looked back over those with him and talked about the changes that have taken place.
The Fringe was more chaotic and in many ways more fun back then
Mervyn, you can justifiably be regarded as a Fringe veteran who is still in active service. How did it all begin?
I started in 1987 doing my annual comedy song shows. I'd been a regular topical songwriter for many Radio 4 shows and on the UK's first ever Daytime TV show Open Air – so I got good audiences straight off. I was in the Pleasance old Cabaret Bar just before the Doug Anthony Allstars (DASS). The changing area was the Uni kitchens and costumes were draped over the food warmers. DAAS resolutely refused to wash theirs, so backstage was fragrant with the smell of ….Aussie talent.
I understand they were something of a wild bunch.
That’s one way of putting it. DAAS were notorious for suddenly marching their audiences singing loudly into the shows of anyone who had upset them. Glorious! Wouldn't happen today. The Fringe was more chaotic and in many ways more fun back then. It was less of a trade fair and often more of a lark. The more professional approach grew in prominence alongside – or because of – the rapid rise of mobiles and the internet.
So you’ve witnessed many changes over the years.
Oh yes. What become the world’s largest and the greatest Fringe has changed enormously over my 35 years. Mostly in terms of its size and its use of in conjunction with developments in technology.
As it grew, finding the good stuff became harder. People were asking me if I'd “seen anything good?”. So I started a daily live showcase of top talent from all the arts genres. Audiences could see five-minute 'trailers' of seven shows in 90 minutes and then, if they wanted, buy tickets for the ones they liked.
How did you go about doing that?
First I needed a venue. Of the places I approached only the Pleasance agreed. Then I needed a team of researchers. It was vital that only guaranteed good shows were invited on. The audience had to trust the showcase – and trust me. So we found willing performers who were happy to join in and blag their way into shows. The was no Arts Accreditation in 1992!
Then I needed an audience. I couldn't invite genuine talent to showcase their work if there wasn't a good-sized audience. So I went out each day with flyers, barking queues with a cry of, “Seven shows for the price of one!” The team also carried flyers to leave with venues and queues. One local researcher said her sister could help with B&Bs and hotels etc. It sounded like a great idea; almost too good to be true; which is what it turned out to be. She wanted 1000 flyers each week. In the last week, she confessed to me that her sister had done nothing and there were 4000 of my flyers under her bed. Ah, the Fringe!
Once you had your audiences, how was the show received?
The press loved it and the reviews were terrific. Audience word of mouth did the rest. As the show grew I was able to rent a house so a more regular team could live and work together. The office was the kitchen. Lengths of cable took the landline from the hall, up over the door-frames and into the kitchen. The team went out equipped clutching a fistful of 10p pieces so any critical information of confirmations or crises could be phoned into the kitchen from a public phone box.
At this point I've probably lost the younger readers, who nowadays walk past those iconic red-painted metal and glass structures wondering what those weird monuments from a bygone age are all about. But there were no mobile phones in those days! Can you imagine? You had to stand in the Edinburgh rain outside a phone box for 20 minutes while some lovelorn teenager broke up with his girlfriend. I do wonder now, in 2023 how, we ever did it. But we did and it was all part of our existence at the Fringe.
So the technology has moved on and made some aspects of functioning at the Fringe easier, but wat about the shows?
Basically, the process of creating the shows has stayed the same. Efficiency is the key. We start each day with a 9am team meeting (in the kitchen of course!) reporting back on yesterday's research and firming up that day's plans. The best shows are pencilled into suitable slots to give each day as big a variety as possible. As soon as dates are confirmed they are written up in magic marker! All very Blue Peter but we love that bit!
And you invoked the creativity of Blue Peter in your annual Spirit of the Fringe Awards.
Yes. Back then artwork for Fringe programmes and posters came from the winners of competitions in local schools and art colleges. So I used framed prints of that year's artwork for my annual awards. The Fringe Society suddenly stopped those competitions and hired in professionals. Why? And at what cost? Edinburgh artwork was perfect for an Edinburgh Fringe.
Now that you’ve mentioned the Fringe Society, do you have any thoughts on how they have developed their role over the years?
I’d say the Fringe Society has changed dramatically from when I started out. and not for the better many would say. The Fringe Society used to only facilitate and sell tickets. Many are asking why that isn't still the case and why the Fringe Society seems to be going down the path of turning it into the world’s biggest corporate event with performers asking why the thousands of pounds they risk on bringing a show their Fringe is contributing towards that.
Finally, your role has also changed over time. How do you feel about that?
Well, I do miss performing my own live solo shows, but I can do those the rest of the year. Only at this great event in Scotland’s capital can I show off some of the fabulous talent that gathers each day on Pick of the Fringe, and for me that is a much bigger buzz.