All entries for Thursday 07 August 2008

August 07, 2008

In Defense of the Edinburgh Comedy Festival

The Edinburgh Comedy Festival is an idea that’s taken a lot of flack. Basically the big four Fringe venues (Pleasance, Underbelly, Assembly Rooms, Gilded Balloon) decided to get together and market all their shows under the banner of the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. Now this isn’t that new. For years the venues have been pairing up to help with promotion, producing joint programmes and so forth. Most of the consternation comes from the name: it implies that they’re the only comedy shows on the Fringe, ignoring the smaller venues.

It’s a valid complaint, but it’s hardly the first time someone has pulled something like this. Some years ago Avalon (a comedy management company) produced a “Fringe Highlights Guide” which was styled like the official Fringe program and had just their own acts in. Still nothing has been done on this scale before and the argument appears to be that it discriminates against the smaller acts that can’t afford to play the big venues, which is against the spirit of the Fringe (though the organisers have suggested other venues could join the “Comedy Festival” banner in future years).

I’m not so convinced it’s that clear-cut. For a start pick up the Fringe programme and thumb through it. 1000s of shows, but adverts for only around 10% of them. If you can afford an advert in the programme you get better advertising. If you can afford and convince one of the ‘Big 4’ you should play there you get better advertising. It’s most certainly a question of degrees rather than a fundamental issues.

The other issue that gets raised with this one is how comics lose thousands of pounds putting on a Fringe show. One interesting thing to note is that those on at the bigger venues are paying a lot more for those rooms, they’re taking a much bigger financial risk. Sure they get better positioning, more advertising and so forth but if they’re not good enough or don’t take advantage of it they’ll lose more money.
Now lets be honest, there’s a lot of shit on at the Fringe. There’s a lot of acts and productions that frankly shouldn’t be there. The open nature of the Fringe is that anyone can put on a show which is a good thing, but a lot of those shows are going to be rather poor. And the smaller and less auspicious the venue gets, the higher the proportion of really bad shows.

Now before you have a fit, I’m not denying there isn’t crap on at the Pleasance, nor am I denying there are some truly brilliant acts performing at the Free Fringe. The former is a case of acts with either more money than sense or over-inflated egos. The latter tend to be the opposite, or those acts that simply don’t have the money to risk. But at least when it comes to the bigger venues, the acts have put their money where their funny mouths are. They’re saying that they know they’re good enough to be playing there and put cold hard cash behind it. Meanwhile there are acts playing the Free Fringe that know they are far from having a sold hour of material, but are doing because it’s fun and not too costly.

So there does exist an argument that bringing these acts willing to risk their own livelihoods playing the big venues under one banner helps the consumer. And meanwhile it also hopefully sells more tickets overall so the acts don’t lose as much money.

The most interesting thing of all is that a number of the acts openly criticising the Edinburgh Comedy Festival are performing at The Stand. The Stand is a great place, but has the advantage of running comedy all-year round, so has a solid infrastructure already in place. It’s also a fairly small operation. All this means that those acts lucky enough to be picked by The Stand to play at their club don’t lose money. In fact, most of them turn a profit. Which is why it’s a little disconcerting to see them attack a system that’s designed to help out their fellow established circuit comics that are stuck performing at the Underbelly et al.

Sure, the whole thing could have been handled better, and under a different name I doubt half as many people would have been upset. But to automatically dismiss it as ‘a bad thing’ seems to be something of a swift judgement.

And of course, after the horrendous ticketing cock-up at the Fringe office, from a purely practical point of view it’s very useful to be able to buy and collect tickets for all four venues from one box-office!

TV Review: True Blood pilot

To say I’ve been anticipating this show is something of an understatement. It’s about vampires, it’s on HBO, it’s by Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball and it features Anna Paquin in the lead role. They couldn’t have appealed more to the demographic of ‘me’ short of casting Alyson Hannigan as an evil vampire girl. Nevertheless I haven’t really been following the show, but caught this trailer which makes it look like Buffy with added-gore and more Rice-esque vampires. Thankfully having now seen the pilot that’s not the case, though it’s far from perfect.
Paquin and Sterotype
The first thing that grabs you is the setting, or perhaps I should say backdrop. Two years ago the Chinese developed synthetic blood which provides all the nutrients a vampire needs to live. As such, they came out of the shadowy closet. In True Bloods world, not only are vampires real, everyone knows they’re real, even if only a small number of people have ever seen one. It’s a concept that grabs you immediately. What I’m not so sure about is the specific geographical setting. It all happens in a small village in Louisiana, Southern USA. It’s an understandable choice – the racial divide between vampires and humans appears to be a central theme of the show, so setting the show in a town where those attitudes will be at the fore seems a good idea. It’s just settings such as this are a little difficult to watch: it’s a community soaked in acts of casual sex and violence there’s something really nasty about it and it makes it hard to emphasise with any of the characters as you know they’ll either turn out to be horrible or have horrible things happen to them. But even elements of this setting don’t strike true: our heroine’s sensitivity to swear-words for one, or the “I’m better than all of you but still stuck here” friend. Maybe it’s a setting more common and clearly defined for US viewers but from a Brit perspective it seems that what should be a drama based around introducing an unfamiliar concept (vampires) to a familiar setting in fact plays more like an unfamiliar concept in an alien setting. It damages the show as it’s impossible to know what things are normal and what have been added as part of the show’s mythology.

There are other issues too. Our lead Vampire seems incredibly hokey and boring. The pre-titles teaser pulls a lovely bait and switch which seems to exist to point out that the vampires of this world are not what we’re used to in Rice-esque fiction. Then once the show proper gets underway it drops a hulking great stereotype in the middle. A few of the lines are truly cringe worthy.

I don’t want to be too harsh as it’s a decent show. Paquin’s Suki Stackhouse is an interesting character, with the ability to read minds which is played rather well but for a HBO show one expects something more. Perhaps the most damning criticism is that the whole thing was hugely predictable. The show didn’t surprise me once and it all seemed to be marching in a startlingly obvious direction. I should stress that this review is based on an unaired pilot and some of my smaller gripes may well be fixed. There is potential here and I enjoyed it, but I was hoping to be blown away and so am somewhat disappointed.

August 2008

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