If you haven’t read Fringe Press Officer Steve Walker’s first foray into the blogosphere, then stay behind after class. He’s asking the possibly unanswerable question 'What the hell is Fringeanyway?'
One thing Fringe often claims or aspires to be, is a hotbed of controversy. This year seems to be no exception, if you’ve been following SO IT GOES. For those of you who are unfamiliar with John Fleming’s blog, check it out for interesting insights into the world of comedy, tv and occasionally, North Korea. Before jetting off to observe rocket launches in rogue states, John Fleming produced Helen Keen’s show It Is RocketScience! V2, which she brought to Buxton in 2010 before heading north to Edinburgh and then on to Radio 4.
Lately (amongst the posts about his trip to North Korea) he’s been talking about the touchy issue of censorship in Edinburgh. The mother of all fringes began way back in 1947 when a group of artists turned up to the Edinburgh International Festival, and refused to let the obstacle of not being part of the programme stop them from staging their shows. Since then it has forged a reputation for the new and challenging and developed into the largest arts festival in the world.
But the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society have managed to disgruntle a good few comedians by using an overly heavy-handed approach in editing the Fringe Programme, the comedians claim. The word 'Puritanical' has been thrown around, following some notable asterisks being inserted pretty much anywhere they’ll fit.
Richard Herring’s show Talking C*ck is one of the casualties, and he points out that in this case it’s the pretty tame phrase 'cock and bull story' from which the title originates. Jackson Voohar commented on his own run in with the editors:
“A quote in my blurb was actually censored to ‘the b*st*rd offspring of Eddie Izzard and Noel Fielding’. Surely in that context bastard is a perfectly legitimate and inoffensive term?”
One half of Underground Venues, Tom Crawshaw has been musing on the issue:
“I’m not sure if this is relevant” he says, “but since Eddie Izzard and Noel Fielding can’t biologically conceive a bastard child by natural means, perhaps people would automatically take the word in its other meaning…”
he adds “No, that’s silly.”
Censorship is a pretty emotive issue anywhere, but in the context of Fringe, which often trades on its reputation as a home for the experimental and the outrageous, it can get even trickier.
Going back to Steve’s question – 'what does fringe even mean?' it’s important to note that even fringes can’t really claim to know. In Edinburgh, performers pay an entry fee for inclusion in the programme, and sort pretty much everything else out themselves. This unprogrammed model is the one Buxton has adopted, but other Fringe Festivals (or Festival Fringes – we’ll get onto that another time) are selective, and handpick their programme from the artists who apply, meaning only a selected few actually perform.
Buxton Fringe’s hands off approach is staunch in its anti-selection policy. Former Committee Chair and Fringe enthusiast John Wilson said “Art is for and by everybody. It is not for us or anybody else to decide in advance what will or will not be good nor to decide what should or should not be done nor what anybody should or should not see.”
Well great. But what about age-suitability, and good old-fashioned decency? Are the Great British public to be subjected to and endless parade of expletives, double entendres and posters depicting obscene gestures? I’m not one to stand in the way of a double entendre, but does the Fringe have a responsibility to the public to ensure that publications such as their brochure are suitable for all ages, and tastes for that matter?
John says “It is a matter of politeness to make clear the nature or the event on offer and we encourage entrants to be clear in their description and their advice on suitability. We cannot and do not insist on this however. Some entrants, for example, refuse on principle to offer advice on age suitability.”
Seems like a common sense approach, and Tom is in agreement:
“The important part of the Fringe is that anyone can take part and have complete freedom as to the content of their show. When it comes to the printed programme, which is a huge administrative undertaking, the house style should also ensure the brochure is accessible to everyone. If there are shows suitable for or specifically aimed at children, the brochure should be inclusive to this group, so it can’t be x-rated. As long as the style guide is clear about what is suitable content for the programme, then acts can work within the guidelines – the issue of freedom of expression should be about the show, rather than the marketing.“
Now I love a good style guide, and I love research. So just you try and stop me researching the Edinburgh Fringe style guide. On explicit titles they have this to say:
“Explicit words may be included in a show’s title or copy by replacing key characters in the word with symbols: eg, f$*k or s*%t. The Fringe Programme team will use its own discretion to adjust explicit words within show titles or copy as it deems necessary.”
They’re pretty well covered then, although changing all swear words into comic book sound effects as in the case of 'f$*k' and 's8%t' is possibly going a little far, tending closer to the unreadable than the inoffensive.
So is the Edinburgh Fringe morphing into a draconian, Orwellian nightmare seeking to control artistic expression? Has, as the Daily Mail claims, PC gone mad? I would warn any free-spirited and boundary-pushing comedian that sounding even a little like the Daily Mail is a sign that something, somewhere has gone wrong.
If you’re in the business of challenging taboos, restrictions can be, well, restrictive, obviously. Although, if you’re a glass half full type of guy, you might prefer to look at it as a bit of a freebie – firstly, asterisks may be passed off as a star rating, and secondly, comedy fans tend not to be easily offended and I doubt the news that a title has been altered will scare many away. More likely is that people will go along to see what all the fuss is about, controversy means publicity. Probably not a good idea to say that publicly, though. That makes you sound like a money-hungry %*!< (in the spirit of free expression, feel free to read that as any word you deem suitable).
But is the commotion justified? Isn’t a bit of perspective and some understanding of the complexity of the Edinburgh Programme team’s task a much more sensible way to go?
Well, yes – but it isn’t half as funny, is it?