A battle of free wills
By Claire Smith
Peter Buckley Hill’s Free Fringe inspired Alex Petty’s Free Festival, but now there’s trouble in paradise, writes Claire Smith
IN 1996, a revolution began on the Fringe. Comedian Peter Buckley Hill decided to put on a show with some other comedians at the Footlights & Firkin on Spittal Street, and he decided the show should be free of charge.
Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians is now in its 16th year. But what became the Free Fringe has grown and grown.
There are now hundreds of free shows on the Fringe, and big venues have had to limit their ticket price rises to compete. New performers have been discovered and moved on to bigger things, graduating to paid-for shows in the festival's biggest venues. Traffic has gone the other way too, with established names, such as Robin Ince, deciding to do free shows. Many people believe the Free Fringe movement has changed the Fringe forever.
But there is trouble in paradise. This idealistic movement has been riven by a bitter split which has seen performers banned from other free venues and having to choose between two rival factions - the original Free Fringe and what has become known as the Free Festival.
Peter Buckley Hill, a business and marketing lecturer from the University of Westminster, says he is devastated by what has happened to his dream. In his headquarters at the Canon's Gait pub, where the crowds are surging out of Robin Ince's lunchtime show, he recalls the original inspiration for the Free Fringe.
"When I first came to the Fringe in 1994, it was absolutely impossible for an unknown performer to achieve anything on the Fringe. The Fringe was built on dreams and performers willing to back those dreams with a very large amount of their own money. People would come here hoping to be discovered, hoping they somehow could compete with the best in the world and be better than them."
Buckley Hill came up with an alternative model. Rather than paying venues, he began persuading pub owners to allow him to set up venues in their back rooms for free. Performers would not be charged for renting the space and the public, instead of paying, would be asked for a donation at the end of the show.
PBH, as he is known, says most of his performers cover their costs - whereas performers at what he calls the "money fringe" can end up thousands of pounds in debt.
Alex Petty, a comedy promoter from London, had been impressed after seeing what PBH was doing. "We came to see Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians and it was great," he recalls. "I still remember one night in the Beehive with Ross Noble topping the bill."
In 2004, Petty came with his company, Laughing Horse, to put on a show at the Union of Communication Workers Club, which was one of the venues run by PBH. At first things went well, and for the next two years he came back, bringing other acts with him. There was a great atmosphere, with landlady Linsay Watts throwing huge barbecues in the garden behind the venue. But then things began to sour. In 2007, Petty decided to move away from PBH and run venues on his own. Watts decided to go with Petty rather than PBH.
"I can understand why Peter was upset," says one performer who was there at the time. "Alex did try to take over." People in the other camp, however, say that PBH was difficult to work with.
After the split, Peter Buckley Hill began insisting that people who performed at the Free Fringe performed at the Free Fringe only. "I think it can create problems for performers," says comedian Keara Murphy, who has worked for both. "PBH doesn't allow people working for Alex Petty to perform on any of his shows."
Comedian and promoter Dave Mulholland agrees. "The real problem is that you can't perform with both PBH and Alex Petty because it is not allowed to have a show at both," he says, "so that is a hassle, because you have to go into one camp or the other."
Although PBH is the most adamant about the split, his Free Fringe venues do seem to have the upper hand as far as community spirit goes. People at his venues seem more willing to guide you into the right space to see other performances and the atmosphere is genuinely friendly. Insiders say PBH venues also have more quality control at the bottom end - with weaker acts being encouraged to develop before attempting an hour-long show.
On the other hand, Alex Petty has a growing stable of loyal acts, and organises PAs, sound and lighting at his venues. "For me the most important thing is for performers to be able to come up here and do the best show they can," he says. "They shouldn't have to worry about things like microphones and lighting."
Every performer on the Free Festival pays GBP40, which goes to pay for equipment, repairs and printing the brochure - a small amount when compared with the GBP280 it costs for an entry in the main Fringe programme.
For PBH, charging performers is anathema. "The reason it is important is that if you start charging performers there is a ratchet effect. If you make a modest charge in year one the tendency is to make a bigger charge in year two and so on."
His performers are responsible for their own equipment; however this year he introduced a one-off payment, to cover the cost of 100,000 Free Fringe brochures.
"This year, we have had to do an emergency levy to finance the programme because our members did not sell enough advertising," he says. "We have had to introduce a one-off payment of GBP3 per performance but this will not be repeated."
Both the Free Fringe and the Free Festival are growing. This year PBH Free Fringe features 326 shows at eight venues. The total number of performances has grown by 42 per cent since last year.
Alex Petty now has 352 shows at 17 venues - and the number of performances has increased by around 50 per cent.
Big names at the Free Fringe include Robin Ince and Norman Lovett, while the Free Festival is hosting Phil Kay. Last year, Imran Yusuf, performing at the Free Festival, was nominated for the Foster's Comedy Award while Sarah-Louise Young, after two years at the Free Festival, is now wowing crowds at the Underbelly with her show Cabaret Whore More! More! More!
Petty now also runs some Free Festival shows at the Brighton Fringe, while his Laughing Horse company has branched out to Adelaide and is looking at the Hollywood Fringe next year.
PBH, firmly focused on Edinburgh alone, has set his sights on reforming the Fringe Society, backing candidates for the board and lobbying for it to become more performer-led.
In the future, Petty would like the Free Fringe and the Free Festival to work together. PBH, though, is adamant that this can never happen.
Meanwhile, at Electric Circus, Kiwi performer Bernie Duncan is putting on a free show - his Fringe debut.
"The stuff I like in New Zealand and the stuff I like in Berlin is this pay-what-you-feel theatre. It feels like a nice way to do it." His show, Constantinople, is neither Free Fringe nor Free Festival. He's doing it himself.
"I spoke to the Free Fringe and the Free Festival before I got here and there seemed to be this weird rivalry going on," he says.
"I didn't understand what was going on so I went somewhere else."
• For further information on both events, visit www.freefringe.org.uk and www.freefestival.co.uk