Tuesday 31 August 2010 | By Chris Cooke
Mervyn Stutter: Picking the Fringe
If you know the Festival, you’ll surely know of Editors’ Award winner Mervyn Stutter as one of the stalwarts, pillars, doyens of the Edinburgh Fringe. His ‘Pick Of The Fringe’ show has been running for close to two decades, and is still as useful and entertaining as it ever was.
For the benefit of both newcomers and old hands, we asked Stutter about his show, the highs of returning to Edinburgh each year, and why he never gets tired of coming back.
CC: For total Fringe newcomers, tell us what Pick Of The Fringe is about and how it works.
MS: It is the only daily showcase of Fringe talent that covers theatre, comedy, music, dance – the lot. It exists for audiences to find some the best unsung talent at the festival, and audiences as well as artists love the show because of this. Spectators return year after year because they know it will be quality every day. Every year, for the past 19 years, I have had a team of researchers who go out and see shows from all over the Fringe. We then invite the good ones to come and do a five minute or so extract for my 90 minute lunchtime show.
We have seven or eight shows every day for people to see and there is a different selection of shows every single day so audiences always know they will see something new. It’s this that makes it the perfect show when you first arrive at the Fringe; people want to take a risk and try something new, but then again, they don’t want to waste money on bad shows. At best the show will include Fringe favourites as well as the talented newcomers who need to find an audience, and can tap into that pool of Fringe-goers that want to find something rare and wonderful. My show allows them to meet!
CC: This is your 19th year, what persuades you to bring the show back each year?
MS: I think the answer is two fold. One is the festival itself. It is unique. If you want to put up the money then anyone can turn up and do a show. This does mean that there will be a lot of truly dreadful shows every year but that is why my carefully researched showcase is so useful to audiences – especially these days when money is getting tight. Secondly, I just love the energy and the talents on display every year. People may say to me “Oh are you doing Edinburgh again?” as though it is some dreary chore. But how can it be? As soon as you hit town, you know exactly why you are here and exactly why you will keep coming back for many years to come.
CC: What does Mervyn Stutter do the rest of the year?
MS: I mostly do my live comedy and song shows around the UK. I have tapped into a lovely circuit of rural touring and to play village halls is a total joy to me.
I started out in Folk Clubs in the late 1960s and it’s like I’ve come full circle. Small halls are great fun – intimate and spontaneous. I love them! But I still have other work outside touring. I’ve had a long career in theatre – I started out in the seventies – as well as TV and, of late, a lot of work on BBC radio in comedy series, plays and features – in fact, I am currently punting the last comedy series ‘Getting Nowhere Fast’ at the TV now.
Unfortunately there is an obsession with young programming, which is a shame as it is the over 50s who predominantly finance the BBC; perhaps all the menopausal flower children should strike and then watch the BBC pension pots shrivel? Just to remind them, you know? Oh – and I’m currently writing a book and a new CD of songs. Life is very full!
CC: How do you prepare for Pick Of The Fringe, what do you have to do before you arrive in Edinburgh?
MS: I’m like all the other shows really – there’s loads of admin and form filling to be done. There’s the sorting of venues, accommodation, doing posters and printing and coping with the ever increasing reliance on internet technology that allegedly makes all our lives easier. Well – it does when it works. In the late summer each year, performers and promoters will start sending me their show details and these need distributing amongst my team. And so the pressure slowly builds to our arrival on the 3rd, when we start work finding shows to celebrate at my first Pick Of The Fringe on Saturday 7 August.
CC: What are you best memories of the 18 years you’ve done of Pick Of The Fringe?
MS: Rolf Harris fresh in from his first ever Glastonbury singing Stairway To Heaven in the old Pleasance Cabaret Bar with the hot Aussie trio the Doug Anthony Allstars. It was Rolf’s first ever Fringe as well and he launched his run on my show! Excellent! Then at the other end of the showbiz scale was the company of twenty or so Downs Syndrome kids getting one of my first ever Spirit Of The Fringe Awards.
They had no real budget and were sleeping on the floor of a church hall. They had one tap between them, and were playing to virtually no audiences in another church hall. After appearing on my show there was an immediate response and they got 100 people in that night and then continued with big houses thereafter as the word spread. At that point I knew ‘Pick Of The Fringe’ worked and was extremely worthwhile. Everybody was crying. We were doing exactly what the show should be doing.
CC: What are your worst memories?
MS: I’m pleased to say there have not been any real disasters. Sorry!
CC: What advice would you have for performers, producers or entrepreneurs tempted to set up a future Fringe institution?
MS: No one really sets out to set up an ‘institution’. You just do things that excite you and if they work then you probably will continue on. Only after years of hard work do you find that other people are using the word ‘institution’ to describe your work. But a Fringe institution is just like any other show at the festival: it has to maintain quality, balance the budget and keep audiences coming in.
Even after 24 years on the Fringe those pressures do not change. Because we invite performers on to the show to demonstrate their work, it is is critical that there is a large audience every day. If I was doing my solo show I could just dismiss one bad day and move onto the next but with the ‘Pick Of The Fringe’ I can’t. I must have audiences there every day! So come on down people – my show is there to entertain and help you. Enjoy!
Mervyn Stutter hosted the ‘Pick Of The Fringe’ at the Pleasance Courtyard during Fringe 2010.