By Louis Harnett O’Meara
On August 18 Arthur’s Seat underwent a change. Hundreds of people trekked their way to the top of the hill and placed their buttocks squarely on the pebbled floor. A man with the look of Curt Cobain and Richard Branson’s love child stood before the gathering crowd. And so they waited.
“I am Barry Ferns, and it is time to enter the venue!” Curt Branson announced, and gestured to the door that stood beside him. “Please form an orderly line, and mind your heads coming in; it’s low in there.”
Barry entered first, before the crowd milled down the slope to the entrance and passed into the venue one by one behind him. Each man, woman and child took their place and sat expectantly before a speaker and a microphone – and Barry took his place before them.
“We have three acts lined up for you this afternoon everyone. Welcome, to Arthur’s Seat.”
I approached Barry after the show, and he suggested we grab a drink at the Starbucks just down the hill. It was surprisingly quiet – but then I suppose people wouldn’t come all this way just for a cup of coffee. Comedy, on the other hand…
How long have you been doing this?
I started running shows on top of Arthur’s Seat in 2007, 11 years ago now. The first show was called ‘Arthur’s Seat Belongs to Lionel Ritchie’. I changed my name to Lionel Ritchie for it – it was my name for seven years.
Like most of my comedy, it just came from a ridiculous idea. I just think Lionel Ritchie is a ridiculous man, and the idea of doing a show on top of Arthur’s Seat is just too ridiculous not to do.
How has the show developed?
The basic idea hasn’t changed much. Originally it was just a very small show; there were only around 20 people there. I’ve never advertised it, but it seems to have spread a lot just by word of mouth. This time there were about 250.
Back in 2012 and 2013 I performed a show every day for the whole run of the Fringe – I’d drag an amplifier, a mic., a door and a bag of comedy gear up every single day.
You managed to drag up three comedians to perform this year. How do you choose them?
They’re just my favourites. Tony Law’s been up a lot. The first time he came up his kids did a stand up set as well. I’ve had Simon Munnery, Josie Long, Rich Fulcher, who was Mighty Boosh at the time.
What if someone else was to decide they wanted to put on a show on Arthur’s Seat?
Well they’d have to talk to me, I’m the venue manager! It’s ridiculous. It’s a difficult one to put on your CV though – “What do you do?” “I manage an extinct volcano.”
How do you think the Fringe has changed?
Back in the 80s, 90s, early 2000s you would find a lot more oddballs at the Fringe. You didn’t know what you were going to get. People have much more of an idea of the Fringe as a career move these days. If you want to become a comedian you go to the Fringe, perform a sell-out run, get booked onto ‘Nine out of Ten Cats’ then you perform your tour.
You still get the Free Fringe, but there’s a lot more of the slick West End style shows now, and they cost a lot of money. The financial cost of it all means audiences and shows are less willing to take risks with what they see or what they put on.
When you started your show on Arthur’s Seat was it in response to the commercialization you saw happening?
It wasn’t in response in a direct sense, but it’s in the same vein as 1980s Fringe. It’s a ridiculous idea put on by a ridiculous person. I just love doing odd things. In 2012 I won the Hardy award for making a load of fake reviews for fake shows. I just printed them out and stuck them all over Edinburgh. I gave myself a six star review in one of them. People would come up the hill like, “excuse me, is this the place for the show with the six star review?” It’s amazing the stuff people believe just because it’s been written down.
Are you going to see anything interesting this evening?
Arthur Smith is hosting an unofficial tour of the Royal Mile at Midnight tonight only. He’s been doing it for years. It’s not your normal tour; someone nearly always ends up getting naked. He got arrested once for nearly starting a riot. When Nelson Mandela was still in prison he convinced everyone to crowd outside Leith police station where he told them Nelson was being held. He had the whole crowd of them chanting “Free Nelson, free Nelson!” Utterly ridiculous.