Laugh … or abstain? How Edinburgh’s comics are straddling the political divide

Laugh … or abstain? How Edinburgh’s comics are straddling the political divide

While some fringe shows are tackling the subject head on, other performers think this is a year to stay off current affairs

“How many of you here voted Leave?” wondered the Scottish comedian Mark Nelson of the crowd watching his new Edinburgh fringe show, Brexit Wounds. It is dangerous territory and only one man in the audience tentatively raised a hand. “So, are you happy now?” Nelson asked caustically.

This year’s month-long festival is set to play out against a fast-changing political backdrop in Westminster and Holyrood, and many of the topical standup acts that dominate the fringe will struggle to keep up.

Alongside Nelson, who professes bewilderment about how “the worst qualified man ever” has suddenly become prime minister, the award-winning political comic Matt Forde has brought up his show, Brexit, Pursued by a Bear, while for the first time the radio broadcaster Iain Dale will be hosting a succession of evenings with guests including Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, the Liberal leader Jo Swinson and Sadiq Khan, mayor of London.

The speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, is to appear in a show called Speaking Out; Al Murray’s pub landlord will be parodying the nostalgic urge to recreate an imagined country of the past; while the standup Phil Nichol is promising to give in to despair in his show Too Much.

Leading impressionists Ronni Ancona and Lewis MacLeod have opted to tackle Melania and Donald Trump in their new show, Just Checking In, but inside many of the pop-up venues that fan out around the city’s Royal Mile during the festival the strain of reacting quickly to Britain’s divisive leadership contest is almost audible. Kieran Hodgson: ‘It seems as if the recent history of comics making joke after joke about Farage may actually have helped him.’ Photograph: Matt Stronge

At a gala opening for the Assembly group of venues, the fringe impresario William Burdett-Coutts spoke of the need for the official arts festival and the fringe to project an image of Britain as a welcoming place in the face of anti-immigrant feeling. “At a time like this, that is a particularly important message,” he said.

But should an arts festival really have a political position? Even leftwing performers in Edinburgh seem unsure what the best response to current affairs should be. Some feel that making Brexit party leader Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tory MP, and Boris Johnson into figures of fun has backfired.

For Kieran Hodgson, who will be bringing his series of acclaimed one-man shows to the fringe, including one about the roots of Brexit in 1970s politics, it is a potentially perilous path. “I am not sure how effective it is. It seems as if the recent history of comics making joke after joke about Farage may actually have helped him to get across the idea that the whole of the British establishment was against him,” said Hodgson.

“It don’t feel it would be genuine for me to put out a more passionate personal line on my own politics because I’d be thinking all the while to myself that I was probably wrong. That’s just my nature, so rather than fight it, I try to embrace the whole European question and say things that I can actually back up. At the same time I certainly don’t want to make light of things that are happening.”

Other young performers at the festival have deliberately made the choice to “stay silly”, in spite of their political feelings. “We don’t want to audiences to have to rock back and forth worrying about what is happening,” said Marina Bye, who co-stars with her sister Maddy in the Underbelly sketch show they have written together, The Siblinging.

“We have our opinions, of course, and we don’t want to seem as if we don’t care, but we see ourselves as offering a little bit of an escape and ease. At least, that is what we have deliberately set out to do.”

And the Bye sisters have reason to understand how powerful comedy can be when used as a tool for changing perceptions. Their mother is Ruby Wax, whose television interviews with Imelda Marcos and Sarah Ferguson did much to shape the image of these controversial public figures in the 1990s.

“We might well wonder why we’re going to a comedy festival while all this is happening in the world,” said elder sister Maddy. “But there are already a lot of Trump shows and Brexit musicals, and we have made a conscious decision not to write about it. Although it’s true that whenever there is a party, or we go for drinks at someone’s house, everyone ends up talking about politics now. It is sort of amazing that’s happened. You can see the interest in the number of shows up here about it all.” Comedy act Siblings, Maddy and Marina Bye, offer ‘a little bit of escape’.

Comedy act Siblings, Maddy and Marina Bye, offer ‘a little bit of escape’. Photograph: Lily Bertrand-Webb

Another child of a famous parent who is taking a stand against political content this year is fringe debutante Grace Campbell, whose father, Alastair, was Tony Blair’s communications adviser. She is performing her show Why I’m Never Going into Politics throughout the month, in which she explains that growing up with a dad inside No 10 has given her a basinful of it.

Early this summer the Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, a regular panellist on the BBC satirical quiz show Have I Got News for You, pushed back at the suggestion the programme was to blame for Johnson’s rise because it had welcomed him as a guest. “You voted for him!” Hislop said to the studio audience. Last week Hislop proved his satirical muscles are still flexing in a column in the New Statesman that called on Britain’s comedians to be more optimistic about prospects for mirth in a Johnson era, aping the prime minister’s own bouncy anti-doom rhetoric.

“Hislop is great because he doesn’t accept received ideas and he hates a consensus,” said Hodgson. “But a lot of my audience will be Remainers, and I still want them to question or develop their ideas. Or at least to see everything is always muddy.” He suspects he is too “desperate to be liked” to write an overtly political show. “I want it to be a happy place for people. Also, I take a long time to write, and to be topical you would have to change your show on an afternoon’s notice.”

And if that sole Brexiter in Nelson’s audience was anything to go by, the truth is deceptive. Caricatured by the comic during the show as a hypocrite who had just returned from sunbathing at his second home in Spain, the Leave voter protested afterwards that his was in fact a “farmer’s tan”.


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