Edinburgh in August

As you might know, I live in Edinburgh in Scotland. And as you may also know, every August Edinburgh invites the world to invade it for a little while. And I mean everyone.

The most known is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival which pretty much takes over the whole city. On the back of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, running from the 15th to the 26th of June, from the 7th to the 31st of August people from every genre and performance medium you can think of take over churches, night clubs, pubs, university grounds (which are empty for the break anyway, we don’t just chuck students out of classes, don’t worry), parks, theatres & just about anywhere else that you can put down a box office, bar area, stage, billboard, table of flyers, stacks of guides or anything art or alcohol related and are quite welcome to do so. Sort of.

As someone who lives in Edinburgh I hate the festival period.

Let me explain.

The opportunities the festival presents for the arts is invaluable, it’s creative, it’s fun, it gives a sense of buzz and community. As if, for that short time, you get a little glimpse at the world’s art on your own doorstep.

But, when you live in Paris you stop seeing the Eiffel Tower, don’t you? Edinburgh Castle sits there almost invisible now. I see it but I don’t at the same time. Walk out of my front door and look left and you’ll see, quite close, Arthur’s Seat – an extinct volcano. The only time I really see it is when it gets really foggy and starts to disappear.

So, I usually spend every festival getting where I want to get as quickly as I can, which, with the sheer amounts of people walking around as if they are the only people in the world – i.e. SLOWLY – isn’t very quickly at all, and then going home and locking myself away until it’s all over. I pretty much go out smiling and come home in a bad mood, no matter how far I’ve travelled.

This year however, I had seen a billboard that caught my eye. It was for something called “Oh Hello!” and I recognised the catchphrase along with the face looking back at me on an off-orange colour background.

The man looking back at me was the late actor, Charles Hawtrey, who died in December 1988. If you know him, you’ll probably do so from his roles in a lot of the Carry On… films as he was one of the usual suspects and “Oh Hello!” was his thing, his catchphrase if you will, usually. I’m not going to write out his biography for you but the reason I tell you this is because I posted a little while ago, asking for opinions on a book I had written about Leonard Jackson, an older man dealing with a bad childhood he’d been in a perpetual state of denial about for a long time. And one of his friends, George, was inspired by Charles Hawtrey.

If you ever get a chance google him, his story is as fascinating as it was tragic.

This play, I found out, was a one man show about Charles Hawtrey’s life from the late 60s, after he’d begun working on the Carry On… films, and goes right to the 80s and I wanted to see it the minute I saw the poster. The day I had money I went to get a ticket for it and, after a short heart attack when the man told me there might not be tickets left, I had my ticket.

While there I bought tickets to see comedian Andrew Lawrence’s first preview that night, the 5th, and, for someone who hates the festival, I suddenly had tickets to two shows.

As if Edinburgh isn’t busy enough, from the 15th to the 31st of August, Edinuburgh always hosts the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It is something I don’t usually attend, purely because I don’t feel confident that I’ve read enough or know enough to fit in or because my social anxiety kicks in and I can’t bring myself to walk around by myself.

However, this year, Ian Rankin was talking about Rebus in a talk led by Phil Jupitus and I just had to go. Rankin is my favourite author of all time and I’d managed to hear about it before it went on sale so I thought I’d get a ticket, I already had a ticket for the play, I had already committed to attending something by myself in the festival so I thought one more wouldn’t hurt. Apparently everyone in Edinburgh had the same idea. When I went on the day sales opened to the box office I was told that was one of the first events to sell out but the man I spoke to did suggest I try phoning on the day of the event and asking about returns.

So I saw Andrew Lawrence at Assembly at the Roxy a couple of nights before the Festival officially opened and he was amazing. He was so socially and politically aware I felt a little out of my depth. I felt like he was the kind of friend in the pub that I could learn a lot from and wouldn’t ever disagree with, not because I actually agreed but because he knew more than me so he’d rip me to shreds if I did challenge him. He made a lot of good points about censorship in comedy and even made me feel sorry for him as he spoke about how friends of his in comedy and TV seemed to turn on him in the past few years. And, of course, he was funny. But he was a different kind of funny, not really in an observational way but in a thought-provoking way. And I walked away with a sore face from laughing while my brain debated points with itself.

On the 12th of August me and a couple of people I know went to see Frankie Boyle at the Assembly Rooms on George Street. I’d always wanted to see him, a lot of people say they don’t think he’s funny or he’s offensive or out of order. But as far as I’m concerned, you know these things going in the door so if you’re easily offended then don’t buy a ticket to see him. I was a little disheartened before I got there because a couple of people had said they’d loved his DVDs then went to see him and found the jokes a little desperate and not in the same style as his edited versions. So, I guess I didn’t have my hopes as high as they had been when I first bought the ticket. But I was glad to find that it was amazing, while there was a joke or two I didn’t get because of a reference I wasn’t privy to, be it age or culture or whatever, I never once felt disgusted or that something wasn’t funny. And, like Lawrence, and like every time I watch Frankie I found myself thinking about some of the points he’d made. Something as seemingly simple as the word “stressed” he’d made me think about, and it was as if he was as perplexed by the whole thing when he’d started thinking about it as we were listening to it. And I got the feeling that if we kept thinking about it we’d be just as fucked off as he was in no time.

I phoned on the 24th, the day of the talk, and managed to get a ticket to see Rankin at the book festival. I went to the tent at Charlotte’s Square and sat around reading an excerpt I was handed in the street with didn’t particularly attract my attention and then queued to get in. I was so nervous, social anxiety kicking in that, even though I had done every measure possible, my iPod or phone would magically turn themselves back on and go off. Eventually the boys came on and, to everyone’s surprise, Phil Jupitus was still in costume – he is playing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a play called “Impossible” about the real life feud between Doyle and Harry Houdini which I really wanted to see but couldn’t afford. So he sat there with his costume on, moustache and everything, while Ian sat in jeans, t-shirt and a jacket, joking that he felt under-dressed. Although, I suspect the whole room felt under-dressed.

The talk definitely felt like we were eavesdropping on a conversation between two friends in a pub as opposed to an interview but one that did exactly what it said on the tin, talk about Rebus and the books.

Rankin read an exert from his new Rebus book, “Even Dogs in the Wild”, out in November, and then discussed everything from music to his recent year out, to being in a band in university to being a student journalist. He was asked questions, including a bumbling one from myself which I still take as a win over my social anxiety. The whole thing was brilliant and furthered my adoration of Scotland’s favourite author who stuck around to sign books.

The next afternoon I saw “Oh Hello!” at Assembly on The Mound and was so glad I managed to get a ticket. Hawtrey was played by Jamie Rees who was a treat to watch. Not only did he have Hawtrey’s voice down, look like him, have his mannerisms perfected, including facial expressions and ticks I’ve seen him do in films and in that one rare interview I’ve watched online and had an excellent bash at impersonating Kenneth Williams when he was mentioned, he had mastered the spontaneity of the whole thing. Rees came on as Hawtrey and spoke to the crowd, telling stories I’ve read in “Whatshisname: The Life and Death of Charles Hawtrey” by Wes Butters and online as well as a wealth of material I’d never came across. He utilised a simple set of an armchair, drinks table, a small table by the chair with a telephone and picture of his mother on it and a window, making it feel very much like Hawtrey had invited us round to catch up and, as a result, making it much more personal.

I couldn’t pinpoint exactly when it happened but at some point from when he stumbled in with a bottle of vodka to when he shuffled out with a stick Jamie Rees ceased to exist and Hawtrey was alive again. I’ve read about Hawtrey, finding myself fascinated by him and even using him as inspiration for a character in my book and I’ve felt such sorrow for him as I read his story. But I sat there watching, not a play, but something happening in real time and was struck with this pain that I couldn’t do anything to stop this man from drinking himself in a lonely corner that eventually became his tomb.

I even felt a little resentment towards Kenneth Williams for the way Hawtrey suggested, with his face and body language as well as his words, that Williams made his life just that little bit harder on set. Which, if you know me you’ll know, it is a hard thing to do, to make me feel anything negative towards Kenneth. And I felt a little guilty, as well as slightly happy, that I’d chosen these two men to inspire characters that were best friends for ten years at the start of my book because I think that’s how it should have been in life.

They seemed to have so much in common that I wished they would have accidentally stumbled into a conversation at one point, perhaps Kenneth would have been smoking on set and Hawtrey would walk over mumbling to himself about how the producer was an idiot, and maybe Kenneth would tell him to stop making a fool of himself and then Hawtrey would cut him down, telling him it was alright for Kenneth, he had top billing, he got his recognition. And then maybe Kenneth would make a remark about how being one of the people putting their name to and validating this type of so-called comedy isn’t exactly a reward. And maybe Charles would laugh and they’d talk a little about how they hated what they were doing but had no choice, about how Charles had worked with William Hayes for God’s sake and how Kenneth had been in theatre which everyone knew was a more sophisticated medium for performance. And maybe Charles would laugh and say, “oh you are wicked!” and Kenneth would laugh with his nose scrunched as they whispered little things about their co-stars like, “watch Sid looking at Babs when he thinks she’s not looking… Look. Oh, she almost caught him!” More laughter. “If she had turned any quicker she might have taken his eye out.” “That’d teach the old face-ache!” If they were left to it they might even get to talking about their mothers, who they devoted their lives to looking after, Kenneth’s even outliving him.

And maybe, even if they went back to bitching at each other every day after that, just for those five minutes one day, they wouldn’t have been so alone.

And that idea is where my first book came from. From the heartbreak I felt reading Kenneth Williams’ diaries and about Charles Hawtrey. And sitting in that chair in that little room, looking at the man in the armchair, holding a glass with whiskey, talking about how they did Carry On Crusing without him, I felt it break all over again.

While the festival’s aren’t over yet I don’t have any other plans to attend any events so that wraps up the fringe and book fest 2015 for me. I think I’ll be a more prevalent figure at Charlotte’s Square next year and if Jamie Rees comes back I’ll be first in line.


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