Greatest Ever Late ’n’ Live, they’re calling this anthology of clips from the legendary Edinburgh night. But can something so mythical be captured on camera? The greatest Late ’n’ Lives, those you-had-to-be-there nights when artist spontaneity and audience savagery made magical sparks together, were always over before you heard about them. Late ’n’ Live has never been as good as it used to be.
If there was ever a heyday, it was probably before anyone thought to film it. The Gilded Balloon, in lieu of an actual festival this year, is releasing these compilations weekly. The oldest footage on its first edition was from 2001, and features Dara Ó Briain – with hair! – riffing on hot Aussie weather and the Irish aversion to swimming. Most of the performances are from the last 10 to 15 years, by which point Late ’n’ Live was one of many late-night cabarets at the fringe, and no longer the one that everybody talked about.
But there are flashes here of what the fuss is about. The most vivid features that lord of misrule Jason Byrne, who has three young “posh people” on stage with him performing an excerpt from their musical theatre show. The audience boos; Byrne isn’t exactly gentle with them, either. There’s a crackle of liveness in the air, of something unpredictable happening – which is the hallmark of the “greatest ever” Late ’n’ Lives. The same whiff arises from the footage that accompanies the end credits, when we glimpse livelier scenes than the ones selected for the show proper.
Those include five minutes of Sarah Millican, potty-mouthed and fully formed a year before she won the best newcomer award. And a burst of 2008 vintage John Bishop, making the same kind of joke about the Scottish weather that comedians beyond number make annually at the fringe. Scotland is represented by Christopher McArthur-Boyd, sending up his own zeal for independence. Elsewhere, the Boy With Tape on His Face makes a spectacle of his audience stooge, with his usual light touch. I’m not sure about Greatest Ever, but for those of us experiencing festival withdrawal symptoms, it’s a welcome hit of what we’re missing.