'Edinburgh made us!' The stars catapulted to TV fame from the fringe

Lily Savage, The League of Gentlemen, Fleabag and a host of telly sensations started out on tiny stages at the extravaganza. In its absence, who will be next?

Paul O’Grady’s first night at the Edinburgh fringe did not go according to plan. He made his festival debut in 1991 as Lily Savage, the chain-smoking, peroxide tram-wreck from Birkenhead, and found himself sharing a dressing room: “I was in with Stomp, an actor doing a play about Dylan Thomas and another one doing Tommy Cooper,” he says. “Oh, and a juggling act.”

Pandemonium ensued during the fire-eating segment of O’Grady’s midnight show at the Assembly Rooms. “A stripper up north had taught me to fire-eat,” he explains. “But I set off all the alarms and the place had to be evacuated – every act, every room, all the audiences out into the street. I wanted to crawl under a rock. I was mortified.” In fact, it was the best thing that could have happened. “There I was in full drag, and someone asked me to pose with the fireman. The photos were on the front page of all the papers and the place was jam-packed after that.”

Lily Savage made that year’s shortlist for the Perrier, the star-making prize that had been won in 1981, its inaugural year, by a Cambridge Footlights team that included Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Though O’Grady lost to Frank Skinner, he ended up, like other nominees that year (Jack Dee, Eddie Izzard), with a dazzling stage and TV career.

‘No one knew who we were’ … The League of Gentlemen’s Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson won the Perrier award in 1997
‘No one knew who we were’ … The League of Gentlemen’s Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson won the Perrier award in 1997 Photograph: PR

It was hardly the first time the fringe had served as a springboard for television but O’Grady’s journey is one of those rarer occasions where a character or concept travels from Edinburgh to the small screen more or less intact. Like The League of Gentlemen (who won the Perrier in 1997, beating Graham Norton and Johnny Vegas), The Mighty Boosh, Flight of the Conchords and, most recently, Fleabag, Lily Savage owes a chunk of her success to Edinburgh.

O’Grady thinks the festival was crucial in giving Lily, and him, the seal of approval. “It wasn’t that I didn’t have faith in myself before then. I just thought I was a square peg in a round hole.” Jeremy Dyson believes the fringe was vital to the League of Gentlemen, too. “Edinburgh made us,” he says. “Absolutely no question. We went up in 1996, our first year, with no one knowing who we were. Then we had that magical thing of getting a good review in the Scotsman on our second day, which was enough to generate an audience. We were in a little 60-seater venue, so it was quite easy after that for us to get on the “sold out” board, which always looks great. At the end of that three-and-a-half weeks we had a phenomenal amount of interest and that was the seed of the BBC deal that took us through the next decade.” By the time of their Perrier win the following year, the group, also featuring Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, had already recorded their first BBC radio pilot.

Steve Marmion, who was artistic director of Soho theatre when it supported Drywrite’s original production of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, had a slightly different experience of taking a soon-to-be-hit show to the fringe. “Fleabag was a hot ticket and sold out early in its run,” he says. “Everyone apparently discovered it, everyone thought it was brilliant, and yet, if you look at those reviews first time around, it only got three stars from numerous places. When we put it on again after the TV show, it got five stars off everyone. But it was the same show! The world had changed, not Fleabag.”

Of course, there’s more to Edinburgh than what happens on stage. There is the constant promotion – O’Grady says he was dispatched to go shopping in character as Lily on Princes Street one Saturday afternoon to plug the show – not to mention the variable accommodation and raucous nightlife. “The place I stayed in had a huge front room full of chairs and this big round table,” says O’Grady. “I was convinced it was used as a spiritualist’s. It was down Broughton Street near a smashing pub and a brilliant chippy. I lived on fish suppers; I came back with hardened arteries and teenage acne. After the show, we’d go to CC Blooms, which had fabulous lock-ins. I’d go in at night with sunglasses on because I knew I’d be staggering out in daylight. I lived the life of a vampire.”

From three-star to five-star … Steve Marmion remembers when Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag solo show was yet to get its full credit.
From three-star to five-star … Steve Marmion remembers when Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag solo show was yet to get its full credit. Photograph: Jane Hobson/Rex/Shutterstock

For their first year, the four League members were squeezed into three bedrooms. “There was a rota so that the same two people didn’t have to share a bed every night,” says Dyson. “For the second year, we had a bedroom each. We’d scaled the dizzy heights by then.”

The transfer to television was swift. The first series of The League of Gentlemen was on air less than 18 months after the Perrier win, while Lily Savage became a TV fixture, with a presenting stint on The Big Breakfast as well as an ITV special watched by more than 11 million viewers, within five years of her fringe debut. Not bad considering her creator had a blase approach to TV. “There was a lot of schmoozing, agents taking producers to dinner,” says O’Grady. “I’d be dragged around and introduced. ‘This is so-and-so from the BBC.’ ‘Oh, ’ello.’ Blah-blah-blah, move on. I sailed through it because I thought, ‘There’s no point.’ I was convinced I’d never get on telly as Lily anyway.”

Marmion regards television as part of the ecosystem of Edinburgh. “If there’s plenty of commissioning money around, you’ll find a lot of executives up there. Theatre was always my endgame, but for a lot of people at the fringe it’s a route to TV. For standups particularly, it’s the place to be seen and booked on Mock the Week.”

The absence of the fringe this year isn’t just a blow to performers and audiences; it also means that one of the most reliable breeding grounds for television of the future has vanished, albeit temporarily. Without the fringe, two recent shows would not now be in that development process. Natasha Marshall wrote her autobiographical one-woman show Half Breed, about growing up as the only person of mixed-race parentage in a Wiltshire village, with the intention of bringing it to television. “I know some people party hard at Edinburgh, but I couldn’t do that,” she says. “I needed the show to be as good as it could be. Right from the start, I wanted it to transfer to TV. It was never just ‘maybe’ for me.”

‘On our first night, no one turned up’ … Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson are converting their Edinburgh success into a TV show.
‘On our first night, no one turned up’ … Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson are converting their Edinburgh success into a TV show. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images for dunhill

Following her successful fringe run in 2017, Channel 4 commissioned a 15-minute pilot of Half Breed as part of its Comedy Blaps strand. Though it wasn’t picked up for a series, Marshall is now shopping the idea around. “It’s a strong female comedy, it’s West Country and – hello! – the West Country is doing amazing things right now, what with the statue of Edward Colston being pulled down. OK, I’m from a village on the outskirts, but I’m going to claim that as mine! We’ve had Michaela Coel, we’ve had Fleabag, and I think there’s space for a female mixed-race voice.”

Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson, who perform as the duo Britney, are in the process of developing a TV version of their own sparky, autobiographical fringe comedy, also called Britney, which focuses on Clive’s brain tumour diagnosis. “The fringe was so valuable for seeing what worked and what didn’t,” says Robertson. It was those early fringe shows, for example, that prompted them to include regular onstage reminders that everything in Britney really happened. “Early on, we had people saying afterwards, ‘Wait, was that … true?’ We’d forgotten to say it was.” Not that there were many audience members to begin with. “On our first night, no one turned up,” says Robertson. “Our lovely tech guy came out before the show and said to us, ‘Just to let you know, um, no one’s here but let’s just treat it like a dress rehearsal.’ In the end, six of our friends arrived late.”

Ten days in, with positive word of mouth behind it, Britney began to sell out. Now, with encouragement from the playwright Mike Bartlett, who saw the show when Clive and Robertson performed it at a post-Edinburgh homecoming show at a village hall in Oxfordshire, a pilot is in the works produced by Drama Republic, the company responsible for Black Earth Rising and Bartlett’s Doctor Foster.

The pair’s affection for the fringe is palpable. “Edinburgh is hugely important to Britney,” says Clive. “Ever since we became friends we’d always said we were going to do a show there. It was our holy grail. And it opened us up to this community of fellow comedians and oddballs. It feels like a summer camp for people who are good at doing voices. Going to the fringe is comparable to the first day of school. You’re worried you won’t find your people. But of course you do – because this is where people like you go.”


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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