“Edinburgh created us! Stars catapulted to TV stardom from the bangs | Step


PAul O’Grady’s first night on the outskirts of Edinburgh did not go as planned. He made his festival debut in 1991 as Lily Savage, the wreckage of the steaming peroxide tram at the Birkenhead chain, and found himself sharing a dressing room: “I was with Stomp, an actor who was doing a play about Dylan Thomas and another about Tommy Cooper, ”he says. “Oh, and an act of juggling. “Pandemonium ensued during the fire-breathing segment of O’Grady’s midnight show in the boardrooms. “A stripper from the north taught me how to eat fire,” he explains. “But I set off all the alarms and the place had to be evacuated – every act, every room, every audience on 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 the middle of a drag, and someone asked me to pose with the firefighter. The photos were on the front page of every newspaper and the place was packed after that.

Lily Savage was on the shortlist for the Perrier, the all-star creation award that was won in 1981, her first year, by a Cambridge Footlights team that included Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Although O’Grady lost to Frank Skinner, he found himself, like other nominees that year (Jack Dee, Eddie Izzard), with a dazzling career on stage and on television.

“No one knew who we were”… The League of Gentlemen’s Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson won the Perrier Prize in 1997

It wasn’t the first time the bangs served as a stepping stone on TV but O’Grady’s trip 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 (which 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 part of her success to Edinburgh.

O’Grady thinks the festival was crucial in giving Lily, and him, the seal of approval. “It’s not that I didn’t trust myself before. I just thought I was a square peg in a round hole. Jeremy Dyson believes the bangs were vital for the League of Gentlemen as well. “Edinburgh created us,” he says. “Absolutely no question. We went up in 1996, our first year, without anyone knowing who we were. Then we had this 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 small room with 60 seats so it was quite easy after that for us to get on the “full” board, which still looks great. At the end of those three and a half weeks we had a phenomenal interest and it was the seed of the deal with the BBC that took us through the next decade. By the time of their victory at Perrier the following year, the group, also starring Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, had already recorded their first BBC radio pilot.

Steve Marmion, who was artistic director of the Soho Theater when he supported the original Drywrite production of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, had a slightly different experience of taking a soon-to-be-hit show on the sidelines. “Fleabag was a hot ticket and sold out early in its run,” he says. “Everyone apparently found out, everyone thought it was great, and yet if you’re looking at these reviews for the first time, it only got three stars from a lot of places. When we turned it back on after the TV show it got five stars out of everyone. But it was the same show! The world had changed, not Fleabag.

Of course, there is more to Edinburgh than what happens on stage. There’s the constant promotion – O’Grady says he was sent to shop as Lily on Princes Street on a Saturday afternoon to hook up the show – not to mention the variable accommodation and nightlife lively. “The place I stayed in had a huge front room full of chairs and this big round table,” says O’Grady. “I was convinced that he was being used as a spiritualist. It was down Broughton Street, near an awesome pub and a shiny chippy. I lived on fish suppers; I came back with hardened arteries and teenage acne. After the show we went to CC Blooms, who had fabulous lock-ins. I would go in at night with sunglasses on because I knew I would stagger in broad daylight. I lived the life of a vampire.

From three stars to five stars… Steve Marmion remembers when Phoebe Waller-Bridge's personal Fleabag show had yet to get all its credit.

From three stars to five stars… Steve Marmion remembers when Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s personal Fleabag show had yet to get all its credit. Photograph: Jane Hobson / Rex / Shutterstock

For their first year, the four members of the League were grouped into three chambers. “There was a rotation so the same two people didn’t have to share a bed every night,” says Dyson. “For the second year, we had one room each. We had then climbed the vertiginous heights.

The transfer to TV was quick. The first series of The League of Gentlemen aired less than 18 months after Perrier’s victory, while Lily Savage has become a television staple, featuring an introductory stint on The Big Breakfast as well as a special by ITV watched by over 11 million viewers, within five years of its fringe debut. Not bad considering that its creator had a jaded approach to television. “There was a lot of schmoozing, agents taking the producers out to dinner,” says O’Grady. “I would be dragged and presented. “This is so and so from the BBC. “Oh, hello. Bla-bla-bla, move on. I went through it because I said to myself: “This is no use”. I was convinced that I would never be on TV as Lily anyway.

Marmion sees television as part of the Edinburgh ecosystem. “If there’s a lot of money for orders, you’ll find a lot of executives up there. Theater has always been my end game, but for a lot of people on the fringes, it’s a road to television. For standups in particular, this is the place to see and book on Mock the Week. ”

The absence of the bangs this year is not only a blow to artists and audiences; it also means that one of the most reliable breeding grounds for future television is gone, albeit temporarily. Without the margin, two recent issues would not currently be in this development process. Natasha Marshall wrote her autobiographical show for a woman Half Breed, about growing up as the only mixed race person in a Wiltshire village, with the intention of presenting her on television. “I know some people party in Edinburgh, but I couldn’t do that,” she says. “I needed the show to be as good as possible. From the start, I wanted it to be transferred to TV. It was never fair “maybe” to me.

“The first night nobody came”… Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson turn their Edinburgh hit into a TV show.

“The first night nobody came”… Charly Clive and Ellen Robertson turn their Edinburgh hit into a TV show. Photograph: David M Benett / Getty Images for dunhill

Following its successful bangs in 2017, Channel 4 commissioned a 15-minute pilot of Half Breed as part of its Comedy Blaps installment. Although it wasn’t picked up for a series, Marshall is now looking for the idea. ” It’s a strong female comedy, it’s West Country and – hello! – the West Country is doing incredible things right now, with the statue of Edward Colston being shot down. OK, I’m from a village on the outskirts, but I’ll pretend it’s mine! We had Michaela Coel, we had Fleabag, and I think there’s room for a mixed-race female voice.


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