TV’s new stars are just waiting to be discovered

Libby Purves on discovering the unknown at Edinburgh's Fringe Festival

There is a special manic high achieved after several days of scuttling over cobblestones in the drizzle, queuing against walls covered in nude ‘n’ rude posters, and climbing vertiginous stone stairways to the sound of bagpipes. It’s enhanced by the Edinburgh Fringe Five-a-Day diet: fry-up, chips, a banana, a squashed Tunnock’s teacake and a disintegrating pork sandwich at midnight.


I’m emerging from my annual immersion in the Fringe, after decades as an amateur punter and five years as a sleepless critic, croaking out increasingly confused opinions of six shows a day (I am This year was an average experience: several happy surprises, a few disappointments, some good laughs, a few sentimental tears. I have seen Frankenstein’s monster stripping to a silver thong, and been harangued by a girl on a horse-bicycle dressed as Mel Gibson as William Wallace.

I’m happy about this – and glad to be out of the city before its most depressing August visitation.

When I did the Edinburgh Book Festival it always coincided with the arrival of the Television Festival tribe. They stood out amid the merry scruffs: on-trend Armani men and blow-dried Whistles women, spouting acronyms and glancing over one another’s shoulders in hotel lobbies for someone more important (Yentobservation, a vital skill). What depressed me, watching them milling around in the George Hotel dissecting 
the latest windy keynote speech from some top
bozo, was the reflection that a short walk
away were hundreds of answers to their problems. Ones they’d probably never find.

One of the depressing things about TV light-entertainment commissioning is its timidity. Need a new show, quiz or host? Find one who’s already famous – albeit a bit tired, working too hard, spread too thin – and wave a contract. Can’t get Graham Norton, Jonathan Ross or Stephen Fry? Panic! Trawl the schedules for someone else who’s already there. Want a new comedy? Model it on an old one – chaps in a flat, that sort of thing – but with funky titles and more swearing.

Yet just down the road from these anxious people there’s a crazy richness of discoverable talent. The big names fill big halls (and the up-ended purple inflatable cow), but all around them are small fry who, given a chance and some firm-handed, sympathetically creative production, could reinvigorate TV comedy and give us new “personalities” – both Harry Hill and Sarah Millican were discovered after winning the Fringe’s best comedy newcomer award, in 1992 and 2008.

These small fry are bravely performing to tiny audiences – sometimes far more, by word of mouth. They are in cellars and crumbling tenement attics, in doorways and pubs and cafés and shipping containers and countless “venues” cannibalised from bits of University.

In any given year there will be at least one treasure, probably hidden in the Morag McCluskie Theoretical Physics Lecture Room No 3, which has been hastily renamed The Dirty Elephant. He or she will be broke, sleeping six to a room and living on porridge, but capa- ble of becoming the new Morecambe and Wise, Python, Dodd or Stanley Baxter.
Sometimes there is more serious brilliance masquerading as comedy: last year a one- man show about Einstein, this time a furious monologue by a “quant” [quantitative analyst] accurately skewering hedge-fund gamblers.
 But where are the scouts to find them, groom them, and share the joy and ideas on the air? Where are the roving talent-spotters who in TV’s early days haunted the variety shows and piers all summer? Up in the hotel, that’s where. Watching their backs, fearing the sack, scanning Media Guardian like grannies reading the tea leaves, and wittering about digital “platforms” without much idea what to put on them. Get out more!


Libby Purves presents Midweek on Radio 4. She’s a guest on Quote… Unquote (Saturday Radio 4)