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Clive Anderson: how much has actually changed in my 40 years at the Fringe?

The presenter of Whose Line Is It Anyway? reminisces about his favourite Fringe experiences

Clive Anderson

I have been coming to the Edinburgh Fringe, on and off, since 1974. That year, the Conservatives had been expected to win the election, but instead there was a hung parliament. Divided on Europe, the (Labour) government decided to offer an in-out referendum. Everyone said the Fringe was getting too big. It was a different world.

My first time was with the Cambridge Footlights revue which we had already performed in the West End and on TV, both more or less disastrously. In Edinburgh the show was much better, despite the distractions of wine, women and song. Looking back, I now regret the song.

Then as now, I loved the idea of absorbing the huge range of different cultural influences from all around the world - plays and performances to expand your horizons. Even if you only actually see shows mostly involving your friends and family.

By 1981, the Fringe was changing. The new Perrier Award had started to encourage developments in alternative comedy and stand up which were to eclipse student revues. But as it happens the Perrier went to that year's Footlights show which featured Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thomson and Tony Slattery. An outrage.

I was in a little show a group of us had been taking around the country; in my case in my spare time from being a lawyer. Ticket sales were boosted because our cast included Griff Rhys Jones, who had just started performing in the big TV hit Not The Nine O'clock News. It was regarded by many as poor form to come to the Fringe and exploit TV fame in this way. Little did they know.

I didn't come to the Fringe for several years while being on TV myself. I came back to the Assembly Rooms in about 2001 to do an on-stage chat show. When I saw the sofas on the set I thought it looked rather like Richard & Judy's on ITV, so it occurred to me to recruit a co-host every night from the audience to be the Judy to my Richard. Even enthusiastic volunteers tended to become quite quiet when thrust into the limelight. Except for the night the volunteer was Janet Street Porter. She was an excellent Judy, more famous and more experienced at chat than anyone on stage, including me. Beware anyone encouraging audience participation in Edinburgh, the chances are you will stumble on a better performer than you are.

In the last ten years or so I have come here to present one or two editions of the Radio 4 programme, Loose Ends, which is recorded in Edinburgh in front of an audience at the BBC studio tent. In 2014 the line-up of the show included Pamela Stephenson, Pam Ayres and Adrienne Truscott, the American comedian whose challenging show about rape she performs much of the time naked. OK, she had her clothes on for her Loose Ends appearance, but throughout the show we had to contend with the sound of an Orange Order's marching band of a thousand fifes and drums, whose parade route happened to take it around the BBC site. In fact, as far as we could tell, just outside the flaps of our tent. Arriving along the road, the not so distant drums sounded more like a jumbo jet landing.

After all that, presenting Whose Line Is It Anyway? should be a doddle.

Clive will be appearing in Whose Line Is It Anyway? Live from 3 to 27 August at Assembly Rooms, George Street.