Edinburgh Cringe

Film still for Edinburgh Cringe

Set during Edinburgh's Fringe, Festival is a hilarious insight into the cruel world of stand-up comedy. Its director Annie Griffin tells Jonathan Romney why being funny is such a serious business

A few years ago, reporting on the Edinburgh Film Festival, I found myself venturing, rather against my will, on to the Fringe, the noisiest and most publicised part of the attractions that occupy the city in autumn. Drafted in to do some newspaper coverage of Fringe comedy, I sat through some ten acts tipped as likely to turn up on the Perrier Awards shortlist. Of the performers I saw, a few were not only talented but had already established a reputation as up-and-comers: they're now household names. Others were clearly sub-student-rag no-hopers who, I confidently wrote, had no future at all: one or two, in fact, have gone on to be very successful (if not any funnier). Another, who particularly rankled, was a bullishly confident end-of-the-pier performer with an elaborately staged show, a selection of slick promotional posters and T-shirts, and an obvious future as a game-show host; he did indeed present a television game show the following year, but I'm relieved to say I haven't heard of him since.

I came out of the experience bowed and battered. Film-maker Annie Griffin sympathises: "Don't you get a sick feeling after seeing a whole lot of stand-ups? With a really good comedian you forget about laughing, but with anything less you feel like somebody keeps trying to press your laugh button and you think, 'Please, just leave it alone.'"

You might see Griffin's debut feature Festival as her revenge on comedy, but it's also a celebration of all the other things that define the Fringe: the crowds of punters racing from show to show, the ignored earnest young thespians giving solemn performances to single-figure audiences, and the population of Edinburgh itself, which becomes invisible to the invading masses during the long festivities. Festival is a cruel, highly intelligent and often bitterly hilarious comedy of showbiz manners that also displays a pitiless insight into the vanities of the performance world.

Best known as writer-director of the Channel 4 comedy-drama series The Book Group, Griffin has structured Festival as a whirlwind ensemble piece involving some 15 key characters. There are two insecure Irish comedians, Tommy O'Dwyer and Conor Kelly (Chris O'Dowd, Billy Carter), both desperately hoping for that elusive five-star rating in the press; and a Fringe veteran, Sean Sullivan (Stephen Mangan), who has already made it as "Britain's best-loved comic" and is now only interested in sex, furthering his film career and boosting his ego. Sean's long-suffering PA Petra (Raquel Cassidy) tries to keep this infantile brute happy, but has to contend with his latest pick-up Nicky (Lucy Punch), a pushy comedian with a tired North London Jewish-princess routine, which - in one of the film's wilder scenes - she rehearses while jerking Sean off (to his horror, since he'd rather fantasise about Thai prostitutes).

At the high-art end of the scale are three spaced-out Canadian avant-gardists putting on a multi-media show ("The fishermen are coming home! Their boats are full of tuna!") and a depressed New Town mother (Amelia Bullmore) who becomes fixated with the romantic lifestyle she thinks they embody. And, representing the Fringe's noble conscience, there's Faith (Lyndsey Marshal), a gauche, wide-eyed young performer in love with the lure of greasepaint who is staging an impassioned but excruciatingly drippy one-woman show about Dorothy Wordsworth. Other characters include the story's darkest figure, Brother Mike (Clive Russell), whose show about paedophile priests is intended to exorcise torments that won't leave him alone, and a host of awards judges, journalists, media types and Fringe observers, notably Scottish radio reporter Joan Gerard (Daniela Nardini). Joan's farcically raunchy sex scenes with hairy, bashful Tommy O'Dwyer are among the film's highlights, and one of the reasons for its 18 certificate - together with an outrageous scene in which a glove puppeteer gets, as it were, a taste of his own medicine.

Half way through a session of a comedy judging panel the aggrieved Joan sounds off against needy, egotistical comedians and their idiotic fare: "We're the ones who are responsible for these monsters! Why are we so afraid of serious?" Festival is Griffin's own plea for a little seriousness in British film comedy, as opposed to the dominant playground pulp. "What you don't have in Britain," she says, "is a tradition of film comedies for adults. You have all this great television aimed at a grown-up, sophisticated audience, and then when those people make movies they go for a young market. Film financiers think everything should be aimed at a Certificate 12 audience. But we said from the beginning that this was going to be a Certificate 18 film."

Much less formal in both visual and narrative terms than the highly structured episodes of The Book Group, Festival has a loose, baggy shape reminiscent of the multi-stranded rambles Robert Altman once specialised in: Griffin's original pitch for her film was "Nashville on the Fringe". "I do like things that are about lots of different people," she says. "I like films that don't say, 'This person's story is important and everybody else is peripheral.'" And just as Nashville was a 'state-of-the-nation film' rather strictly about the Country and Western capital, so Festival too has larger resonances. "The nature of Edinburgh - where everybody is involved in their own story, their own show, everybody is wanting an audience, the self-centredness of performers - has wider implications for me, is a bigger story that's not just about the theatre scene."

Griffin - originally from Buffalo, NY, but based in Scotland for several years - had thought about making Festival even before The Book Group and was keen to film it now as a change from the highly organised production methods of a six-episode television series: "I wanted it to feel more spontaneous and messy, with no dollies and tracking and what seemed like a more improvisational quality to the acting." What ensured that spontaneity was the strategy of both rehearsing and making the film during the Edinburgh Festival itself, with DoP Danny Cohen shooting handheld in the thick of the crowds. Making Festival both site-specific and time-specific entailed setting a deadline for prospective finance, which eventually came from Film Four, Scottish Screen and the UK Film Council.

"I didn't want to spend years having meetings with financiers who said, 'Do another redraft and we'll think about it'," says Griffin. "It was like a ticking clock. We had a development period where I cast it, we put the actors together and I worked on another draft, and at the end of that period I was able to say to financiers, 'If you don't decide now we won't be able to shoot it at this year's Festival.'" The sense of urgency, and of little being faked, is clear in the opening scene, as the eager Faith, straight off the bus, starts handing out flyers to a real, unsuspecting passer-by, then wanders gawping at the festival Fauna similarly hawking their wares along the crowded Royal Mile.

Putting the finer points on the film's characters was similarly an interactive matter, with the cast immersing themselves in the Fringe's daily attractions and adding their own input to the script. The actors playing comedians devised their own routines, while the trio playing the effete space-cadet Canadians dutifully watched experimental dance shows every day, feeding the results into the film's two weeks of rehearsal. "We definitely felt like a theatre company that was going to put on a show at the Fringe, because the Fringe was happening all around us while we were rehearsing. You know that over-excitement you get into at Edinburgh? Well, the actors were getting into that too - that panic, where you think you're going to miss the all-important show... 'If I can see that comedian, then I'll get the right idea.'"

Festival has a wide brief, and part of it is to show that the Fringe is not just about comedy performers. The film also deals with the way the city and its population become invisible while the Festival is on, a theme that emerges in two strands, one involving posh Micheline, who vacates her perfect flat to rent it to the Canadians, and the other a painful scene in which Brother Mike, racked with temptation, finds himself hovering around a local boys' football game.

But the film is at its most incisive when showing the insecurity and obsessiveness of performers, especially comedians, in town purportedly to give the world a good time but in reality venting their emotional imperfections on all around them. There are several beautifully cruel reversals in which Griffin reveals her characters' darker sides, pulling us back from getting too fond of them or falling for the impressions they're so eager to give. One of the best performances is by Chris O'Dowd, whom you might recognise from his priceless cameo in Vera Drake where he's the bashful customer in the gentlemen's outfitters, wanting a suit that makes him look like "yer man George Raft". We're beginning to get quite attached to his child-like, knowingly needy Tommy O'Dwyer, especially as he shyly blossoms in his unlikely affair with Joan, until it's almost casually revealed in a phone call that he's as uncaringly exploitative as everyone else.

There's also a telling moment when the terrier-like Nicky blithely lets slip that she's not really the person she's built her entire act on - which goes a long way towards explaining why her performance is so mechanically humourless (a brilliant coup by Lucy Punch, to play a lousy comedian and yet be uncomfortably funny). Various strands come together in a climactic scene at a prize-giving ceremony in which one character takes revenge on another in an almost unimaginably callous way: an act of character assassination that's no less shocking and revelatory than the actual assassination that ends Nashville.

This ghastly panorama of bruised egos and blasted lives is one of a handful of big- and small-screen commentaries on humour as a joyless, soul-destroying way to earn a living that includes The Larry Sanders Show, a Griffin favourite, and Billy Crystal's underrated Mr Saturday Night (1992). Central to the theme in Festival is Stephen Mangan's character Sean Sullivan, a British television star about to make his big leap to Hollywood but encumbered by bad teeth, an overworked libido, the manners of a three-year-old and the fact that - despite his supposed "comic genius" - he hasn't, judging by what we hear of his sour, vindictive repartee, got a funny bone in his body. Everyone will have their own theories about the original model for Sullivan, though Griffin is understandably guarded on the topic.

At any rate, Mangan's spoilt, whining neurotic is memorably vile enough to constitute a rich creation in his own right. "If you try to base a character on somebody, it always comes back and bites you," says Griffin. "We have so many people coming in and saying, 'Sean Sullivan is based on this or that comedian' - but they're all like that. There does seem to be a way of behaving that well-known comedians have in common, which is to be very child-like and self-centred, with a lack of concern for the people around them. I've seen comedians who have the idea that 'That's where my genius comes from - behaving like a baby - therefore I will not examine my bad behaviour.'"

At the opposite end of the scale to Sullivan's cynicism is the often cringe-inducing yet somehow redemptive innocence of the stage-struck Faith. She appears to voice Griffin's own romantic delight in the Edinburgh Festival, which was sparked when she first visited it as a student in the early 1980s and remained intact through her own performances on the Fringe for years after. Seen in the film's closing shot belting along an empty Princes Street to her early-morning show, Faith embodies the possibility that there can be life-affirming meaning to performance, even if your act is irredeemably jejune and only five punters turn up. "I wanted that quality Faith has of believing in theatre, no matter what, as the thing that carries on," says Griffin. "It's the reason Edinburgh is an annual festival, because there are people like that who just won't stop doing it, no matter how bad the reviews are."

Festival represents the latest successful step in Annie Griffin's self-reinvention as a television and cinema director, having for years been known as a solo stage performer. Her best-known shows include Almost Persuaded, about Country music, while she crossed over into cinema with It Is My Mouth Forever, a virtuoso live act using film that explored the art of the Foley sound-effects artist. Her films include the short Was She There (1996) and she moved into television with Coming Soon (1999), a Channel 4 three-parter about experimental theatre. It's surprising, given her own experimental background, that Festival, her first venture in feature film, should be in some senses so approachably mainstream, despite its unconventional production methods. "You could say my sensibility is more mainstream through working in television," Griffin admits. Even so, she says, "It doesn't feel different to me to when I was making shows for Edinburgh or experimental films for the Arts Council. It feels like the same process."

One thing that no longer tempts her, however, is performing, which she insists she has left far behind. "The further I get away from it, the more I think, 'Oh God, how did I ever do that?' That's part of what Festival's about - why do people want to get up in front of other people and be watched?"

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012