History of the Buxton Festival Fringe

This article by Stephanie Billen appeared in Reflections magazine summer 2007.

These are exciting times for the Buxton Festival Fringe with more and more performers seizing their chance to become part of the largest Fringe festival in England.

The Fringe (July 6-22) runs alongside the opera and literature-based Festival and has a very different feel. This year's event sees some 108 entries, many of them new to the Fringe, offering more than 400 performances representing everything from magic to music and drama to dance as well as visual arts, family entertainment, spoken word and the ever thriving 'Other Events' section.

This is the 28th year of the Fringe and it bears little resemblance to the first event back in 1980, a curious affair boasting 28 music entries, six dance entries, five drama entries and 17 miscellaneous (everything from flower festivals to clay pigeon shooting at Harpur Hill).

Peter Low, chair of the Fringe from 1991 until 2004, has been involved since the mid Eighties, and remembers how it all began after the Buxton Festival's then artistic director Malcolm Fraser expressed an interest in seeing a Fringe develop with a parallel programme to that of the main festival. The idea was to ensure that visitors had a choice of entertainment at all times of the day and whatever the weather. Says Peter: 'It wasn't like Edinburgh and many other Fringes that were formed as a reaction against what was seen as the elitism of the Festival. We have always tried to work together.'

From the outset, the committee of volunteers behind the Fringe (a registered charity) was clear that its mission was neither to select nor censor performances. Instead, entrants pay a small sum to be part of the Fringe. Any profit from tickets goes to the performers of the show with managed venues also taking a cut if used. Current chair John Wilson believes that many people still have misconceptions about the Fringe: 'Even regular Fringe goers don't actually understand that we don't put on any of these events ourselves. We just facilitate... We don't have any editorial control; we don't want any editorial control. We want anybody to be able to do anything, anywhere, anytime!'

It is this inclusive spirit that makes the Fringe so vibrant. Over the years, amateurs have rubbed shoulders with professionals and familiar names such as comedian Ross Noble have cut their teeth at the Fringe. Some performers have become Fringe institutions such as Jennie Ainsworth with her Vera Brittain walks or Johnny Dagger with his King Sterndale Slides with Music.

Of course there have been some hairy moments from an unlikely clash of the Titans when the jazz marching band marched straight into the path or Morris Dancers in Spring Gardens to carnival clientele reacting badly to a country and western drag artist in a local pub. A somewhat stunned Tina C later described her audience as 'real, live, honest to goodness and let's face it often drunk...'

Back in the Eighties, the bad-taste comedian Jerry Sadowitz, then Gerry Sadowitz, caused a stir even before he arrived. Says Peter: "He only did one performance but before he came he covered the whole of Buxton with pink posters. Then he left and the local authorities asked who was going to take them all down. It took a lot of time and cost a lot of money to scrape all this stuff off the various hoardings and bus shelters which is why we now tell participants: 'Don't do any fly posting!'"

Sometimes, lessons have been learnt the hard way. Peter recalls: "We had a very unfortunate experience with a lady who called herself an international pianist. She caused a lot of problems because she just didn't pay for anything. So when she asked to come back to the Fringe, we said: 'Certainly, but you must pay all your outstanding bills', which she never did. That was the first time we imposed the rule that said that the Fringe is open to everybody except those who have failed to pay for a previous year!"

As always though, the Fringe's magic moments have made up for any disasters whether it was the sight of Funny Wonders' Massive Elephant (a huge artwork decorated with Millennium 'wish' ribbons) taking to the streets in 2000 or the Gandey Bros Circus coming to town as part of the Fringe back in 1982. Peter Low has a particular affection for one-person shows. 'The first one I ever saw was by a young man still at school and he'd written this short piece about the poet Wilfred Owen based on his letters. He started his recital and as he did it he gradually changed into army uniform and at the end he was tragically shot. That was very, very moving.'

There may not be any selection of events at the Fringe, but there is always a huge amount of organisational work behind the scenes to ensure that each year is a success. John Wilson has presided over something of a digital revolution. 'The website http://www.buxtonfringe.org.uk is now the big communicator for us', he says. 'In the last year we have gone completely digital both as far as the entrants are concerned - they now enter online - and in terms of much of the information to the public'.

The exception to this is the free printed programme still widely distributed every June and with listings of all the events - though these are also on the website as well. The programme has certainly undergone many a facelift starting out as a typed piece of A4 and metamorphosing into today's smart all-colour A5 booklet.

During the Fringe, reviews of every show are put on the website and on boards around the town. 'We try to review the first night of every show by noon the next day' says John. 'We also have a Discussion Board up on the website so that people can post up their own ideas of what's hot and what's not.'

The Fringe is always looking for helpers, whether it is reviewers, distributors of the programme or full-blown committee members. Anyone interested should see the website or contact John Wilson on 01298 70562. Since 2005 there has also been a Friends of the Fringe scheme whereby members pay ten pounds a year and receive discounts on shows and invitations to special events.

With financial support now also coming from the University of Derby Buxton, Derbyshire County Council, Trevor Osborne of the Crescent Spa Hotel project and High Peak Borough Council (back on board after withdrawing funding last year), the Fringe is on a healthier footing than it has been in the past.

As for the future, nobody ever quite knows with the Fringe. As John puts it: 'New things keep happening and old ideas develop'. Happily there is a strong youthful element at the Fringe with last year seeing the establishment of a new managed venue, Underground Venues at the Old Hall Hotel, run by former members of Buxton Community School and the Young REC, and a perfect complement to Nice Venues at the Old Clubhouse.

With 2007 seeing the expansion of Underground Venues into Buxton Infant School, it is clear that nothing stays still for long. As John puts it somewhat paradoxically: 'The Fringe is different every year and the same each year, in that every year you never know what's going to happen and that's why it's so exciting'.