Ian McKellen, Eddie Izzard, Michael Palin and more on 75 years of the Edinburgh Fringe

Clockwise from bottom left: Eddie Izzard, Camille O'Sullivan, Ian McKellen and James Laurenson in Edward II, Al Murray, Miranda Richardson in Orlando - Alamy
Clockwise from bottom left: Eddie Izzard, Camille O'Sullivan, Ian McKellen and James Laurenson in Edward II, Al Murray, Miranda Richardson in Orlando - Alamy

The Edinburgh International Festival – and the plucky offshoot that has outgrown it, the Fringe – both celebrate their 75th anniversary this year. For up-and-coming performers, the Fringe ofters a chaotic month of late nights and ramshackle shows, with the promise of a lucky break that could launch a career. Here, well-known actors and comedians look back at their most memorable Edinburgh moments – from an illegal kiss to a run-in with a 4ft grapefruit.

Michael Palin

In 1964, I was one of the cast of the Oxford Revue at the Fringe, along with Doug Fisher, Annabel Leventon, Nigel Pegram and Terry Jones. It was one of the great turning points of my life: the first ever chance to test my writing and performing skills in front of a national – even international – audience, rather than just our university friends.

We were put up in a Masonic lodge and performed in a hall loaned to us by the Edinburgh Parks and Burials Department, and were so successful that David Frost came backstage one night and took down our names. Two years later he would offer Terry and me work as writers on The Frost Report, where we met up with Eric Idle, Graham Chapman and John Cleese.

The Oxford Revue in 1965 was such a hit that one night we laid on a free show called Rejects Night, which started about half past one in the morning and consisted of the cast reaching into a large dustbin and bringing out bits and pieces that hadn’t made it into the show. A standout skit was a piece called “How Robbers Planned to Steal the Crown of The Queen of England”. A year later, when we had to submit it to the Lord Chamberlain’s office for inclusion in a commercial revue, it came back with the simple injunction: “Omit the entire sketch.”

Ian McKellen

At the 1969 Festival, the now-defunct Prospect Theatre presented Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, the first ever play with a gay hero, which startled some locals half a century ago. An attempt to ban our production, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Scotland, failed – and ensured full houses for the three-week run. A subsequent television showing, with Edward kissing his lover, seems to have inspired gay activism, particularly in North America. Well done the festival!
Ian McKellen's Hamlet is at Ashton Hall, Aug 2-28; edfringe.com

Bill Bailey

The parade on Fringe Sunday was always a colourful, noisy affair, with performers touting their shows from carnival floats, which wound through the city. One performer I worked with in my early Fringe years was the superb juggler and musician, Paul Morocco. He was encased inside a 4ft hollow grapefruit, and I imagine the plan was he’d emerge from the giant fruit, juggling grapefruits… except he hadn’t factored in the Edinburgh hills, and halfway around the parade he rolled off the truck, still in the grapefruit, and trundled down the hill, past the Playhouse Theatre, coming to rest outside a chip shop. It might have ended badly, but I think he sold a lot of tickets as a result, so it just goes to show, sometimes it pays to take a risk.
Bill Bailey is at the Royal Opera House, London, Aug 11-14

Miranda Richardson

My first and only time performing at the festival was in Robert Wilson’s Orlando, in 1996. That month was a bit of a blur – I remember I tried vegetarian haggis for the first time.

Bob always divides people. Even though he doesn’t allow you as a performer to indulge, a lot of people think he is self-indulgent: “Why is it all about the lighting?” But every movement is choreographed. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to a dance piece. It was beautiful.

Brian Cox

In 1963, as a teenager, I went to a very serious conference the festival director put on about the future of drama – Ionesco and Kenneth Tynan were there. Suddenly it was interrupted by this young woman wheeling across the balcony on a kind of rolling lamp, absolutely stark naked. In those days, they called it a “happening”. Three years later, I had my first experience on stage at the festival, as a rather lugubrious bird in The Burdies – Aristophanes’ The Birds, translated into Scots – with costumes by a Moroccan designer. It was very eccentric. I remember Duncan Macrae, as the hoopoe bird, making all these strange noises – “Come awa, me we burrrdie!” While he was looking in the mirror in the dressing room, Fulton Mackay would josh him: “Duncan, Duncan… you don’t need any trousers – all you need is a feather up your arse.”
Brian Cox presents She/Her at Assembly George Square Studios, Aug 3-29; edfringe.com

Eddie Izzard

I have a slightly alternative view of the Fringe: I’m not sure if it’s fun. It’s really tough to get people to actually show up for your show. The Fringe is an open field – but it’s not a field paved with gold.

My first Fringe was in 1981, when I was 18 and studying at the University of Sheffield. I’d gone up five weeks early to work in a café so I could afford it. That year I was up against Emma Thompson and all the names from the Cambridge Footlights, and I was on at 12 noon. Nobody wants to watch comedy at 12 noon.

I’m quite glad my first years were hard, because nobody likes a success story. If you’re talking to people who were successful on their first run, they’re not doing Fringe properly.

Eddie Izzard on top of Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh, 2009 - Getty Images
Eddie Izzard on top of Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh, 2009 - Getty Images

Julia Donaldson

One year, someone unexpectedly appeared with a mop because a child from the audience, whom I’d enrolled to play a villager in The Magic Paintbrush, had peed on the stage. Another year, half the audience were in tears and clutching their ears because a technician had over-amplified the Gruffalo’s voice. Then the Gruffalo himself fell off the stage.
The Gruffalo, the Giant and the Mermaid with Julia Donaldson is at Underbelly George Square, Aug 4-29; edfringe.com

Al Murray

Edinburgh: 1994. Another time, another century. Harry Hill has a pork pie under his plastic Elvis quiff wig, known only to the band (me and Matthew Bradstock-Smith). When we play Yesterday, the frenetic highlight of the set, Harry has to hit himself over the head with a sugar-glass bottle, and then, in the closing number, sneak a bite of the pie from under his wig. It never fails to bring the house down, even as the pork fat melts into his sweat and congeals into the sugar from the bottle. That’s the Fringe.
Al Murray is at Assembly George Square Gardens, Aug 22-29; edfringe.com

Omid Djalili

At the 1999 festival, I used to drive around at night giving friends lifts home. All festival it became a joke that I was resorting to type and providing a post-3am taxi service for drunk comedians. I even spoke exclusively in a Middle Eastern accent.

One night I bumped into Billy Connolly on the Royal Mile, who assumed I was a real taxi driver; he put his friends in my car and said, “Sheraton please, mate.” Which I did. When they offered to pay I refused, saying I was a comedian at the festival and the 3am taxi service was just an elaborate joke. Shocked, they said: “We’re producers from LA and I’ll tell you young man, if your act is even half as good as the kindness of your car service, we’ll be coming to see you soon.”

I never saw them again.
Omid Djalili is at The Stand, Aug 4-20; edfringe.com

Fascinating Aïda

In 1983, we performed in the Hole in the Ground. Our show began at 1.20 am (yes, really) and it was the wettest August ever. We’d change into show frocks in a portacabin, then don Wellington boots and a mac and wade through 6 inches of mud, clutching our high heels. A producer came to see us, intrigued by a rave in The Scotsman. “You have real promise but your look needs improvement. You’ve got mud all over your legs.”
Fascinating Aïda is at Assembly George Square, Aug 3-27; edfringe.com

Gyles Brandreth

When I lost my seat in Parliament in the 1990s, I needed to reinvent myself and find a new career. A friend said, “Try the Edinburgh Fringe. They welcome anybody up there and they don’t know what a Conservative is in Scotland so they won’t turn on you.” I took the advice and created a show called Zipp! in which we performed 100 musicals in 90 minutes. At the end of the first night, I heard seats banging. I thought it was people walking out. In fact, they were standing up to cheer. That’s the joy of the Fringe. Anything can happen. Nicholas Parsons was still doing his show there aged 95, so there’s hope for me for a few years yet.

Gyles Brandreth (left) in Zipp! - Alastair Muir
Gyles Brandreth (left) in Zipp! - Alastair Muir

Clive Anderson

About 20 Edinburghs ago, I presented a chat show on stage. I thought the set looked like Richard & Judy on ITV, so I decided to recruit a member of the audience every night to be the Judy to my Richard. Some volunteers seemed to enjoy the whole thing, others were more like a rabbit caught in the headlights. One night the volunteer turned out to be Janet Street-Porter, who immediately became the most famous person in the whole show. And, put it this way, she certainly wasn’t a rabbit caught in the headlights.
Clive Anderson hosts My Seven Wonders is at Assembly George Square Studios, Aug 6-28; edfringe.com

Victoria Coren Mitchell

It’s so hard to choose a single Fringe memory. There was the first time my parents came to see my stand-up comedy act and discovered quite how many swear words I knew. Or the afternoon when Claire Rayner fainted from heat in the audience of a show I directed. There was the night it turned out that everybody in our rented flat was sleeping with everybody else. But if I had a time machine, the magical day I’d have over again is the one when my friends Ben and Charlie and I went to a show in a function room at the Jury’s Inn, and we were the only people in the audience. It was performed exclusively for us. And it was so, so terrible.

Alex Horne

When I shut my eyes and think of the Fringe, it’s the early years that I remember most clearly: my first show in 2000 got one terrible review but I’d just started going out with my wife and we drank every flavour of alcopop and watched Late ’n’ Live every night. It was the best month of our lives, closely followed by the festival four years later, when Tim Key and I found out we’d got nominated for the Perrier newcomer whilst playing squash. The night before we didn’t win, Dara O’Briain wished us luck, before he and I played noughts and crosses with a sharpie on Tim’s head.

Akram Khan

I first went up for the main festival in the early 2000s, and I completely fell in love with the Fringe. I saw a dance show in a pub, and comedy in a cemetery. It’s the biryani effect: the combination of so many things inside a pot, you want to experience all the different flavours, all the ingredients, and that itself is the performance. 
Akram Khan's Jungle Book Reimagined is at the Festival Theatre, Aug 25-28; eif.co.uk

Akram Khan's Jungle Book Reimagined - AMBRA VERNUCCIO
Akram Khan's Jungle Book Reimagined - AMBRA VERNUCCIO

Elf Lyons

In 2009, I was 18 and working at the Forest Fringe. An eclectic group of artists and vagabonds would volunteer, put on shows and party until 5am. I worked the bar, had no experience and tried to remember to stop falling in love with everyone.

One night a stoned Australian woman said she was organising a Naked Cabaret the next morning and asked if I would do a set. I politely declined. She then told me there was a free buffet. I graciously accepted.

Twelve hours later, I was in a basement with 100 naked individuals who all looked like they’d stepped out of Shawshank, alongside a plate of tepid cocktail sausages. We all had to take our clothes off to The Final Countdown.
Elf Lyons is at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, Aug 3-29; edfringe.com

Marcus Brigstocke

I doubt I’ve ever laughed more than the year when the Pleasance Courtyard suddenly filled with terribly important people, and some good mates and I spent a joyful night launching water balloons at them using a slingshot. We were two streets away, with a pal in situ giving targeting advice over the phone. I couldn’t breathe for laughing. No one was hurt. Some important people got wet. Five stars.
Marcus Brigstocke is at the Pleasance Dome, Aug 3-13; edfringe.com

Isy Suttie

One year, I got back to the flat I was sharing with Josie Long and Danielle Ward to find that the washing machine had flooded the kitchen. A good few inches of lukewarm water topped with a flotsam of biscuits and crisp packets and discarded flyers for physical theatre groups. I found Danielle standing in a bubble bath surrounded by our dirty washing, poking at it with a broom handle.

Nick Helm

In 2006, I took up a play I’d been working on for nearly a decade and the Scotsman gave it one star. The paper contacted us to apologise, it had been a printing error and was actually supposed to be two stars, but by then the damage was done – and we’d sold out. I gave up theatre and became a stand-up.
Nick Helm is at the Pleasance Dome, Aug 3-28; edfringe.com

Richard Herring

I love it when the Fringe spills out into the city of Edinburgh. A shopkeeper told me he remembered a student Rowan Atkinson stepping out into the road to comically direct the jammed traffic in 1973.

In 2009, Andrew Collins and I persuaded our podcast listeners to turn up at my favourite takeaway shop, the Tempting Tattie, at the same time, just after lunch. We arrived to see the queue snaking down the hill. They ran out of potatoes and the owner nearly strangled me.
Richard Herring hosts RHLSTP at the Assembly Rooms, Aug 3-14; edfringe.com

Seann Walsh

When I started performing at the Fringe in my early 20s, I was riddled with social anxiety (before it was trendy). I was a mess, constantly on the verge of crying and shouting “help me” at pigeons. I hid it well, I think, because I wore a leather jacket and had long hair and people are stupid. But I would also chuck alcohol into my gob if anything threatened to become communal (and actually if it didn’t).

To manage this level of drinking early doors, I promised myself I’d never drink before a gig, a rule I’d only bend/break/cover in petrol and chuck into a bonfire for Edinburgh late shows.

One day, a couple of teenagers stopped me when I was very hung-over to tell me they loved my set at Late’n’Live the night before. I didn’t remember doing it. I no longer drink and to avoid anxiety in social situations, I don’t go. Much more fun and much cheaper. Highly recommend.
Seann Walsh is at The Stand, Aug 3-28; edfringe.com

Tim Vine

At the festival, the rest of the world fades away and your show is everything. In 2014, I was staying in a third-floor flat on the Royal Mile. One night I woke and smelt smoke. The restaurant on the ground floor was on fire and flames were licking up the side of the building. I put on my shoes and a coat and grabbed my act, which was written on three sheets of A4. I left everything else.
Tim Vine is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Aug 3-28; edfringe.com

Tim Vine
Tim Vine

Tiff Stevenson

My fiancé and I fell in love in Edinburgh, so it’s hard to pick a favourite memory. Climbing the sheer face of Arthur’s Seat as it was getting dark, and learning pink leopard-print converse and slippery rocks aren’t a good combo. Mounting a cannon at Carlton Hill in an attempt to recreate Cher’s turn back time video (I split my trousers). Or swimming at Portobello beach (I ended up with a bra full of seaweed). Are these memories about Edinburgh, love or wardrobe malfunctions? You decide!
Tiff Stevenson is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Aug 3-29; edfringe.com

Arthur Smith

On my “late night alternative tour of the Royal Mile” (meet at the entrance to the Castle, 2am), I would offer a fiver for someone to take their clothes off, climb up the statue of David Hume and sing Scotland the Brave. Comedy legend Malcolm Hardee would always call the police in advance, and one year I got arrested and charged with “breach of the peace and possession of a megaphone”.
Arthur Smith is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Aug 5-14; edfringe.com

Camille O’Sullivan

Memories of Fringe insanity come flooding back: most painfully, being electrocuted by Christmas lights wrapped around me on opening night, with blackout silence for two minutes. I was left with a smoking hand. The audience thought it was an act, but the band knew it wasn’t as I’m never normally silent!
Camille O’Sullivan is at the Underbelly Bristo Square, Aug 3-28; edfringe.com

Jayde Adams

I remember the “10 comedians in a three-bedroom house” year. Trimmed pubes on the sink. I slept in a room without windows that was advertised as a “studio”, and a girl called me “peach” every morning. A paralytic drag queen squared up to me outside of the Disco Chippy once, while I was holding a battered sausage.
Jayde Adams is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Aug 3-28; edfringe.com

Jayde Adams
Jayde Adams

Tim Crouch

EdFringe 2005 was the “world premiere” (AKA “what the f--- have we made?”) of my play An Oak Tree. Two actors in it. I’m one. The second actor is different every time, someone who has neither seen nor read the play. No funding. A small flat on the Dalry road. The smell of hops. An extinct volcano. Hope. Belief. Fear. A one star review in The Independent calling me “oleaginous”.
Tim Crouch’s Truth’s A Dog Must to Kennel is at the Royal Lyceum, Aug 6-28; edfringe.com

Adrienne Truscott

I’ve been here more times than I can count, in umpteen guises, performing soaked from head to toe in an ancient, stony cellar; dressed as an 80s rocker dangling over merry audiences in a Spiegeltent (La Clique) or “speaking” with my bum on a trestle table at the posh Traverse (Wild Bore).
Adrienne Truscott's Masterclass is at the Pleasance Dome, Aug 3-28; edfringe.com

Basil Brush

The Edinburgh Fringe is like entering the most amazing pick ’n’ mix sweet shop in the world. There’s so much to take in and you can’t eat it all at once, because you’d get a sugar rush. Boom, boom!
Basil Brush is at the Gilded Balloon Teviot, Aug 3-28; edfringe.com

The Edinburgh International Festival (eif.co.uk) and Edinburgh Fringe (edfringe.com) run at venues across the city from Aug 5 – Aug 28