This weekend’s fourth Shaftesbury Fringe has been the most successful in terms of attendance, the number of shows and atmosphere. Keri Jones from Alfred spoke to organisers and artists.
“You know, it must be the best one ever,” beamed the ‘Father of the Fringe’, oldest performer 93-year-old Tony Hawkins. The singer, dancer and saxophonist was uncharacteristically quiet. “Words fail me,” Tony said, when he was asked to sum up his mood after performing his first Fringe show to a packed St Peter’s Church.
The weekend’s success has been obvious to Fringe’s joint Chairmen, Rob Neely and James Thrift. “Our one concern with putting on more shows was whether we would be able to get an audience. We can categorically say the turnout was fantastic,” said James. “On Saturday afternoon, there were eighteen shows going on at any one time. Most of those shows were full.”
There were a few cancellations, as always, but there were still around 170 different shows covering a wide range of music, comedy, cabaret, theatre, poetry and spoken word. The diverse and full programme helped to create an electric atmosphere over the three Fringe days.
“This was a lot bigger than last year. There was a hell of a buzz going around the town. A lot of people were coming up to us in the HQ at the Town Hall to tell us how much they were enjoying it,” said Rob.
James says that the greatest cause for complaint was audience venue capacity. “The biggest issue over the weekend was people saying that they couldn’t get into some of the shows that they wanted to. It’s an issue, but it’s a good issue,” he said.
Staff at The Grosvenor Arms Hotel pulled out the stops to help ‘QI’ regular Cally Beaton, who grew up in Shaftesbury, find a space for a second stand-up show after her Saturday evening sell-out. Cally says she intends to return to Fringe next year.
James reports that some people believed that comedians dominated this year’s programme but comedy actually accounted for around 50% of shows. “We are big on comedy because we are on the Edinburgh Fringe preview circuit. They’re honing their shows to take to Edinburgh,” said James.
Some comedians told the Fringe team that they were encouraged to come to Shaftesbury after reading positive comments from other acts in private online comedy forums. James would still like to showcase more of Shaftesbury’s musicians at Fringe 2020. “Let’s find the talent of the people in the town. Let’s nurture them and bring them up so that they all perform here next year,” James said.
Talk Radio presenter Iain Lee is also set to return next year. Iain, who appeared in ‘The Jungle’ with Ant and Dec on ITV’s ‘I’m a Celebrity’, recorded a live podcast spin-off of his Talk Radio show at Shaftesbury Arts Centre, with co-host Katherine Boyle. Many of the programme’s fans, like Steven Bishop from Southampton, had travelled specially to see their favourite presenters. “I have come specifically for this show,” Steven said. “I’ve been tempted to go to London or Brighton where they also do shows but this felt more local.”
When one of Iain and Katherine’s Arts Centre audience members called out to say that the Hovis ad had been filmed in Shaftesbury, the entire theatre marched to Gold Hill for a group selfie. “That’s an amazing view – but we’re not in Yorkshire,” exclaimed Iain, when he saw the iconic hill that he had assumed was ‘up North’. “That is absolutely stunning,” he added.
Iain was full of praise for the welcome that he and Katherine received at Shaftesbury Arts Centre. “The Arts Centre is fantastic. We’re losing all of these smaller performance spaces all around the country and in London as well. This is partly why Katherine and I do this show. We get to go and see these wonderful art centres and it’s brilliant.”
Fringe Co-Chairman Rob’s favourite weekend moment was meeting Brian and Sue Jackson from Warrington. The couple won a two-day break in Shaftesbury after seeing the Fringe competition on Facebook. “I saw them at The Mitre and they were so happy. It was amazing. They just couldn’t stop thanking us. What a great advert for Shaftesbury. We’re going to get half of Cheshire here next year,” laughed Rob.
It was the Jacksons’ first visit to our town and Sue was excited to see Gold Hill, a landmark she has always wanted to visit. “It’s gorgeous. Lovely. It’s better than on the telly,” said Sue.
James is pleased that Fringe has brought people into the town. Shop, restaurant and bar tills have been ringing non-stop. There have even been reports of a pub running out of spirits and one exhausting its supply of beer pump gases.
The two Chairmen have paid tribute to locals and venue managers for ensuring that there were no reports of trouble or incident, despite the extreme heat and partying. “I have not had a report of any. Walking back home, when it’s been quite late, I haven’t seen any issues. I think, in that respect, we can hold a head up high that Shaftesbury has done us proud,” said James.
Two new 2019 Fringe initiatives worked well. On Saturday alone, 400 motorists used the car parking arranged by Fringe on Barton Hill Field. Members of Kipling Carnival Club helped to guide drivers to those spaces. And over 900 people downloaded the new Fringe app, created by Shaftesbury student Matthew Evans.
James says the event has the potential to become even bigger in 2020. “I think measured growth. We can look at bringing more entertainment onto the street to vary things. There are still untapped venues out there, which I think would be utterly fantastic,” he said.
And, with that in mind, the men have set the date for the next Fringe. It will be held from Friday 3rd to Sunday 5th July, 2020.