Riotous Assembly celebrates 30 Edinburgh Fringe years

By Steven Brocklehurst
BBC Scotland news website


As a 25-year-old aspiring theatre director William Burdett-Coutts inquired about using a space in Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms for a Fringe production.

He was told he could rent the whole building.

The young Burdett-Coutts took his chance and over the past 30 Augusts has revolutionised the Fringe.

Last year, the Edinburgh venues he oversees sold about 700,000 tickets during their three-week run.

The Fringe had already been a major draw for three decades when Burdett-Coutts arrived but the Assembly Rooms was to lead it into a whole new period of expansion.

Burdett-Coutts, who went to Essex University after he had "done a runner" from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when he refused to join the army, reels off the names of the acts from the early years of the Assembly.

"Griff Rhys Jones and Clive Anderson were both there in the first year," he says.

Image caption, William Burdett Coutts said the Fringe had become more professional

"Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry are massive, of course. They were here in the second year, I think.

"Craig Ferguson met an agent from LA here and now he is one of the biggest talk show hosts in the world."

He added: "Graham Norton got spotted in the appropriately named Wildman room and now he's all over TV."

Lee Evans, Jack Dee and Julian Clary all made their names at the Assembly Rooms.

Burdett-Coutts calls Edinburgh the "biggest showcase in the world" and his venue is one of its main hubs.

He described the Assembly as the Fringe's first "super venue".

Prior to his arrival most venues had been sub-let to numerous different theatre companies.

Burdett-Coutts took the whole Assembly venue and marketed it under one banner.

It was an approach soon emulated by the Pleasance, under the guidance of Christopher Richardson, who had watched the Assembly Rooms at close quarters.

Along with the Gilded Balloon, now celebrating its 25th season, and the Underbelly, a relative newcomer, they form a large part of the Fringe's current output.

Looking back to his first year at the Assembly in 1981, Burdett-Coutts says it was "real spirit of the Fringe stuff".

"We did about 40 shows in five venues in the first year. We ran the entire building with just 14 people.

"I literally did everything. I would do the box office, take the tickets and direct the plays."

The Assembly operation, which has expanded to the magnificent Assembly Hall on the Mound and a new Spiegeltent in Princes Street Gardens, now employs 350 people.

Burdett-Coutts says that the major change over the three decades of the Assembly has been a move from a "friendly, family affair" to becoming more "professional".

And he says that the standards expected by the audience get higher every year.