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Martin Soan takes 'first and worst' back to the mid-70s

Thursday, July 26 2012

One of the finest "First and Worst" submissions yet. Read on for old tales of sleeping rough, onstage rage and audience stealing, courtesy of Martin Soan (below right) from The Greatest Show on Legs

The Greatest Show On Legs

My first

My first was a long long long time ago, in the mid-1970s. It was The Greatest Show on Legs (pre Malcolm Hardee) and was so-called as the whole show was carried on my back, for the performance of a rather Rabelasian Punch and Judy show I used to perform on the streets at the time.

In Edinburgh that year, I cleaned up bottling (street terminology for a collection of cash) as there was no competition ... yes! To this day I have not made as much money at Edinburgh as I did in that first year. In an average day, after a few shows, I amassed enough money to eat, drink and see a show – well the eating and drinking were no problem but I had to look for a show and look hard. There were no posters or people handing out leaflets back then: you had to ask where there was a show on. Even as late as the 1970s the Fringe was still relatively small and was completely dominated by the two universities.

I dont think it actually advertised itself as the Fringe: it was more a secret Festival for "toffs" and intellectuals, or what they would describe as "recherche", which means I have now successfully incorporated the two long words I know into this piece ...

I do remember two shows I found. One was a contemporary dance piece called "Why Can’t A Woman Throw Like A Man?" and the other was a Cambridge Footlights revue of which I remember nothing, so I presume it must have been the "reserves" show – I don’t remember anyone who became famous that was in it.

I slept rough that first year in a disused children's sandpit which I nicknamed 'the ashtray' and was very comfortable and I shared it with a very pretty Canadian for a couple of nights until she realised I wasn't going up in the world of showbiz quite as fast as she would like. I was there for a week and it hardly ever stopped raining. I decided it wasn't really my type of thing and left for the security of my Tower of London pitch, not to return for another 10 years or so.

My worst

My worst Edinburgh night was looking deep into the eyes of (actor and writer) Eric Bogosian after an incident well documented in Malcolm Hardee's autobiography I Stole Freddie Mecury's Birthday Cake.

That year, we had a small but real tractor that Malcolm used to make his grand entrance with. On a particular moment every night, a loud sequence from the show next door disturbed an otherwise perfect and professional show from ourselves. One night, in desperation, Malcolm announced that he felt like driving the tractor through Eric Bogosian’s show.

Our audience said he should and Malcolm agreed to it only if they (the audience) followed him. He did, they did and the rest is history. But afterwards, when everyone was settled – by the way we had picked up 12 of Eric's audience who followed the crowd and joined our show (Eric accused us of stealing them and I have forever since been fascinated with stealing audiences) – anyway, Eric was not best pleased and confronted us later in front of our audience (and some of his). He looked at us all on stage – there was four of us – and, spluttering with rage, he said: "Call yourselves professionals?" And being the tight-knit group of pissheads we were, we all slowly nodded our heads, soliciting a laugh from the audience. Eric lost it and came up close to me and I know he was fighting back all temptation to knock my lights out.

Now, in the general course of life I'm a complete scaredy cat and would clown and run out of situations that I could not avoid in the first place but, in front of an audience, I had no choice but to front it out and I believe that Eric's professionalism stopped him from thumping me in front of so many witnesses ... Apart from that, it was a lovely Edinburgh.

The Greatest Show On Legs is part of the Heroes of Alternative Fringe show, at Hive, various dates from August 2-27, various times


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