If any book, in terrestrial life, should have "Don't Panic" in large, friendly letters on the cover – as Douglas Adams described his proto-e-book The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy – it is Mark Fisher's The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: How To Make Your Show A Success, published recently by Methuen at £9.99.
A former theatre critic on this newspaper and co-convenor of the Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland, Fisher still looks much the same as he did when I first knew him, and he has lost none of his passion for theatre over what is assuredly more years than either of us care to count. This combination of experience and enthusiasm might be expected to produce a good book, and so it proves.
It is, by the by, curious that Scotland's male theatre scribes, while they may often disagree with one another, share some sort of weird boyish gene, which not only affects their appearance but also promotes a generally upbeat prose style. It is at this time of year, when the London newspapers send an altogether contrasting posse of grumpy old blokes on their annual visit to the Festival and Fringe, that the truth of this comes home. The London lot will proceed to file dispatches about how the wrong man is running the former and the latter has been swamped by comic commercialism, while your local drama experts can be pretty much guaranteed to point expectant readers in more rewarding directions. I'm just saying, like.
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Fisher's book, as the subtitle makes clear, is not aimed at such a general audience, but I rather think that even the casual reader, who is perhaps as likely to bring a show to the Fringe as to fly in the air, might enjoy it. For a start, he has done a power of original research and spoken to a very large number of people to use their rich experience as illustrations in his text. Many of them you may never have heard of, but there are a few very well-known names from theatre and comedy quoted along the way.
Best of all, "along the way" is often exactly how and when they are quoted, Fisher having grabbed a quick Q&A with many visiting performers in the years of writing the book. He is always careful to give the context – "says Phil Nichol, on his way to The Stand for his latest solo show" – which gives the book real pace, as well as accurately reflecting the way things are in Edinburgh in August. I suppose he could have made some of that up, of course, but it matters little either way, and I suspect not.
Not only is it highly readable, but The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide is also thoroughly reliable as far as I can see. I've always been a sucker for manuals, and I wish I'd kept the well-thumbed Every Boy's Handbooks – little volumes with Lists and How To's – from my childhood, now that their predecessors are being reprinted in kitsch retro-editions. My shelves still carry workshop manuals for sundry decrepit motor cars that I mercy-killed, and I may well have a folder full of multi-lingual instructions for long deceased hi-fi gear somewhere. So I can tell when a book covers all the bases, and Fisher has his team well-drilled.
There is not an administrator worth knowing unnamed, and a good number of us hacks are listed in the index as well. From the facilities offered by the Fringe Society, to the finding of accommodation, to the choosing of a venue and the publicising of the show – it is all here, with a range of options and opinions from folk who know whereof they speak. Best of all, the one message that comes through loud and clear is that there is no point in putting yourself through all the Fringe madness unless you know why you are doing it – and don't even think about arriving as a performer unless you have seen it as a visitor. But after that, and with Fisher's guidebook in hand, you may even believe that you can fly.