Written for The Collective Review, 17 July 2009
Previously on The Ultimate Critics’ Pick of the Fringe 2009:
The 13 most anticipated shows of this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, as collectively selected by five major newspapers and magazines, are: Barflies, Beachy Head, A British Subject, The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church, Morecambe, Palace of the End, Sea Wall, Suckerville and The World’s Wife, with two votes each; Blondes, Orphans and Theatre for Breakfast, with three votes each; and the most hyped show in the lead-up to August, with four out of five possible votes, is The Girls of Slender Means.
What it all means
The Scotsman’s Andrew Eaton has it right when he says, “these are all pretty safe bets”. The shortlist is awash with big names, including Fringe First Award winner Daniel Kitson (The Interminable Suicide…), Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy (The World’s Wife), Olivier Award winning playwright Simon Stephens (Sea Wall), famed Scottish novelist Muriel Spark (The Girls…) and celebrity Denise van Outen (Blondes), all of whom are guaranteed to put bums on seats.
It would be easy to construe this as evidence of conservative taste in the mainstream media – especially as the articles claim to list the best shows in the festival, not the ones that will probably do well at the box office.
In actual fact, the shortlist only shows up one paper as unadventurous. Most of the individual articles list some surefire hits alongside some more radical choices – an attempt to show experimental Fringe spirit while still correctly predicting this year’s biggest shows, deflecting accusations of fuddidudditude on the one hand and poor knowledge of the industry on the other. A radical choice wouldn’t be radical if another paper tipped it too, so none of the radical choices made it to the shortlist.
The Evening Standard’s Fiona Mountford, however, didn’t make any radical choices. Not only that, but she’s the only list-maker not to have tipped The Girls of Slender Means. Her list manages to be composed entirely of safe bets while failing to include the safest bet of them all.
The figures suggest Andrew Eaton occupies the opposite end of the conservative–radical spectrum: 72% of his picks fall outside the shortlist. Eaton’s achieved this apparent breadth of taste by playing the law of averages. By recommending a whopping 46 shows, he guarantees that he and his paper will appear both foresighted (all 13 shows on the shortlist appear on Eaton’s list, practically assuring that he’s backed at least a couple of winners) and appreciative of a wide range of styles (his list can’t fail to contain shows no other paper has included on their own, much shorter, lists).
In fact, by hedging his bets this way, all Eaton has ensured is that this year’s other list-makers appear to have more confidence in their own judgement than he does.
To be continued…
In my next post, I’ll explain why pre-Festival list-making is a fruitless exercise in journalistic masturbation (conveniently excusing myself from having not written one).