A look ahead to the inaugural Great Yorkshire Fringe

Al Murray pulls a few pints (but not any punches) as the Pub Landlord

Al Murray pulls a few pints (but not any punches) as the Pub Landlord - Credit: Archant

York hosts its first ever fringe festival this month. So, what should the city expect?

Impresario Martin Witts – the man who’s hoping he’s got the magic touch when it comes to fringe fest

Impresario Martin Witts – the man who’s hoping he’s got the magic touch when it comes to fringe festivals - Credit: Archant

Impresario Martin Witts is a man with a ready smile and an infectious chuckle, but there’s one surefire way to make him grimace – ask how you can have a fringe without a main festival.

‘If one more person asks where the main festival is, I won’t be held accountable,’ he says, stepping in before we’ve had a chance to push him over the edge.

In this case, the term fringe festival refers to the type of performers on the bill and the atmosphere generated by their shows. It’s a skewiff, pleasantly surreal state of mind in its own right rather than a simple add-on to a more mainstream, run-of-the-mill event

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing humdrum about the upcoming Great Yorkshire Fringe, held in York for the first time from July 24th to August 2nd. But that doesn’t mean it’s all one-legged jugglers and cross-dressing chanteuses (although they’d be very welcome).

German comedian Henning When, a regular on the BBC’s Would I Lie To You and QI, and now one of the s

German comedian Henning When, a regular on the BBC’s Would I Lie To You and QI, and now one of the stars of York’s first fringe - Credit: Archant

Among the many well-known names stopping off in Yorkshire before, in some cases, wending their way up to Edinburgh, are comedy big-hitters Paul Merton, Al Murray and Reginald D Hunter; marvellous musos Ronnie Scott’s All Stars Quintet and the never knowingly undersold Supreme Fabulettes; that all-round Goodies goody Tim Brooke-Taylor; and Margaret Thatcher (in her guise as the Queen of Soho).

There will be about 124 shows over the ten-day festival in a trio of specially-designed and constructed venues around Parliament Street featuring national, international and Yorkshire-grown talent.

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The idea for a full-scale fringe has been percolating in Martin Witts’ creative mind for about 12 years, but why York, and why now?

‘I’ve done a lot of festivals in my time and I thought, well, why not do one on my own doorstep,’ he says over a coffee in Sutlers Bar & Kitchen in Fossgate, just round the corner from where all the festival action will take place. ‘York’s the perfect venue for a fringe festival because it’s probably the only city in the country that’s completely walkable. You can get from one place to another on foot in minutes.

‘To be honest, the question should really be why shouldn’t Yorkshire have its own fringe festival? The county’s as big as Scotland so, who knows, maybe we’ll get the fringe settled in then go for independence.’

Martin and his team are going to transform Parliament Street into a festival village with three beautiful performance spaces – The White Rose Rotunda, The Tea Pot and The Turn Pot – and a host of interesting independent foodie outlets.

‘We want to create an atmosphere of joy and fun, so people can enjoy themselves while also respecting their fellow festival-goers,’ he says.

‘We want the whole city to be buzzing for 10 days, with something going on pretty much all the time. It’s a curated festival, which means every act and show will work together as a whole. There will be a very special flow to it; an atmosphere that, we hope, will bring out the very best in the city and reflect what York is really like. This is a bit of a hippy city underneath all its history and heritage and we want that to come to the fore.’

He has high hopes for his new fringe venture, aiming to make it a key summer event in York’s entertainment calendar by building on the success of the Grand Départ and the recent Tour de Yorkshire to grow with the city of York, engaging residents and visitors, supporting local businesses and encouraging tourism. But, as with every grand plan, there is inevitably an element of risk.

‘Of course things could go horribly wrong,’ says Martin, with a wry smile, ‘but I’ve got a very good feeling about it. A new festival needs time to find its feet, but I think York is ready and willing to take it on.’

‘It will take five years to really prove itself, but eventually I want this to become one of the country’s premier fringe festivals; as successful as Edinburgh, but on a scale to suit York.’

The man behind the fringe

Martin Witts came to York in 1981 to study design technology and human movement at St John’s.

He began working at York Theatre Royal as a carpenter and design assistant before moving deeper into production and promoting.

In the years since his career highlights have included taking the musical Seven Brides For Seven Brothers around the world for York Theatre Royal as production manager; acting as company stage manager for the Mystery Plays under Jude Kelly; promoting Ray Charles, BB King and Nina Simone; and working as production manager for Les Dawson, Paul O’Grady and Russ Abbot.

As well as masterminding the first ever York fringe, Martin, who lives in the city with his wife Lesley and Max, their Jack Russell, also owns Leicester Square Theatre & Lounge, The Museum of Comedy and Cooper Theatre Bloomsbury.

Festival highlights

:: Paul Merton’s Impro Chums, July 31st, £22.50

:: Tim Brooke-Taylor in conversation with Robert Ross, August 1st, £20

:: Al Murray – The Pub Landlord’s Saloon, July 24th and 25th, 9.30pm, £25.50

:: Henning Wehn – Eins, Zwei, DIY, July 24th and 25th, 7.30pm, £16.50

:: Stick Man – Live on Stage, July 24th to August 2nd (except July 27th), 10.15am and 12.15pm, adult £15, child £10, family £40

:: The Supreme Fabulettes – World Tour, July 30th, 7.30pm, £18

:: The Ronnie Scott’s All Stars Quintet Presents The Ronnie Scott’s Story, August 2nd, 8.15pm, £22.50

:: Coquette presents: Moulin Ouse, July 24th and August 1st, 8.30pm, £18

:: Just Like That! The Tommy Cooper Show, July 25th and 26th, August 1st and 2nd, 4pm, adult £12.50, concession £10, family £30

For full programme details, visit greatyorkshirefringe.com