The Australian press made a fuss about Adelaide’s Fringe, featuring a 92-year-old performer. Scottish newspapers marvelled when a 90-year-old woman took to the stage at Edinburgh’s event. But once again, Shaftesbury is going one better!
Comedian, TV presenter and late night radio host Iain Lee will be one of the star attractions at this year’s Shaftesbury Fringe.
Iain will record an episode of his ‘The Rabbit Hole’ podcast in front of a live audience at the Shaftesbury Arts Centre and he told us how the unscripted show can throw up surprises.
You’ll recognise Iain Lee when you see him walking down Bell Street in July. He’s been on telly for years, on programmes like Channel 4’s ‘Rise’ and their ‘11 O’Clock Show’. But Ian accepts that he’s best known for his 2017 appearance in the Australian rainforest, on ITV’s ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’.
“When I came back, I was more famous than I’ve ever been in my life and that was a real shock to the system. The 11 O’Clock Show got one million viewers on a good night. ‘I’m a Celebrity’ gets up to 15 million viewers. I came back and 8, 9 and 10-year-old kids would stop me in the street and ask for a picture,” he said.
Iain came third in the viewers’ vote. He was widely praised by the press for his openness in discussing his own mental health challenges. That honesty has become a trademark of his late night show on Talk Radio, where he often shares his innermost thoughts.
He was similarly upfront and open about why he agreed to go in ‘the jungle’. “They’d asked me four or five times before,” said Iain. “I asked them if they still wanted me because I was getting divorced and I needed quite a lot of money so that I could get somewhere to live. It was a very handy cheque.”
He said that he also wanted to publicise the radio show, which he presents with Katherine Boyle. “I’m really, really proud of it, and no one at the time was listening to it. So I’m A Celebrity was a great opportunity to go in front of 12 million people and say, ‘check it out’.”
Iain said he also wanted to impress his kids, who were 6 and 8 years of age at the time. “I just thought it would be nice for them to see me getting covered in spiders and gunk and jumping out of stuff. I became a proper action hero in their eyes for a few weeks. They thought I was incredible. It’s worn off now,” he added.
Iain no longer sees himself at a TV presenter – he’s seen through the industry’s shallow nature. “Oh, it’s just soul destroying. After I’m A Celebrity, I got courted by so many production companies and TV executives, who all took me to nice restaurants. They said ‘we think we have a great show for you’ and ‘we’re going to get you back on TV’. Naively, I bought into it. I believed all of it. Of course nothing came of it,” Iain said.
“I’ve invested nearly the last twelve months raising my hopes thinking ‘this is it, I’m back’ and of course I’m not. I’m not going to say ‘never’ to TV, but I’m certainly not actively pursuing it. If someone phones up with a job that’s all ready to go and it pays okay, I’ll do it. I think I’m kind of done with TV really,” he said.
But Iain has forged friendships with some of his jungle campmates, Jennie, Shappi and Kez. And when he returned to the UK he was inundated by messages of support. “I had literally thousands of people emailing me and tweeting me with all these really kind words. It all became too much. If I’m completely honest, I found coming back overwhelming. It messed with my head and it threw me,” said Iain.
He continued, “I was really lucky I did get quite a bit of TV work for the six months afterwards. I did a lot of stuff on Good Morning Britain, which was great. It was a thrill to work with Susanna Reid and Ben Shephard. They are slick professionals and also really decent human beings.”
But the project that Iain really hoped would take off didn’t. “That really upset me. Me and Amir Khan, who was also in I’m A Celebrity, put forward this idea of going to Pakistan and filming a documentary,” said Iain. “His family are from Pakistan and I’d worked there twenty years ago. We had lots of people saying ‘this is great, this is going to happen’. And then they stopped returning my phone calls. I invested a lot of emotion and heart into that.”
Iain has worked in radio throughout his career and when I ask him how he’d describe himself he instantly replied that he is ‘a late night radio host’. Unlike TV, radio is intimate and personal. Iain occasionally has studio guests but it’s usually just him, the callers and occasional contributions from Katherine. He can’t play music.
I asked Iain whether he ever worries about how he will fill three hours of unscripted, live radio each night. “The last couple of weeks actually have been quite tough because I’ve not been feeling very well, in a mental health kind of way. I wouldn’t say I’ve had a breakdown but I got very low a couple of weeks ago and I’m trying to claw back from that. But generally, the thrill is in having an empty three hours. Very little of our show is planned. We go in, we open the phone lines, we open our mouths and we see what comes out,” Iain said.
Iain actively avoids the usual talk show topics on his show. “Everyone’s doing phone-ins about Brexit, Trump and Islamic terrorism. These things are very stressful and quite scary. They are designed to get us angry. They are generating phone calls through anger,” he said. “Our show tries to be celebratory. We try and talk about great songs, great podcasts or mental health or great acts of humanity. We try not to focus on the negative.”
Iain and Katherine’s Shaftesbury Fringe show will be similar to their Talk Radio programme. It will be broadcast live, but on Periscope and YouTube rather than DAB Radio. It will also be recorded for later on-demand listening as a podcast. And, as the show is streamed live, Iain promises interaction with the audience, both at the Arts Centre and people listening online.
“We have Skype open and people phone in. Sometimes they are rude and sometimes they’re very polite. If an audience member wants to argue with the person who has phoned-in, they are welcome to. Sometimes it gets heavy, but that’s not the intention. It’s all very spontaneous. It should be a laugh, but if someone phones up and drops something heavy on us, then we’ll run with that. It could get a little bit dark,” said Iain.
So there could be some potentially uncomfortable moments if the Skype callers bring up sensitive or difficult-to-discuss topics. “I know. It’s unusual and it’s awkward and it can be uncomfortable. And isn’t that wonderful?” said Iain.
He doesn’t shy away challenging or traumatic calls. In December Iain showed his strong communication skills and his empathetic nature when he talked to a suicidal radio show caller for thirty minutes, until emergency services found the man. Iain has been credited with saving the life of ‘Chris from Plymouth’, following his attempted overdose.
Iain presides over incredibly moving and powerful radio, so it’s easy to understand how he has created a strong connection with his listeners, many of whom travel around the country to watch the very podcast recording that’s coming to Shaftesbury. When you listen to previous episodes of ‘The Rabbit Hole’ you can sense the ease in which audience members join in with the banter. There’s no barrier. They’re chatting to a friend.
“We are very lucky in that we have a hard-core group of listeners,” said Iain. “We have got a couple of people that come to every show that we do, which is amazing. Quite often the audience will be made up of 60% of people who listen to the show on a regular basis, and the other 40% will be their partners, who maybe aren’t quite such big fans but have come along to keep their partner company.”
So expect the unexpected. The conversation could switch to a serious topic but Iain says the general vibe is one of fun. “It’s meant to be a laugh – but it might not be. There might be bits that are uncomfortable or don’t quite work. I guess it’s real life,” said Iain.
Iain can’t remember how ‘The Rabbit Hole’ name came about. “I think Katherine came up with it. It’s Alice In Wonderland. It’s psychedelic. We like to go off on tangents. And you fall down the rabbit hole and you don’t know where you’re going to end up. It’s to show that this is a kind of vaguely psychedelic, meandering mess,” he said.
Iain and Katherine have made ‘The Rabbit Hole’ recordings in major cities, like Birmingham, Brighton and Glasgow. Shaftesbury must be Iain’s smallest performance venue but he says that doesn’t matter. “Both Katherine and I are both painfully aware that everything is London-centric. Talk radio is based in London. I don’t live in London anymore, but a lot of media is in London. We are also aware that we have lots of listeners all around the world and around the country.”
Iain and Katherine have tweaked their show for Fringe. “At Shaftesbury, we’re doing a slightly shorter show. We normally do two or two and-a-half hours. I think we’re doing about an hour as part of the Fringe. If you hate it, you haven’t got wait till too long. You can walk out in the middle if you want. We’re not going to pick on somebody who wants to get up and go,” Iain assured me.
I told Iain how excited the Shaftesbury Arts Centre team was to be hosting a celebrity. He generously returned the compliment, enthusing about the friendliness of their volunteers. “Katherine and I are so thrilled to be part of this and to be playing the Arts Centre. They’ve made us feel very welcome,” he said.
So what does he want from his Shaftesbury Fringe audience? “Not to hit us,” Iain joked, and then paused to consider his further response. “Although if they hit us, it will be a reaction. Relax and go along with it, if you can.”
Iain doesn’t rush off straight after the show. “We always stick around. I know that the itinerary is tight with the next show getting in and out, but we will find somewhere after the show, maybe in the foyer, or out on the street to hang around for as long as people want to. People may want to chat or take photos. If someone is prepared to put a few quid in our pockets, then the very least I can do is shake their hand and look them in the eye and say, thanks very much.”
The Rabbit Hole is on at Shaftesbury Arts Centre at 1.45pm on Saturday 6th July, 2019. Tickets are available from TicketSource.co.uk/iain-lee.
Dozens of acts have already signed up for Shaftesbury Fringe 2019. More artists have registered than at the same point last year. Entertainers have more venues to pick from too during this summer’s three-day festival, which runs from 5th to 7th July. And there’s a new and rather unusual performance space on offer – a dentist!
Trudy Phillips is the Practice Manager of Shaftesbury’s BUPA Dental Surgery. She has been thinking about the sort of acts that might suit her venue. I joked that if comedians book her space and they are unfunny, they could turn on the laughing gas. “Only if they perform at two-thirty,” replied Trudy. Her split-second ‘tooth-hurty!’ gag made me laugh although it did work better when spoken, rather than written down. “Sorry. It’s a joke that we get all the time,” Trudy laughed.
Fringe acts won’t need to yell over the sound of the hygienist polishing the patients’ pearly whites. Trudy is offering the impressive outdoor space behind the dentist and no patients will be booked in over the weekend. “I don’t think that the sound of the drill against the music would really be compatible. I’d rather listen to the music,” said Trudy.
It’s a large area with a level patio at the top of a two-tiered terraced lawn. The long garden gently slopes down from the surgery, offering views across Motcombe and towards the Wiltshire and Somerset hills in the distance.
“I went to the Shaftesbury Fringe Festival last year, to the last night. It was such an amazing atmosphere,” said Trudy. And that gave her the idea of offering her employers’ lawns. “This garden is very rarely used. Occasionally we have meetings of the practice out here, but we don’t actually use it much. And it just lends itself, with the backdrop of the Blackmore Vale. It’s just like a little empty theatre and I thought what a wonderful idea.”
Trudy thinks that the space would work particularly well for a theatrical performance. “I think that people could actually sit down on the grass at the bottom, watch the acts and have a picnic.”
Trudy is kindly offering this outdoor space for free, to help the Fringe Festival. Performers may be able to arrange a small marquee or cover, if they’re worried about the weather. Acts can see the space on offer on the Shaftesbury Fringe website. “They’ll see a beautiful picture of the garden from the bottom. And then they can get in touch with me,” said Trudy.
Site access will be easy. The acts and the audience won’t have to go through the surgery. “We have a side opening and we are also going to open the garage so that people can walk through,” said Trudy.
The surgery building itself is impressive, with balconies that would once have offered its lucky residents commanding views over the Vale. “One of my dental nurses, Heidi, has been here for 27 years this year,” said Trudy. “And she remembers when one of the dentists lived here. At the very bottom of the garden they used to have geese and chickens in a little hen run. I’ve been here fifteen years. The whole of the building has been a dental practice since I’ve been here.”
It’s the first time a dentist has been used for a Shaftesbury Fringe performance but it’s not the first time acts have entertained in unusual spaces. Sloane’s Hair Salon and the offices of Gilyard Scarth estate agents have both hosted Fringe events in previous years.
Trudy says her Fringe offer has become a talking point amongst staff and patients. “Everybody’s really looking forward to it and the patients are even getting on board. Some of them know people who could perform and play music. They’re saying that they will tell everybody.”
If you want to sign up as a Fringe performer and arrange to use Trudy’s space, follow the links above.
Online registration has opened for the 2019 Shaftesbury Fringe. The weekend event is England’s third largest open performance festival and will run between 5thand 7thof July 2019. Continue reading
Videography – James Short
Editing – Matthew Evans
A musical performance celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, fifty years since his assassination, has been declared the Best Event at Shaftesbury Fringe, by its panel of judges.
‘Soul Of A Nation’ by The NMSW Trio also took the Best Music award. New Music In The South-West, to give the organisation its full name, is a not-for-profit body based in Bristol. It supports the development of young musicians across the West and promotes classical music.
Founder Julian Leeks is delighted that his show gained top marks. His group has been awarded a magnum of champagne and treats to the value of £100, thanks to David and Alice Perry of Shaftesbury Wines.
“It was a lovely evening. We received a lot of really pleasant comments and a few people had tears in their eyes at the end of the performance,” said Julian.
The musical score made Luther King’s moving story even more poignant. “A lady who was perhaps in her 70s, came up and said she had been going to concerts all of her life and she had never experienced anything as wonderful and profound,” Julian said. “When you experience that, you already know that it’s good.”
The performance had a strong Shaftesbury connection. “The piece that closed the concert was composed by Sadie Harrison who is a resident of Shaftesbury. It also featured a section for singer Michelle Ezigbo, a former student at Shaftesbury School,” Julian explained.
The Shaftesbury-based, close-harmony a cappella choir Palida, led by Karen Wimhurst, joined the NMSW musicians to create a memorable performance. “Palida were great. They put a lot of effort into new arrangements of the spirituals. They made a great contribution,” said Julian.
“The instrumentalists that we have in the NMSW Trio are established professionals. They’ve played with the London Sinfonietta, they’ve been on tour all over the world and to bring them into a venue like St Peter’s Church and to have a local amateur choir was a really great combination. It was nice to combine that professional element with the local element. It contributed a lot,” Julian said.
After their Shaftesbury Fringe success, the performers will continue with the show in a slightly amended format. “We are doing elements of it in other places. Obviously we can’t go touring around with Palida. It would be expensive transport-wise,” said Julian. “We are doing three of the pieces that were commissioned in relation to Martin Luther King at a concert at St George’s in Bristol on 23rd September.”
Julian says they’d like to return to Fringe next year. “Shaftesbury is such a lovely place, anyway. It’s really nice doing something as part of the festival because it does have a joyful atmosphere. We were lucky that there was such beautiful weather and everybody was in a good mood. It made a real difference,” he said.
So will NMSW come back in 2019? They have a title to defend, now. “It would depend on being able to come up with a concept that works. We don’t want to just shoehorn these things in. If we can come up with something, then I would be delighted to come back next year,” said Julian.
The Fringe judges felt that the Shaftesbury School Choir was deserving of the Best in Fringe Youth award.
The Best Spoken Word and Poetry title was given to The Bard of Windmill Hill.
Comedy mind reader Doug Segal won the Best Comedy category and local singer Samantha’s montage of amusing songs from the musicals won her the Best Cabaret award.