10 Performers Made Famous at the Fringe
Spotlight’s pick of 10 performers who first found fame thanks to the Edinburgh Fringe
By Natasha Raymond
Everything can change after the Edinburgh Fringe. Perform the right show in the right way with the right people in the room, and you could follow in the footsteps of countless others who have gone on to illustrious careers. Your show could find itself gracing the theatres of the West End, or happily homed on the BBC.
Here are 10 performers who have made this transition from Fringe to fame:
The late actor made his Edinburgh debut fresh out of drama school in 1976, playing both Friar Peter in Measure for Measure and Wittipol in The Devil is an Ass. This double bill at the Assembly Rooms marked his first major acting role. He would go on to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the BBC, and appear in many beloved films, such as Love Actually, Hans Gruber in Die Hard, and Severus Snape in the Harry Potter franchise (the first instance of a choice in the fandom’s dream cast coming true).
The comedy-genius first performed in Edinburgh with Oxford Theatre Group in 1973 – surprisingly playing a straight role! He would then return with Dundee University Theatre Group in 1975, and again in 1976 with Oxford Revue. This was the magic year for him, as he performed alongside Richard Curtis (who went on to write Blackadder and co-write Mr Bean – both staples of Atkinson’s career) and was spotted by television producer John Lloyd. Since then, his comedic shenanigans have known no bounds. He’s appeared on stage, radio, television, and the big screen as the titular role in Johnny English, and the voice of Zazu in the much-loved The Lion King.
Coogan’s Edinburgh experience is a great example of why you shouldn’t lose heart if your first Edinburgh performance isn’t the roaring success you hoped. He first performed comedy at the Fringe in 1990, but his warm-up act, Frank Skinner, constantly upstaged him. But Coogan returned in 1992 with John Thomson, showcasing character personas Paul Calf and Alan Partridge. This won them the Perrier Award, and Alan Partridge has since starred in his own TV series and feature film.
The Never Mind the Buzzcocks regular came to the Fringe in 1992 as a stand-up comedian, and won second place in the Daily Telegraph Open Mic Award final (losing first to Frankie Boyle). This successful appearance got him signed by Avalon Management, and led to him meeting his would-be partner in crime, Julian Barratt. Both would return to the Fringe in 1998 and take it by storm with The Mighty Boosh, securing both the Best Newcomer Award, and a radio series adaptation of the show soon after. The Mighty Boosh has since gone on to become a cult TV series, and Fielding has been everything from an actor in The IT Crowd to a musician, author and even a presenter for The Great British Bake Off.
We all know him as the hilarious host of his own chat show, the voice of The Eurovision Song Contest, and Father Noel in Father Ted. But in 1991, he was an Irish-housewife-esque Mother Teresa in Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Grand Farewell Tour. Norton performed his drag at the Pleasance, and made the press when he was mistakenly thought to represent the real Mother Teresa by Scottish Television’s religious affairs department. He returned to the Fringe in 1993 with The Karen Carpenter Bar and Grill, and soon rose to fame through appearances as a regular panellist on Loose Ends, and an award-winning performance as a stand-in host on Jack Docherty’s late-night talk show.
The crowned ‘Queen of Comedy’ had plenty of false starts before finding success at the Fringe. She first went in 1994 with the show Hurrell and Hart – a self-professed ‘terrible’ show which was cancelled most nights due to no audience. But she didn’t give up. She returned in 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005, with a new show each time. 2005 saw her performing in Miranda Hart’s House Party, in which she had finally perfected the comedy we would one day enjoy in successful TV show Miranda.
The infamous comedian made his Edinburgh debut at the Gilded Balloon in 2000, as one third of the stand-up show Pablo Diablo’s Cryptic Triptych. The show went well – Brand had a glass thrown at him onstage, got into trouble for hiring trouble-making youngsters to do promotional work, and was chucked out for throwing a microphone stand at a tough audience. He returned in 2004 with one-man confessional show Better Now, giving an honest account of his heroin addiction. He would return again in 2005 with Eroticised Humour and go on to launch a nationwide tour of Shame in 2006.
Melanie Giedroyc & Susan Perkins (a.k.a. Mel & Sue)
Technically not one person, but you can’t have Mel without Sue, or vice versa. The hilarious double act got off to a fantastic start at Edinburgh in 1993, where they won the Daily Express Best Newcomers Award for Naked Brunch. They then brought the character-comedy shows Kittens Go Grrrrr to the Fringe in 1994, and Planet Pussycat in 1996. This led to appearances on French & Saunders, which in turn launched their presenting career in 1997 with Late Lunch on Channel 4.
The award-winning actress first attended the Fringe with Sasha Hails in 1991, as part of the student drama group they co-founded at Cambridge University. The group was called Talking Tongues, and their show Slight Possession was a two-hander improv that earned Weisz a Guardian Youth Drama Award. When they transferred the show to the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, Weisz was spotted by an agent, and has since gone on to star in The Mummy, The Whistleblower, and recent success The Favourite.
It’s not just British performers who’ve found fame at the Fringe. In 1971, the late American actor attended the Fringe with his student theatre company from California’s College of Marin. They were invited to perform their Wild West version of The Taming of the Shrew at the Viewforth Centre, and Williams got to show off his comedic genius playing Tranio. The show won Best Production and they even gave a command performance for Princess Margaret. Williams would go on to such beloved roles as the Genie in Aladdin, Mrs Doubtfire in Mrs Doubtfire, and Alan Parrish in Jumanji.
Of course, there are countless other stars we haven’t named: Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, John Cleese, Richard Burton. And successful shows, like Stomp and The Play That Goes Wrong. After 72 years, the Fringe is still providing talented performers with the platform they deserve. We can’t wait to see who’ll emerge into the limelight this year.
Good luck to everyone taking a show to the Fringe this year. We’ll hopefully see you there! You can find our content from previous Edinburgh Fringes by clicking here.