Assembly battle splits Edinburgh Fringe

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Media captionThe Assembly Rooms has undergone a £9m refurbishment and is now the Fringe's "poshest" venue

The Edinburgh Fringe's three-week run has begun against a backdrop of acrimony among some of its major players.

The world's biggest arts festival will see 2,695 shows performed in 279 venues across the city.

However, Fringe stalwart Stewart Lee has caused a storm by criticising the "big four" comedy venues.

And the reopening of the Assembly Rooms has left the Fringe with two outfits operating under almost identical names.

Image caption Stewart Lee slammed the big four comedy venues

Stand-up comedian Lee, who has been performing in Edinburgh for 25 years, accused the Pleasance, Underbelly, Gilded Balloon, and Assembly of "re-pointing the fragile but functioning eco-system of the Fringe".

He said the decision a few years ago to launch the Edinburgh Comedy Festival was an act of "corporate cattle rustling" which had made smaller venues almost invisible and had led to higher prices for performers and audiences.

Lee praised the "fiercely independent" Stand venue, which underwrites all its shows, so performers lose nothing.

The operator of the Stand, Tommy Shepherd, has now taken over the Assembly Rooms on George Street in the city's New Town.

The Assembly Rooms has just undergone a £9m refurbishment and Shepherd claims that it is the "poshest" and best venue at the Fringe.

Image caption Tommy Shepherd, who runs The Stand comedy venue in Edinburgh throughout the year, has taken over the new Assembly Rooms

It is an Edinburgh City Council building, but for 30 years was given over to William Burdett Coutts to run Fringe shows in the month of August.

With the Assembly Rooms out of action last year, Burdett Coutts moved his operation to Edinburgh University premises in the south of the Old Town, around George Square.

However, despite leaving the Assembly Rooms completely, he has retained the Assembly branding for his numerous venues.

Image caption William Burdett Coutts ran the Assembly Rooms for 30 years

Shepherd has refused to contemplate calling his Assembly Rooms venue anything else, leading to possible confusion for audiences.

Burdett Coutts told an audience at the Assembly Hall on the Mound: "After 32 years it is kind of hard to think of another name.

"I found an interesting quote, which I thought rather summed it up: 'Our names are labels plainly printed on the bottled essence of our past'."

He said Assembly was the sum of its history and he could not change its name.

Shepherd said the Assembly Rooms was named by the Georgian gentry of Edinburgh 225 years ago and it was not up to him to change the name.

Image caption Lee and Shepherd criticised the Bristo Square venues such as Underbelly

But he said: "I know enough history to know that the people who built it did not have people like me in mind when they did.

"Everyone who has ever been to the festival knows exactly where the Assembly Rooms are, and this year they are open for business like they have never been before.

"I don't think there will be that much confusion. There may be some teething problems in the early days."

Shepherd said he was attempting to create a "green oasis" in contrast to the "ugly aluminium building sites" around Edinburgh University's main campus.

Lee, who is performing at Shepherd's Assembly Rooms, described the presence of the big four around Bristo Square as an "increasingly grotesque Philip K Dick-style wasteland of alcohol-banner festooned architecture".

Underbelly operator Ed Bartlam hit back at Lee at the media launch of his venue, saying: "There are some people who think this whole area is an awful travesty for the Fringe.

Image caption Ed Bartlam hit back at Stewart Lee at the media launch of his venue

"Yet when we look around we see thousands of performers and an amazing variety of shows and the thousands of audience members who embrace it.

"This is the best festival in the world. There are lots of different parts to that festival and this area is one part, but it is not a part which should be knocked."

Kath Mainland, the chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, said: "The Fringe is a continually shifting and dynamic venue landscape.

"The job of the Fringe Society is to make sure the audience can navigate successfully between them.

"Most of the Fringe venues take place in buildings and spaces which aren't theatres through the rest of the year so we have got lots of tools to help the audience find their way around."