By Harry Venning (Guardian Newspaper)
Just as I was getting into writing poetry about the Edinburgh festivals, along comes some nobbish simpleton to knock me off my stride. His name is Dan Pursey, the boss of Mobius PR company from London. Back in July, Mobius had given me a press ticket for Adam Riches, which I gave to Mark ‘Divine’ Calvert to review. The morning after the show I recieved the following, which Mark admitted to writing while he was pissed. To give ark credit he rang me up beforehand & said Adam’s show was pointless, but I said he should still review it, though.
The review made me laugh out loud… so I put it up on the Mumble. A couple of days later, Anisha Fields at Mobius contacts me with the following;
Hey Damo, Hope you’re having a good Fringe so far. How are all the Damo doubles getting on around the city? Just wanted to send a quick email about Mark Divine’s review of Adam of the Riches. We’re really keen to support up and coming websites, and as you know, are happy to provide tickets to you guys to all our shows. We’re also completely open to critical feedback too, from anyone, provided it seems thought through. On the whole, I can see your site does that. But I’m afraid Mark’s review just felt, well, a bit lazy, (and full of grammatical errors), as well as being factually incorrect (…from yorkshire?) and it didn’t reflect well on you guys, which is a shame. We’re an agency, so when reviews like that do crop up we can have to answer to clients why that journalist was let in to begin with. Not in this case, but that will and has happened on other occasions, and I certainly wouldn’t want our relationship with you guys to suffer as a result of reviews like that. Anyway, that’s our two cents.
After replying, “he’s a special case is our ‘divine’ – & a law unto himself – he’s beyond the reach of both our remits,” her boss & the aforesaid bell-end, Dan Pursey gets involved. Basically he began to threaten to scupper the Mumble if I didn’t take the review down, which include;
1 – I’m afraid we can’t run the risk of booking press tickets for The Mumble if our clients are going to be met with such a lack of respect for their work. Obviously, I hope we can avoid canceling the rest and continue as we have been thanks a lot
2 – We’re going to cancel the outstanding tickets because we can’t trust that this won’t be repeated. In doing so, i am going to write to all the venue press offices and the Fringe press office to explain why. I am then going to write to other remaining press reps in Edinburgh to express our concerns about The Mumble, and explain the decisions we’ve taken. Alternatively – take the review down, and let’s not ruin a good thing.
3 – I hope that, when it comes to securing press tickets this year and in the future, you feel the moral stand you’ve taken in defense of the standards of writing in that review has been worth it.
At the end of the day, The Mumble is an honest website, designed to help would-be show-goers make an informed choice. We cannot be bullied out of our integrity.
Dan Pursey – looks like a bell-end too!
So I went to sleep with his threats rattling mi head. Waking up in the morning, however, & I thought the best thing to do was to put his threats up on Adam Riches review. Interestingly, Mark sent me a re-written version of the review – quite unprovoked – which I put up as well. You can see the full review here, including the initial response to it from a couple of Mumblers, including Mark himself.
A week or so later, the story began to break. First up was Steve Bennet of the Chortle, who wrote the following article
A considered opinion?
Threat to block ‘disrespectful’ blog’s free tickets
A row has erupted on the Edinburgh Fringe after a PR company threatened to withdraw free press tickets from bloggers for not showing enough respect to the comedians they are writing about.
Publicists at Mobius laid down the ultimatum after Mumble Comedy wrote a three-star review of former award-winner Adam Riches – saying that if the review was not altered or removed, they would not issue any more tickets, and spread the word to venues across the festival, too.
In return, the blog accused the company of trying to intimidate them into taking down a poor review – saying: ‘We cannot be bullied out of our integrity’.
However, some changes to the review, by Mark ‘Divine’ Calvert, were made after Mobius first got in touch – including correcting the spelling of Riches’s name.
The row is likely to spark debate over the line between established media and fans setting up an online presence in order to score free tickets.
Mumble’s review as it currently stands reads as follows:
‘It was a damp and wind-swept night and the welcoming warmth of the Pleasance Dome began to relaxed me into a state of mind ready for comedy. Tonight it was Adam Riches, a successful comedian with more awards that you can shake a stick at. Joining me was a capacity audience who clearly knew what we were in for. Alas I didn’t. With lots of audience participation, Adam humiliated his carefully chosen audience members who were middle class and loving every moment of it. Adam utilises different characters drawn from history, all of whom had a Yorkshire accent, which is a star point in itself. Taking his lead from vintage comedy telly, Adam was silly, pointless and yes, good fun. Which is just what his audience wanted. If you like trashy throw-away telly. Adam’s your man. Two Stars and one extra for being from Yorkshire. So That’s Three. Stars.’
Riches was was born in Cambridge, and raised in Glasgow and London – not Yorkshire. Although his opening character, Sean Bean, is from there.
Mumble Comedy’s ‘CEO’, Damo Bullen revealed the pressure from Mobius in a message beneath the review, accusing them of ‘chucking their toys out the pram & ask[ing] me to take it down’.
He refused saying: ‘Everyone’s entitled to their opinion & that Mark simply could not get into the comedy of Mr Riches.. The Mumble is an honest website, designed to help would-be show-goers make an informed choice. We cannot be bullied out of our integrity.’
Despite Bullen’s defiance, Dan Pursey from Mobius said the review HAD been changed since it first appeared – although Bullen insists any changes were ‘cosmetic’.
Pursey said: ’The original review also contained some very odd references that, apart from anything else, gave the impression our client’s work hadn’t been met with the respect, care and attention it deserved. These have since been removed. ‘
‘We really do support and encourage new titles, websites and critics and like to offer them access to write about our clients’ work where we can. We also totally acknowledge that everyone is of course entitled to their own opinion.
‘But when we initially (very diplomatically) expressed our concerns the site representative was quite uncooperative, and my worry was that this could be an attitude that stretched across the site. I’m sure it isn’t, but had there been more evidence of care, I wouldn’t have had to push quite so hard to get them to pay attention.’
It’s understood that after the original contact from Mobius the sentences ‘Taking his lead from vintage comedy telly’ to ‘Adam’s your man.’ were added, and references to the critic’s urge to go home and ‘listen to his Tricky CD’, and spend more time in his leopard print pyjamas with a large mug of tea were removed.
Speaking to Chortle, Bullen added: ‘Do you know what annoyed me the most – it was his brash, aggressive condescending attitude that wanted to sink my ship when a lot of people – performers, reviewers, back stage staff – have benefited from it.’
Mumble Comedy – a free WordPress blog that uses unlicensed clip art to illustrate the number of stars – was set up for last year’s Fringe and only publishes for the festival. It currently has 140 ‘likes’ on Facebook.
And they haven’t got around to writing their ‘About Us’ page, which says: ‘This is an example of a page. Unlike posts, which are displayed on your blog’s front page in the order they’re published, pages are better suited for more timeless content that you want to be easily accessible, like your About or Contact information. Click the Edit link to make changes to this page or add another page.’
Next to get hold of the story was Brian Logan of the Guardian, whose own article on the matter reads;
Critical condition: how comedy coverage at the Edinburgh fringe is changing
As the mainstream press withdraws from Edinburgh, there’s been a rise in alternative voices. Some new reviewers will be learning on the job – just like novice standups
My colleague Lyn Gardner wrote last week about “a critical exodus from the fringe by the mainstream press”, and I share her concerns. The issue is discussed in comedy circles too: I’ve spoken to several PRs who say they haven’t had much to do at this year’s fringe, because coverage in the mainstream press is so diminished. Of course, the flourishing of alternative critical voices online is an exciting development, but perhaps not yet an adequate replacement – as one confrontation last week made clear.
The contretemps – as reported at Chortle.com – was between the arts PR agency Mobius and the website Mumble Comedy, and it concerned the latter’s review of the former’s client, the comedian Adam Riches. Mobius contacted the website to express displeasure at – and request amendments to – a three-star review that lacked “the respect, care and attention [Riches] deserved”. That was met with what Mobius call an “uncooperative” response, which led to the PR threatening to withdraw free tickets from the website. The blog’s editor, Damo Bullen, posted an angry response, insisting “we cannot be bullied out of our integrity”.
The review that caused the fuss can no longer be read in its original form. Mobius’s complaint seems to be, not that it was critical of Riches’ show, but that it was half-arsed (it misspelled Riches’ name, for example). Even the revised version is a little slapdash and impressionistic. But does that justify Mobius’s threatened withdrawal of privileges? And what does the fuss tell us about the state of fringe criticism?
On the former point, I don’t think any publication – not the Guardian, not Mumble Comedy – has a divine right to free tickets. With rights come responsibilities: publications have to demonstrate a degree of professionalism, commitment and (pace Mobius’s complaint) respect. (They probably also need a readership – or the likelihood of acquiring one.) On the latter point, well, there’s clearly a frustration in some quarters that – as the mainstream press withdraws from Edinburgh – acts are ever more dependent on the opinion of often inexperienced and unauthoritative reviewers.
That’s not meant to denigrate amateur criticism, or professional online criticism, which supplies much of the best writing around the fringe. (It’s also worth noting that critics of all stripes have been unpopular with artists since the year dot.) But we should be more explicit about the fact that – as BAC artistic director David Jubb discussed on Twitter last week – “Edinburgh is [the developing] critic’s equivalent of scratch” – ie a place to learn in public, and seek feedback in order to improve.
The them-and-us, /de haut en bas/ relationship between critics and artists (or their representatives) is never helpful, but least of all when many critics have yet to earn trust or demonstrate commitment to the artform they’re writing about.
In that context, dialogue is good. The world of Fringe reviewing is changing, and it’s in everyone’s interest that the new model – which will include a far wider range of reviewers and publications than the old – foregrounds lively and intelligent discussion of the artform. That’ll only happen if all parties speak to one another about what they want criticism to be.
It’s a shame the conversation got antagonistic, but Mobius did the right thing by contacting Mumble Comedy with their concerns. We probably all intuit that some writing – the careful, attentive, “respectful” kind, perhaps? – constitutes valid criticism, and some writing doesn’t. We’ll only know where that line should be drawn if we talk about it.
Next to chip in were Fringepig, an anti-fringe website whose Billy Coconuts offered ‘respect to The Mumple for oupigging us,’ while dissing the site a bit at the same time. Its all rather nteresting, & it sounds like I’m some kind of harbinger in some kind of revolution in comedy reviewing! So anyway, to conclude the wee saga, Harry Venning of the Guardian does that wicked lampoon that began this blog. All-in-all, a successful re-launch of the Mumble – in the next post I’ll show how much the name was used by acts all acrosss Edinburgh.