Alex Salmond, Scotland’s former First Minister, former MP, champion of the democratic principle of one person one vote, plebiscites for all, and ace political bruiser, got the envy of Fringe performers with a sell-out for his first appearance in a nightly Fringe show at the Edinburgh International Festival.
“Alex Salmond Unleashed” surprised his tormentors and gave second-rate journalists on a day’s travel expenses the chance to treat a Fringe event from a right-wing colonial level of gleeful persecution.
I’m still in two minds as to whether the Fringe was the place to stage the event, slick as it is, and a little too influenced by stand up comedy. Then I realised he’d attract the same moronic jeering had he booked the Albert Hall, with Her Majesty the Queen as a guest confessing guilt for the death of Diane, followed by the Pope admitting there is no God, all with the on-stage backing of a symphony orchestra.
His famous wit and ability to tell an anecdote was certainly unleashed, but what I hoped to hear wasn’t – backroom stories of political skulduggery, the machinations of the British establishment, pathological lying drunken press hacks, betrayals by so-called socialists and London addicted colleagues, and stories of clumsy spooks. He threw us the occasional aside, but when you have Salmond’s political nous you have to have more mature ambitions for this kind of political event.
There was no tales of meeting the head of a foreign country and how that person wished Scotland ill or well. Salmond was keeping the juicy stuff for an autobiography. However, there was one magical moment, and when it arrived the audience fell silent, stopped applauding and laughing at well-timed jokes. You could hear a pint drop. (Many had plastic beakers full of beer.)
Salmond segued from William Wallace to what Wallace did after the victorious battle at Stirling Bridge – he wrote a letter.
Actually Wallace wrote two, one dictated the other written personally. When he was arrested he had three letters on his person giving him safe passage wherever he went, one from the King of France, one from the King of Norway, and one from the King of Scotland, all of which were ignored by the King of England.
The letter he wrote himself is called the Lübeck Letter, (the town where it is kept to this day) the only surviving letter in existence written by Wallace with his personal seal attached, the Scottish lion rampant, a bow and arrow on the reverse.
Salmond explained, (actually he only partially explained) how Scottish forces led by William Wallace won the Battle of Stirling Bridge, on September 11, 1297, by beating the poop out of the best armed and trained regiments of Edward I of England. (Wallace was supported by his northern ally Andrew de Mornay.) After a brief celebration, Wallace wasted no time trying to get the Scottish economy back on track.
The English had captured Scottish ports the year before and severely curtailed trade. (Where have we heard that before?) Exactly a month after Stirling Bridge, Wallace felt secure enough to write to the towns of Hamburg and Lübeck alerting them that Scotland’s ports were open for business again. Wallace’s first thought after winning a major battle against invading forces was to tell Europe as he knew it, Scotland was once more their major trading partner. Salmond was telling us there is an ironic parallel with today’s Brexit, our historic association with Europe once more blocked by England. The significance of that comparison should not have been lost on anybody in the audience.
Now, nobody expected a history lesson in a show billed as a Fringe event. Just the same, the evening was far too light. Salmond began by removing his tie – the symbol of a serious man, and telling a very funny anecdote about himself and Tory Brexiteer minister David Davies pausing at the kerbside in deep respect for a funeral hearse.
Salmond’s main guest on the night I attended – a different one each show – was the affable Mike Russell, Scotland’s shadow minister for the farcical Brexit negotiations. Russell is the man who handed 200 autonomous years of Edinburgh’s illustrious College of Art to the corporate banker called the University of Edinburgh to reduce to a faculty.
“It’s not the decision I wished for” Russell said in a letter to me, which was the same as saying he was toothless when it came to protecting Scotland’s cultural education. I would like to have asked him a question about how he feels now, but challenge or controversy was not part of the script.
The SNP’s record on the arts is your cuddly Aunty Jessie who can quote a few well-known lyrics of Burns, and likes the songs of Engelbert Humperdinck. The content of Salmond’s show mirrors government art standards. It doesn’t increase Scotland’s tally of great theatre one bit, for it’s far too busy being populist. They want jokes, we’ll gie them jokes. But it still has a political punch or two worth exercising.
Janey Godley bustled on stage to give us a truly hilarious rendition of two second-rate female politicians talking in broad Glaswegian dialect and one top rate woman, Theresa May, Ruth Davidson and who else on the plus side but Nicola Sturgeon. Granted, not an original idea, but fantastically funny, a beautiful take down of the powerful, spoken voice-over at the speed of a bullet train to news footage projected onto a screen behind her. A star turn, and the audience showed its appreciation.
After the show, and via the Internet, I talked to Amanda Burgauer who had seen an earlier show with her Swiss husband. She was disappointed with what she perceived as too much self-congratulation, and an air of entitlement. I didn’t see the latter, not a sign of thane of Glamis and Cawdor, king to be, but I did spot the former wrapped up in Salmond’s famous cockiness, the characteristic that turned shallow women away, the witches on the heath, from the acquisition of civil rights and into a simple issue of virtue.
Amanda added, “I wasn’t sure it was because it was a Saturday night, but that assumes that normal voters have no interest in constitutional affairs, or don’t see things from an intellectual standpoint”, a case of underestimating the intelligence of the audience.
Outside the theatre waiting in line with Daughter 1, taken to see the politician destined for our history books when all the little ticks and midges are long dead and forgotten, I got talking to two nationalists enjoying their drink. There was a humanity in how they spoke freely and openly, their ideas for Scotland’s future, their idealism undaunted by lies and fabrications of a colonial neighbour.
Back in the theatre questions from the audience were preordained quick-fire patter. The interaction I met outside was missing from proceedings inside, that and revelations from guests. When genuine interaction was invited it was to bid for dinner with Salmond and his guest, a breeze that netted over £21,000 for charities from the week’s run.
For boosting patriotic feelings and keep the mood high, Salmond relied on musical interludes from his talented on-stage band with a silly name, Mikey and the Carloways, and an exquisite rendition of “A Man’s a Man for a’ That” sung by Sheena Wellington, she who did the same and by it helped make the reconvening of Scotland’s Parliament in July 1999 indelible. The beauty of the song worked a treat. Salmond, former boy soprano, joined in. We all stood to show solidarity for a people’s struggle.
The Referendum on September 18, 2014 was lost because some people thought too much about the outcome, and some people thought too little. The unimaginative and the self-satisfied were seized by mental inhibition, the rest with fearful indecision.
If readers think this critique is a bit late, the Fringe is over, show closed, there’s already talk of taking it on tour. If that happens it will need a good injection of Frankie Boyle.
All in all, an entertaining night at the theatre, just not what it could have been.
Unlike the right-wing betrayers of progressive democracy Salmond warrants no leper bell to warn of his approach. In frivolous form he proves to be a true master of ceremonies, a good chat show host, and a fine raconteur. The show – produced by his SNP colleague Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh – gave us Salmond the personality laughing at his own expense.
Alex Salmond Unleashed was disappointing from the point of view of learning anything new about Scotland’s situation or its future, a missed opportunity yet one not to be missed. You wanted the satirical power of The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil, but instead got Wee Eck and Pals.
Still, we, the audience at large, stand accused of cheating ourselves and our children’s children by committing the most unpardonable, calamitous folly of all time, missing the opportunity to govern our own country. Alex Salmond has nothing to be ashamed about.