The key to being a successful tour guide is that it’s 57 per cent body language, 38 per cent voice and seven per cent content.
Working at the Houses of Parliament there were times when a name or date would be forgotten but no matter. With a quick somersault down the voting lobby as you impersonate Clement Attlee, all chatter from your guests about whether “he’s still pissed” is forgotten as you take a wrong turn and knock yourself out on the Speaker’s Chair. I wasn’t particularly funny as a tour guide. Being serious made me realise how much respect being serious gets. No one questions the serious man. You have responsibility, answers and crucially, if a serious person makes a witty comment? Pandemonium! Applause breaks! Not for me!
With devolution in 1999, Scotland’s own Parliament was moored at the foot of the Royal Mile. Taking its inspiration from upturned boats along the Scottish coast, it merges beautifully with the local landscape, the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-inspired motifs blooming delicately in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat. It’s this communion between the old and new that makes Edinburgh one of the great idiosyncratic cities in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site no less.
As the Fringe rumbles on, the smell of hops, smoke and stone fills the air and its grand and Georgian ambition inspires comedians, clowns, troubadours and musicians to walk tall. When the House of Commons was rebuilt after World War II, Churchill advised that it should remain small, unable to seat all members as its size charged debate – “where we shape buildings, buildings shape us.” For the performers and punters who've visited the Fringe over the past 70 years, Edinburgh continues to do just that.
I was a tour guide for a Bristol ghost walk. I had to learn from a history book but I'm not the best at homework. Never have been. So I used to make it up, add some of my own stories in there: "This is where I saw a guy throw up once." Of course, I got sacked as I used to say facts that were too real as well, about Bristol's slavery history. And when the actors used to pop out of alleyways to scare the group I'd tell them, "Here's an out of work actor earning his money".
In Edinburgh, I love staring at the mountains on a crisp evening with the pink sky and the sun just setting but through terraced houses. I love that you can experience a council house and such beautiful landscapes anytime you want, waking up every morning and seeing Arthur's Seat. If I ran a tour in Edinburgh, it would be a walk up there. As much as I moaned the whole way up it was exhilarating to get to the top and look at Scotland with no obstructions.
I've been to the castle a few times with friends and pretended it was mine. Commenting on how, "I'm going to change that wallpaper soon, it's pretty old". Getting told off for sitting on the wrong thing. Edinburgh is a well old city, like proper old. You can sit in the Grassmarket and see the history, no matter how many vegetarian cafes pop up. Sitting at Biddy Mulligans, remembering how many people were publicly hanged here – that's always a fun conversational starter for your haggis. Thanks for letting us come here every year guys. I hope the flyering isn't too annoying.
After my show Winston Churchill was Jack the Ripper—which is true and I can prove it—it seemed like a natural step to take people round the murder sites in Whitechapel. I had the advantage of using only word of mouth to generate my audiences so I didn't have to contend with bored Italian teenagers. Mine was a comedy crowd. There was a surprising amount of heckling involved, particularly around Brick Lane. The kids who shouted at me were obviously unaware I'm a standup. Not many tour guides are prepared to shout, “I FUCKED YOUR DAD!” at a gobby teenager.
There’s a lot of responsibility in being a tour guide. People believe what you tell them, so the temptation to lie is very strong. I used to work at the Cabinet War Rooms and there was a World War II German bomb hanging over the doorway. It had been dug up from outside the CWR and defused. Every day someone would ask if it had exploded. "Yes," I’d say, "and you would not believe how long it took us to put it back together." Doing a Ripper walk in which I satirised the "any suspect so long as they’re famous” trend by suggesting it was the 13-year-old Churchill led to more people than you’d think going away with the idea it really was him.
My favourite places in Edinburgh are the Old Town alleyways. There's a real atmosphere about them, now sadly lacking in Whitechapel since the burst of regeneration that's steadily erasing the last bits of Victoriana. The London that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about in Jekyll and Hyde is famously based on Edinburgh. It's the old London of our imagination. But real. And now. And slightly smelling of piss.
I used to do tours all around Europe, telling my bosses I had a degree in history that I didn't. Because it was the early '90s, they waited for proof to arrive in the post while I did their extensive three-month training trip. Then, because they'd spent so much money on me, they just forgot about the degree thing. I used to do the Korean tours because they really liked me and having a translator bought me time to tell them fibs about things I didn't know about.
I went to and knew a bit about everywhere in Europe, but I riffed a lot. In Amsterdam, I'd take people out on a bike ride, pointing to random places where Jean-Claude Van Damme was born, even though he's from Belgium. If you spun it right, people don't pay much attention and they bought it. There's no reason why I couldn't do that in Edinburgh.
Most of it would be in the 1700s I reckon, the Enlightenment. And being Scotland, there always pride in some sort of crime. Somewhere around the Old Town. Deacon Brodie, Burke and Hare, now that you've just reminded me. Greyfriars Bobby? Oh yeah, him. I always try to find a way to get Genghis Khan in there; he opened up the Silk Road and facilitated the modern world.
I'm going to have to read up on Johnson. Or is it Boswell? Which one's the Scot? I don't know anything about Scottish history. But I'd hope that after so many festivals something has gone in through osmosis.